Search

SHE TAKES A LONG SWIM OFF A SHORT PIER

Dec. 06, 1971
Dec. 06, 1971

Table of Contents
Dec. 6, 1971

Yesterday
Battle For No. 1
Cowboys
Long Swim
Impossible Shot
College Football
Horse Racing
Sailing
Cross-Country
Pro Football
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

SHE TAKES A LONG SWIM OFF A SHORT PIER

Marathon swimming may not be the most painless way to gain renown but, as Diana Nyad found, it beats parachuting from the fourth floor

What is in a name? A parental whim and, world, say hello to little Grace. But what if Grace grows up clumsy? Does Brooks Robinson sound like a third baseman or a haberdasher? Maybe Hollywood has the right idea. Roy Fitzgerald looks like Rock Hudson, and Judy Garland transported us Over the Rainbow, not Frances Gumm. What, for example, would they call a pretty distance swimmer, 22, with honey-colored skin and built like a Greek goddess? Diana? Diana what, though? Synchronized swimming teams have borne the name Naiads. It has a nice ring, but what does it mean? Webster says a naiad is one "of the nymphs in ancient mythology, living in and giving life to lakes, rivers, springs and fountains." Tough to spell, though. Nyad is easier. Yes, Diana Nyad. Not bad for the best woman distance swimmer in the world.

This is an article from the Dec. 6, 1971 issue Original Layout

Two summers ago, while a counselor at Ontario's Camp Ak-O-Mak, Diana Nyad's specialty was tennis. Not so apt. But there was nothing wrong with her swimming; at 16, in fact, she had finished 12th in the 100-yard backstroke at the indoor nationals. She had never raced in open water, though, or farther than 1,500 meters, and as of July 25, 1970 she had never seen a marathon swim. Talk about breaking in overnight: on the morning of July 26, on a Lake Ontario beach at Hamilton, she stood in the midst of the world's best marathoners, 17 men and three other women. The Labatt's International Ten-Mile Marathon Swim was about to begin, and Diana Nyad was entered. "Just to see what would happen," she recalls. "The gun went off and we were still on the beach. We had to run down and dive in. I don't know why. It wasn't a track event, but I had to battle my way to the water. I wanted to swim, not wrestle." Which showed how little she knew about marathon swimming.

She learned fast. Two Egyptians swam annoyingly close, taking advantage of her wake. One was Abdul Latif Abou-Heif, The Crocodile of the Nile, and he and his countryman tagged along for a few miles before she shook them. Diana eventually came in 10th and set a woman's world record for 10 miles—4:23:00. She also won $400 as the first woman finisher. Back at Ak-O-Mak the campers raided the player piano to letter its 90-foot scroll with TODAY HAMILTON, TOMORROW THE ENGLISH CHANNEL, but tomorrow was Aug. 29, only 570 miles away at Chicoutimi, Quebec.

It is important to understand a basic fact of marathon swimming: it is somewhat more taxing than, say, croquet, or marathon running, or staying up all night with the baby. At Hamilton the course is a buoyed half-mile; 20 quick laps, a little moaning on the beach, an hour or so in the hospital and a day or two later you are as good as new. Chicoutimi, though...aaaaagh! That is the sound the winners make. The losers.... On second thought, even the winners at Chicoutimi are losers. (Which, in a perverse way, if suffering is a virtue, as it often seems to be with marathon swimmers, also makes the losers winners.) About 28 miles all told, the course begins at Chicoutimi, heads down the Saguenay River for 18 miles, then parallels two or three miles of tidal, rocky shore that each year leaves a few swimmers looking as if they had been keelhauled. It is either that or the rips, a meeting of currents off the rocks that at certain tides looks like one of those miniature basins they put toy ships in when they want to film a real storm at sea.

Those who make it by either the rocks or the rips enter a big bay—which, for no reason that leaps to mind, is called Ha! Ha! Bay—with more unpredictable tides. Seven miles up the bay is Bagotville—the finish. In 1969 the 22 best marathoners in the world started the race. None finished. Chicoutimi did not seem the right place for a pretty young girl who had never swum more than 10 miles. Diana Nyad would need a good boat, and plenty of Coke, hot chocolate and aspirin.

It didn't work out that way. In fact, nearly all the boats got lost in a storm the night before the race, including the one assigned to Diana. Replacements were reportedly on the way, but they would not arrive until hours after the start, and on the pier a friend was consoling Diana, when suddenly she was swimming. "The gun went off," she said later, "and I wasn't going to just stand there."

