It's too bad that Diana Nyad is her own most vociferous press agent, because her glib self-promotion diminishes rather than enlarges her considerable accomplishments. The day after her much-publicized Cuba-to-Florida swim was aborted, she told reporters that she was a "true hero" who had pulled off "an almost superhuman feat." Maybe so; to swim some 70 miles in rough seas in about 42 hours is nothing to sniff at. But her words would sound a lot less like defensive bluster if she had made it all the way to Florida.
Say it for Nyad, though, that she knows her own limitations. In a prefatory note to her recent book, Other Shores ( Random House, $8.95), she concedes that sometimes she comes across as "an overly dramatic braggart." That's true, but it will be unfortunate if her occasional outbursts of self-praise turn readers away from what is, in fact, a consistently interesting and revealing book.
Other Shores is the testament of a marvelously gifted and determined athlete who has found, in a heretofore little-noticed sport, the challenge of a lifetime. "What interests me about marathon swimming," she writes, "is that it tests the human spirit. It is a sport of extremes. The real issue behind reaching the other shore is neither talent nor preparation nor the outwitting of an opponent. The real issue is the strength of the human will and the ability to focus that will under the most unimaginable of circumstances."
To Nyad, marathon swimming is a "primeval" sport in which the goal is "victory over the elements" and the equipment is "your own strength of body and spirit." Though her prose can get excessively heroic (and it is, incidentally, her own prose), at its best the book provides a fascinatingly detailed view of the swimmer's life. Nyad describes how minute changes in water temperature "can make a devastating difference to a swimmer," how she has devised counting systems to maintain a foothold on reality during long hours in the water, how the brain finally lapses into a "limbo between the absolute concrete world of conscious thought and the seemingly uncontrollable state of illogical fantasy."
Doubtless, the book will be of greatest interest to Nyad's fellow swimmers; as one of them. I can report that I learned a great deal from it. But Other Shores is also for everyone who knows that the ultimate joy of sport is finding a challenge and meeting it—or at least, as Diana Nyad did in August, giving it one's maximum effort.