As you’ve probably heard, the United States and Cuba have been working on normalizing relations after generations of a diplomatic stand-off that has been at best, frosty, and at worst, nearly deadly.
But in 2013—two years before the announcement that the U.S. would again open an embassy in Havana—a remarkable feat of athletic prowess and personal determination connected the two countries. That was when Diana Nyad became the first person in history to make the 110-mile swim from Cuba to Key West, Florida.
Nyad made the 54-hour swim through shark- and jellyfish-infested waters without the protection of a cage. Perhaps most impressively, though, she did it at age 64. And when she emerged exhausted from the Atlantic Ocean at the end of her remarkable journey, she delivered three messages that define her life: never give up, you’re never too old to chase your dream, and it may look like a solitary sport, but it takes a team.
The story of that extraordinary voyage is at the heart of Nyad’s new memoir, Find a Way (Knopf; October 20, 2015). The book recounts her life from painful experiences as a child to her triumphs as a champion long-distance swimmer and international inspiration.
Nyad began swimming in the mid-1960s, encouraged by her step-father. The step-father, and later a swim coach, sexually molested her, inflicting scars that remain with her to this day. “I have felt pain and anger, deep anger,” she recently told ABC News. “As together and as happy and as privileged as I am, it’s still an imprint. I have to admit that even all these years later, all these wonderful experiences later, there’s an injured little girl in there.” Still, the young Nyad learned to persevere. She took up marathon swimming, setting a women’s world record in her first 10-mile race at age 21.
It wasn’t long before Nyad began making international headlines. In 1974, Nyad swam around the island of Manhattan in just under eight hours. In 1978, she made her first attempt at swimming from Cuba to Key West, but was taken out of the water after strong winds and eight-foot swells pushed her off course. She made her final “competitive” swim at age 30, setting a world’s record for both men and women by swimming 102 miles from North Bimini Islands, Bahamas, to Juno Beach, Florida in 27.5 hours.
It was 30 years later that Nyad would once again take up the pursuit of her dream of a Cuba-to-Florida swim, determined not to let her age define her. “The truth is, I’m a better athlete in my mid-60s than I was, even as a world champion in my mid-20s,” she recently wrote in an Op-Ed piece in the Los Angeles Times. “I was a thoroughbred then, more finely tuned but also somewhat fragile. These days I’m more of a Clydesdale, sturdy and stalwart.”
After two failed attempts at the Cuba-to-Florida swim, Nyad would need all of her strength, skill and determination to finally realize her dream. She would also need the assistance of a 35-member support team in boats, kayaks, and in the water helping to ward off sharks. The book details the weight of exhaustion, the pain of jellyfish stings and the monumental personal test Nyad faced during her journey, “Don’t ever tell me what the parameters of the human spirit are,” she told ABC News. “We have no idea how powerful our hearts and souls are. We only know how limited our muscles are.”
Nyad next plans to challenge herself by spending next summer walking with her best friend from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. as a way to inspire people to be more active. “We’ve become largely a sedentary society,” she told ABC. “A doctor from Arizona State, his big new phrase is ‘Sitting is the new smoking.’ We want to get a million people out on the road with us . . . and when we finish, we’re going to say, ‘You know what? Today is the day we made America a nation of walkers.’”
Surrounding yourself with people is also central to Nyad’s message. In the book, she describes the day that the Cuban government invited Nyad and her team to Havana on the first anniversary of her historic voyage to decorate her with the Cuban Medal of Honor. During the ceremony, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played by a military band—the first time the anthem had been played in Cuba in 30 years. “Their recognition was, as they put it, for the ‘potential of all humankind,’” Nyad writes. “They understood that my life message was global: Whatever your Other Shore is, whatever you must do, whatever inspires you, you will find a way to get there.”