Posted Online: Oct. 04, 2012, 11:28 pm

Nyad swims mile after mile to become her namesake

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By Sarah Hayden, shayden@qconline.com

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Photo: Todd Welvaert
Extreme long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad, 62, was the key speaker at Thursday's Women’s Leadership Conference at the Waterfront Convention Center in Bettendorf. Ms. Nyad talked about her start in swimming and her valiant attempt to swim the 103 miles between Cuba and Florida, without a shark cage. She swam for 41 long hours, eventually compromised by the physical effects of the box jellyfish stings.
Seeking motivation?

Talk with Diana Nyad who has failed four times to swim the Strait of Florida and, at 62, is considering a fifth attempt.

The acclaimed distance swimmer was the final speaker on Thursday at the sold-out Women's Connection Leadership Conference at the Waterfront Convention Center in Bettendorf.



After talks by Judge Glenda Hatchett, retired Brig. Gen. Becky Halstead, MPowerment Works founder Marisa Rivera and Integrity Integrated President Ginny Wilson-Peters, Ms. Nyad provided 45 minutes of rousing inspiration.

Mimicking her father's Greek-Egyptian accent, she told how he showed her at age 5 that "nyad" meant a water nymph or a girl or woman champion swimmer.

"I had to become what my name is," said Ms. Nyad.

She said her fifth-grade geography teacher, a former Olympic swimmer, launched her swimming passion by promising an A to anyone who joined the swim team. During the first practice, she said the coach told her she was "going to be the best swimmer in the world."

But by 12, she said, her parents had become concerned with her dedication to the sport.

"'I made a mistake showing you that dictionary,'" she said her father told her. Waking each day at 4 a.m. and giving up the piano for swimming, he said, made Ms. Nyad "a fanatic."

She told him he was right -- she was a fanatic -- because people don't get anywhere in life without being a fanatic.

She said her inspirations included a teammate when she tried to make the 1968 Summer Olympic team who told her to imagine swimming faster than the length of the tiniest part of her fingernail, rather than focusing on the competition. Doing so, her teammate said, would let her finish a race knowing, "I couldn't have done it a fingernail faster."

She finished sixth and didn't make the team, Ms. Nyad said. But she added she could have not done it a fingernail faster, and the motto has stayed with her throughout her life.

In 1975, when she was 26, Ms. Nyad broke the world record for swimming around Manhattan Island. In 1977, at 28, she made her first Cuba-to-Florida attempt using a shark cage. In 1979, she set a distance record for swimming from Bimini, Bahamas, to Florida.

She then set swimming aside for 30 years for a career in sports journalism, becoming friends with people such as Muhammad Ali and Christopher Reeve. She noted Thursday that, a week before his death, Mr. Reeve spoke to her about his regrets of not living life as fully as he could have.

Ms. Nyad said that turning 60 threw her into "an existential angst." She recalled Mr. Reeve's comment and realized she was not living her life as fully as she could.

"Your conscious tells you if you're living a full life," she said. "I decided that, from then on, I would live my life with unwavering commitment and passion."

She assembled a team of navigators, scuba divers and experts in shark, jellyfish and the weather for another 103-mile Cuba-to-Florida swim. "It's a wonderful thing to be committed to what you do," she said.

Saying mental endurance is as important as physical ability, she shared how she uses music to carry her through. She said she sang "Me & Bobby McGee" over and over in her head, using the 4/4 rhythm to time her strokes.

But after nearly four days of continuous swimming, Ms. Nyad gave up. Lightning storms threw the team off course and jellyfish stings made her lips swell. Her custom-made swimsuit left only her lips exposed she said, but jellyfish can smell animal protein and found her only vulnerable spot.

On Thursday, Ms. Nyad said she's considering another Cuba-to-Florida attempt -- possibly this year, while the jet stream still is warm. A prosthesis maker has created a special silicone face mask she said should prevent jellyfish stings.

Along with speeches, Ms. Nyad's schedule includes a book deal and plans for a one-woman show in Los Angeles focusing on stories of inspiration and the people she's met.

Her focus, however, remains on her unfinished dream of swimming the Strait of Florida. She plans to spend the rest of this week assessing conditions in Cuba.

"I want to get to the last day of my life and be able to say, 'I couldn't have done it a fingernail better.'"