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Then one morning, during a break in an all-night study session, Diana and a friend were playing hangman, a spelling game that involves drawing little pictures of hanged men. They were drawing with felt-tip pens on a Formica table, assuming the ink would wash off. It didn't, Another call to the dean's office. Diana apologized and offered to pay for the table. The dean said that wasn't the point. She thought it very strange, she said, for a young lady to be drawing hanged men at 3 a.m., especially a young lady who had previously parachuted from a fourth-floor window.
"I wanted to laugh when I heard her say it," Diana says. "It was like in a bad dream, when everyone thinks you're crazy. Either they talk you into it or you can't talk them out of it. 'My God,' I yelled at her, 'haven't you ever played the hangman game?' She put her hands on the desk, stood up and lurched back. I think she was scared I was going to attack her." Soon afterward Diana Nyad was asked to leave Emory. She had not been appreciated in quite a while; and it had not helped that her grades had fallen off badly.
"It was kind of scary being kicked out of college," she says. "I wasn't ready for a life of work yet." Hurt and misunderstood, needing a change of scene and time to think, she set off across the country. In Texas she met a friend and rode the back of his motorcycle to San Francisco where she visited other friends; but most of her time was spent reading and filling notebooks with introspective jottings. Finally, she returned to Fort Lauderdale, got a job as a lifeguard at a country-club pool and began swimming again. And she completed another notebook. The writing was therapeutic, she discovered. "I wasn't confused, but they'd had such warped impressions of me at Emory that I'd begun to wonder if maybe there really wasn't something wrong with me."
In the spring she applied to other colleges—Yale, Michigan, Stanford—but with the transcript from Emory they also got letters from the dean of women and the dean of men. The rejections came soon afterward and, disgusted, Diana went to Europe for 6� weeks. Back home again, she made $300 for two weeks as a waitress at Howard Johnson's. "I got big tips," she says guilelessly, "because I gave people free desserts." Then, in December, a friend spoke highly of Lake Forest (Ill.) College. He suggested Diana apply, and on Jan. 1, 1970 she did so, over the phone. She read a copy of the letter Emory would send, but two days later she was accepted.
The director of financial aid at Lake Forest was Gordon White, and both he and the school's swimming coach, Karl (Dutch) Sutter, had heard about Diana from Jack Nelson. White had visited Pine Crest earlier that winter, and Sutter had met Nelson at swimming meets. "We thought she deserved the chance," White says. She proved their faith; in the next five semesters she amassed four straight-A averages and one of A-. Two hours every day she played tennis, making the Lake Forest varsity; two nights each week she rode an hour on the train to drama classes at Chicago's Goodman Theater. She joined the Lake Forest Garrick Players, switching her sights from medicine to the stage, her major from premed to English and French.
"I was very excited about physics and chemistry," she says, "but I was really just using my memory. I wasn't getting the kind of release I'd gotten from theater work, or even from playing the piano and trumpet in high school." And, of course, she swam between tennis and acting lessons and a very heavy class schedule. At the Illinois State University Women's Intercollegiate Swimming and Diving Championships, she placed in the individual medley, backstroke and butterfly, but she had not been swimming much and did not regain her pre-endocarditis speed. "She stood out as a person with tremendous mental toughness and more desire than anyone I'd ever coached," Sutter says, "but judging from her workouts she seemed more promising as a distance swimmer than a sprinter."
That summer Diana went off to Ak-O-Mak. She quickly became the camp heroine, at least to the campers, but by the sixth week her co-counselor was ready to lead a revolt. "Of course they loved her," another counselor recalls, "but in only seven weeks we have no time to be a Summerhill."
"I'm good at self-discipline," Diana explains, "but not at disciplining others. I didn't see why 14-year-olds had to make their beds each morning and have their fingernails checked, or to eat breakfast at eight and be in bed by nine."
That winter Diana received a diplomatic letter from Buck Dawson, who runs Ak-O-Mak with his wife Rose Mary. Ak-O-Mak needs you, Diana, he wrote. You are a wonderful person, and essential to the camp.... Her campers certainly agreed—all of them came back last summer—but they did not have Diana as a counselor. She had private quarters, in the Dawsons' cabin.
"It takes more rest for marathon swimming than you were getting," Buck had written, and also, though he did not know it, more rest than she had been getting that winter. During the winter and spring semesters, she averaged three hours and 45 minutes of sleep a night. Once a week she stayed up all night to write a paper on 19th century French literature. Of course, she got an A. Drama lessons came after studies in importance; tennis was third: swimming fourth (she was a professional now, and couldn't compete anyway); and social life fifth.