A few miles out she nearly swam ashore. There was no boat to guide her, and she had this thing about goggles; she wouldn't wear them, despite a popular theory that it is always good for a swimmer to know where she is going. (Her trainer, Buck Dawson, says: "I've never known Diana Nyad to back down, to admit she was wrong about anything, even when she was.") Four and a quarter hours into the race, 14 miles downriver, Dawson caught up in a boat. It had been a long time to go without nourishment. "You're in second place," he yelled, and handed out hot chocolate and aspirin. Argentina's Horacio Iglesias, the world's best marathoner, was in first; Diana was two miles ahead of the third-place swimmer.

She and Dawson chose to avoid the rocks and enter the rips. It was a mistake. Six miles from the finish she swam for an hour on a tidal treadmill, getting nowhere. The tide would not change for hours, and if she started resting—treading water—she would have been swept toward the Atlantic Ocean. Other swimmers began catching up, saw her plight, took the rocky route and rode a current that swept them safely into the bay. After nine hours Diana had to be hauled, protesting, into her boat. Iglesias had not done much better. At 27 miles he too had been dragged from the water and rushed to a hospital, unconscious. He was fed intravenously for three hours. For the second straight year, there had been 22 starters. This time three of them finished.

Many times since that summer, Diana Nyad has said this: "I haven't come close to my potential in marathon swimming yet, but I'd trade all of what I'm going to be for an Olympic gold medal. I just wasn't fast enough, though." It seems a strange admission, but it is honest, devoid of regret. Certainly she had given all there was to give and more: the best days of some very good years; dates, parties, proms, all forsaken for a dream that would never come true; training from 5:30 to 7:30 every morning, 3:00 to 5:00 every afternoon, and sometimes a few more hours after dark. For four straight years she was captain of Fort Lauderdale's Pine Crest School swimming team. "It was eat, sleep and swim then," she recalls, and even now, after 14 years in the business, Jack Nelson, her Pine Crest coach, stands in awe of her. "Here was a beautiful girl, pursued by every boy who thought he had a chance, but if it interfered with practice—forget it. She worked harder than anyone I've ever had. Getting ready for the nationals I'd catch her retching in the gutter and I'd figure that's it for today, but she'd be right back for more."

In 1958 Nelson was an All-America swimmer at the University of Miami. If ever a man was born to a sport he was, but the sport was football. He had been a semipro fullback at 5'4" and 178 pounds, but somehow he turned to swimming; that drew a lot of laughs, even at the 1956 Olympics. "The wrestling dorms are over there," they told him, but he finished fourth in the 200-meter butterfly, and a year later won the national 220-yard, short-course championship in the same stroke. He knew a thing or two about mind over matter and dedication, and Diana Nyad met him at an impressionable time. She was a seventh-grader, 12 years old, a crucial age for most young girls, but especially for this one, born Diana Sneed. "Mr. Sneed," she calls her father, a man she never knew. Her parents were divorced when she was three, and soon afterward her mother married a wealthy Greek land developer named Aristotle Zason Nyad, but that marriage ended, too, about the time Jack Nelson came along.

"Coach Nelson became sort of a father figure to me," Diana says. "I respected him more than anyone I've ever known." "If you put your guts into something," he used to tell her, "you'll get it." And how she tried. In ninth grade, at a Florida senior regional championship, she finished second in the 200-meter backstroke, two-tenths of a second behind the winner. Even now it is the race she is most proud of. "It was a gut swim," she says. In the next three years she won the 100-yard backstroke at six state meets, but she never surpassed her 12th-place finish in the nationals.

That spring she swam at a meet in Palm Beach, stayed up late and caught a cold. Next morning, though, there she was at the pool. "I felt guilty if I laid off a day," she says. After practice she began running a fever. It went away and she kept working out, but later that week she got chest pains. She began swimming in the outside lanes so she could hold onto the gutter when the pain intensified. She was getting ready for next year's nationals, so she did not tell anyone about the pain. Finally, Nelson caught her doubled up, clutching the gutter, and he took her out. She was given an EKG, and the diagnosis was endocarditis, a virus infection of the heart. "I'm only 16," she sobbed. "How can I have heart disease?" But that is what it was, and the prescription was a summer of bed rest, with no visitors.

By fall her heart looked normal. It was her senior year at Pine Crest, and the doctor said she could swim a little—three short workouts a week. Ha! She was out every day, but slower now, much slower. She was not going to get to Mexico City, and, though Nelson cheered her on, privately he grieved. "It's not her fault she wasn't the best amateur swimmer in the world," he says. "She'd swim till she couldn't lift her arms from the water."

