"Would you have a record of people who have made this swim?"
"No, we call Bellevue when we want that."
But gradually a plan emerged. The place to start was in the East River at 89th Street, near the treacherous tide rip at Hell Gate. Hit Hell Gate at slack tide, she decided, just before it turns upstream. Get it out of the way at the start. It would then be a short swim up the East River, then north into the Harlem River, always with the tide, and into the Hudson, which would certainly be flowing down.
She spoke to a man who had completed the swim in 1961. It had taken him more than 19 hours, and he told her, "At one point in the East River I was pulled under by a whirlpool and I didn't come up for 400 yards." But that did not faze Nyad.
She had vomited for three days after her failure, but she was ready to go again. And when her coach Cliff Lumsdon, once Canada's most celebrated marathon swimmer, could not come back for the second attempt, and her number two coach, Sue Wiersum, simply refused, Nyad only became more determined. "Why are you setting yourself up for this failure?" Wiersum screamed over the phone. "The water's cold, and you've been sick."
Nyad was undaunted. "You know the term in boxing, 'heart'?" she asked. "Well in swimming we say 'hungry,' and that's how I feel. My adrenaline is pumping so fast I just gotta do it. Sue says it's purely masochistic, what I do, but I'm like Muhammad Ali. After the Manila fight he said he felt like he'd been run over by a train. Why would anyone let that happen to him? To be heavyweight champion of the world? He'll be dead in fifty years, won't he, but he's got to do something now, and so do I."
Unlike the first attempt, which did not generate much pre-swim interest, the second saw New York City waiting. The seawall at 89th Street was a forest of TV cameras. "Why?" was the word one kept hearing, and finally Nyad said, "If you want to know why I'm going to do it, I have no concrete answer. It's just that I have a personal and intimate psychological relationship with marathon swimming." At 11:35 a.m. she lowered herself into the water and plowed off. Across the river was the mouth of Flushing Creek, an apt name considering what Nyad would soon be swimming through.
At 12:55 she was in the Harlem River, abreast of Yankee Stadium. She swam past a dead rat, a dead bird and a clot of milk cartons, to mention a few of the more pleasant things sharing the watercourse that day. When she stopped to eat, her goggles were half clouded over with scum from the river, and her hands shook, spilling her drink of Sustagen laced with dextrose. The water temperature was 65 degrees, the absolute minimum, she said, for a swim requiring eight hours.
The Hudson was unnaturally rough, but Nyad all but porpoised through the waves, seemingly rejuvenated by them. Ten minutes south of the George Washington Bridge an artist friend, pressed into service as her coach for the day, scribbled a message on a blackboard and held it up: LOOKING STRONG, WE LOVE YOU. An hour later another message was held up: SLOW DOWN. It was four o'clock and Nyad was almost to the Battery, but the tide would not turn up the East River until at least five. "Oh God, no," her friend said, "not again."
That is how it goes in a distance swimmer's boat; the swings in mood are sudden and wild, and as her amateur crew vacillated, Nyad tore off her goggles and shouted, "I'm going to backstroke and drift until we get to Battery Park. Then, if it looks O.K., we'll go ahead." Eight feet above, on the sidewalk beneath the twin towers of the World Trade Center, people walked along and waved, shouting her name. For the first time in the day she could hear people, and with her goggles off, could see them, but all around Manhattan they had been watching and calling.