He would tell his friends: "Diana Nyad is going to be great at something. She already is as a human being." Clearly this was no ordinary coach-athlete relationship. For the young girl, Nelson was what Sociologist George Herbert Mead has termed "a significant other," probably the most significant. The mutual admiration surfaced in many and curious ways, most of the latter from Diana. Once she led the Pine Crest swimming team in an all-night assault on Nelson's 12' x 14' office. When he arrived the next morning the office was stuffed so full of wadded newspaper, wall to wall and ceiling to floor, that he couldn't open the door.

Another time, to celebrate the start of the Pine Crest swimming season, she did a little unannounced housecleaning. This time Nelson's door opened easily, but everything was gone—books, desk, pictures on the wall, shelves, wastebasket. Nelson could understand this; his coaching friends had always considered him the clown of their profession, and once, he admits, he was kind of a wild guy. He and his wife Margie are happily married, with three little girls now, but he had to "grow into marriage," he says. For a spell he was a frequent guest at the Nyads' Fort Lauderdale home. That seems hard to visualize: the slightly eccentric, high-strung, not-too-domestic Nelson in the immaculate home of Diana's mother Lucy—a tall, gracious, almost stately woman, with a sort of vaguely society manner. There were no problems though. Mrs. Nyad approved of Nelson's influence on her daughter; he could find no fault with the woman who had raised her.

Diana Nyad graduated from Pine Crest in June of 1967, a cryptic "Great Marks Are Soonest Hit" beside her yearbook picture, and went off to Emory University in Atlanta. Emory has been called the Harvard of the South. Diana enrolled as a premed student; she wanted to be a surgeon. She also wanted to keep on swimming. She worked out daily at a nearby YMCA, but studies had to come first. Her freshman courses were physics, chemistry and math, and her first-semester grades were high enough to qualify her to view surgery at the university hospital. Diana seemed well prepared for Emory. Unfortunately, Emory was not well prepared for her.

Sometimes, after an evening of study, she would put on her green sweat suit and go out for a few laps around the track. At 1 a.m. That did not set well with some people. And in the mornings she had early labs, right after her YMCA workouts, which meant she arrived with wet hair, in winter—Diana and 100 men. A woman dean told her that the only reason anyone would do that was to attract attention. Other people began to have similar ideas, some of them understandable.

The big stunt at Emory in those years was to paint the stone lion in front of the SAE house. Painters caught in the act were supposedly scalped; that was a challenge Diana Nyad could not pass up. Twice she led a group of friends on late-night raids to SAE, where they spent hours sticking thousands of toothpicks deep into the lawn, close together, like nails in a fakir's bed. Then they would yell, "Lion painters!" and out would rush the brothers in their pajamas. Barefoot. Still, that seemed pretty tame the second time around. During her sophomore year, she and some friends put up posters all over campus, announcing a parachute jump in the courtyard between the women's dorms. Diana went to an Army-Navy store, bought a parachute, boots and a jump suit. There were sliding glass windows in Diana's dorm, and she went up to the fourth floor at the announced hour and took out the screens. Quite a few people had gathered below.

She recalls the moment: "The parachute wasn't even folded right, and anyway it was obvious it wouldn't open in only four stories. People all around were looking out the windows, and many of the deans were there, including the ones who'd thought me kind of bizarre before. My friends were fluffing up the parachute to get air pockets in it, and I was scared to death, but I jumped.

"Surprisingly, I only bruised my heel bones. Nothing happened right away, but in a few days I got a note asking me to see the dean of women. She asked me if I wanted to kill myself, though not as bluntly as that. Evidently she thought it was very serious."

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 6½ 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.

Canada's 1971 marathon season was about to begin. Chicoutimi was the first race, with an unusually large field of 30 entered, and Diana was out of shape. So out of shape, in fact, that at 20 miles. Buck wrote this on his signboard: YOU'RE IN SECOND. Diana shook her head. "I knew I wasn't near Iglesias, and 1 didn't think I could be with Johan Schans [the 1970 world champion]. I saw a pack of guys off to my left, all stronger sprinters than me, so I decided to pour it on and not conserve my energy for the end. Soon I was about a mile ahead and I looked up at Buck during a breath and said, 'Schans.' He wrote: SCHANS OUT. LEG CRAMPS. So to be optimistic I said, 'Horacio,' and Buck pointed ahead and held up a fresh sign: 300 YARDS AHEAD! Oh, my God, I saw him. We came to the rocks. Horacio went by them wide, I went close, and—oh, it was beautiful—I caught a tidal eddy and went about 500 yards in what seemed like 10 seconds."

At that point, 22 miles into the third marathon of her life, Diana Nyad was No. 1 in the world, men and women, but everyone watches the first swimmer.

"I saw Horacio's trainer pointing to me, and Horacio swam over and went right by me. I said to myself, 'I'm not going to sprint here.' About a mile after the rocks, I was still in second. Then I looked around and there were bathing caps everywhere. 'Oh, God,' I thought, 'six miles to go,' and my lack of conditioning started to hit me."

Half a mile from the finish at Chicoutimi the swimmers pass between two breakwaters into a harbor full of boats, where a crowd of 20,000 is packed into stands on the shore. The swimmers are expected to sprint down this stretch. "You've swum 27½ miles," Diana groans, "and they want you to sprint half a mile. It's inhuman." She was fifth when the sprint began; she wound up seventh, in eight hours and 46 minutes. There were 10 finishers.

Eight hours and 46 minutes is fast for a woman at Chicoutimi, but by any standards it is a long time to swim. For normal people it is a long time to do anything, even sleep, which is one reason, along with the rocks and the rips, why Chicoutimi touts its race as the world's toughest. Among those who disagree is a group that does not believe in any sleep at all for swimmers—the promoters of Diana Nyad's next race, which came a week later at La Tuque, Quebec. There are no rocks or rips at La Tuque, but, unlike Chicoutimi, there is no rest for the weary after nine hours or 16 or 20.

The La Tuque race begins at 3 p.m. Saturday, continues through the night nonstop and ends at 3 p.m. Sunday. What do they call someone who swims in his sleep? The race they call Le Marathon de 24 Heures de La Tuque, a team affair—16 of them this time—if two can be called a team. The course is a three-eighths-mile oval in Lake St. Louis, and behind a fence from start to finish are 35,000 screaming French Canadians, more than twice the population of La Tuque.

This year most of the partners alternated three-lap stints, resting in between for half an hour or so—but not sleeping—in little, heated tents. (The air temperature at night dropped to 42°.) But Diana had a different plan—one lap and rest, despite it being less fatiguing to keep swimming for at least two or three laps than to stop and start again. ("You've got nothing to worry about," a big-bellied male swimmer assured her, "the hospital is right nearby.") Diana's partner was Gaston Paré, and his rest periods turned out to be seven minutes and 21 seconds long, which was Diana's lap average, and a new woman's record for La Tuque. In the 24 hours, they swam 54 miles.

The loudest cheers at the race's end were for Diana, who spoke to everyone in French, and for Gaston Paré, from nearby Shawinigan. Picked for seventh they had finished third, behind Schans and Iglesias and Abou-Heif and Marawan Saleh. Diana still was not wearing goggles, and she finished with a hemorrhaging eye, though she didn't know it. For half an hour she lay unconscious in the nearby hospital, awakening with a meal of glucose entering her arm.

That evening the race committee presented her with a bouquet of 22 chrysanthemums—her 22nd birthday was a month off—and two roses, signifying the 24 hours. And Abou-Heif, The Crocodile of the Nile, told the press: "Diana has the stuff of a champion." Says Buck Dawson, "She's almost like Joan of Arc in that town now." Says Diana, "It was the first time I really got respect from my fellow swimmers."

"Diana has a great deal of pride," Jack Nelson says. "She respects herself and expects it from others." He shows a letter he received from her following the La Tuque swim: "I've been in four marathon swims now, and after each one I've heard the winner say he'd never do it again. I said the same thing, and now, four days later, I'm planning to enter another very soon. These swims have a deep-felt effect on me. I need to share them with someone who is capable of understanding."

It is possible that Jack Nelson comes as close to understanding as anyone. Logically, Diana Nyad's soul mates should be other marathon swimmers, but few of them approach her in intelligence or share her interests apart from their mad sport. Besides, she sees them briefly, and the male swimmers who feel badly about saying goodby cannot help but sense that there is no room for a man in her life right now, what with marathon swimming, school, the stage, tennis...and 3¾ hours of sleep a night. The mind all but implodes. So what Jack Nelson can offer, and to a lesser extent Buck Dawson, is freedom from demands, a measure of empathy and the security and comfort of being known and appreciated, well and long.

Perhaps that is all Diana Nyad needs at the moment. Why do you swim? she is asked. For the glory and the money, she replies, and then: "To be someone." Well, maybe. Recently she wrote a friend: "Sometimes I feel so desperately afraid that my life will be over before I've had the chance to find out my potentials and my limitations, before I've had the chance to come to terms with myself, at best somewhat better than I have in the past." She says it well.

PHOTO