Wonder Woman lives, and a lot of doctors are amazed. Her name is Diana Nyad, and last Monday she swam around Manhattan Island, beating a 48-year-old record for the feat by 59 minutes while avoiding various deceased small animals, not to mention hepatitis, typhoid and dysentery. Her time for the 28-mile circumnavigation was 7 hours and 57 minutes, and afterward she took an extended vacation. Extended for Nyad, that is—one day.
Following that indulgence, she was up the next morning at 5:45 to eat two raw eggs and run three miles through city streets to Barnard College, where she is swimming coach. The Manhattan swim would be her last for many months, so she did not have her typical city workout—five hours of laps in the pool, nonstop. But she ran an additional two miles of wind sprints, coached until 8:30, then rushed downtown for her squash lesson, squash practice and calisthenics. Twice she has done 1,025 situps, about 900 more than an average Superman can do, and she says, "I don't even do situps." At 12:30 she ate a lunch of raw meat and raw vegetables—she eats raw food most of the time—while glancing at some homework (she is studying for a doctorate in comparative literature at NYU) and from three to five she practiced her squash again. On Saturday she ran 10 miles, on Sunday 15, and on both days she played more squash.
For six years Diana Nyad has been at or near the top among the world's professional female marathon swimmers, and now she wants to dominate another sport, squash—or, rather, she plans to. "What I really want more than anything," she says, "is respect in the sports world." And she seems about to get it. She should: she is alive, after all.
Why the Manhattan swim, Nyad was asked last week, and she replied, "The world is four-fifths water, but the point is to swim where the people are." And the networks, too. Now, after surviving the fast-running but fetid waters surrounding Manhattan, it remains to be seen how she copes with the New York news media, which is suddenly infatuated with her.
October 19, 1975
She has already gotten by ABC's Howard Cosell, who had her on his show Saturday night. CBS has done a documentary, NBC television has interviewed her for a sports announcing job, a publisher wants her to write a book and a big-time agent has promised her up to $75,000 a year in endorsements, about five times as much as she has made in her whole swimming career.
Clearly Diana Nyad struck a chord of some kind. About the only New Yorkers who go near their rivers are drunk or suicidal, yet here is this beguiling 25-year-old woman, attractive, ingenuous and suddenly so vulnerable.
She had failed on her first attempt, made late last month, as Hurricane Eloise soaked down the Northeast. That time, after 6 hours and 25 minutes in the water, she had reached the Battery, at the southern tip of Manhattan, at dusk and in rain that was pouring down as if the world were ending. Wind was ripping in her face on that wild, black night in the heart of one of the world's busiest harbors, and huge ferryboats seemed to be all about her. Foghorns sounded. Tugboats sheared menacingly near, and Nyad strained against a tide that should have turned but hadn't. For an hour she got nowhere, and finally she hung lifelessly in the water, unresponsive to shouts and to lights in her face. She was lifted out of the slime and dumped into her trainer's boat, then transferred to a police launch. Her face was gray, and she moaned, weakly, "So cold, so cold..." and, "I want a bath. Has anyone got a bath ...?" She seemed barely alive. She was rushed to a hospital, TV and newspaper reporters trailing in her wake. An hour later, cameras whirring beside her bed, she was talking about next time. "Daring Diana," the papers began calling her.
It wasn't that she hadn't planned her swim. For eight days she researched the complex ocean tides and river currents, getting cooperation from the city but little encouragement.
"What do you do here?" she asked the Harbor Police.
"We discourage people like you," she was told.
"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.
At 5:05 she swam around the Battery. The current flowing out from the East River had stopped. She began to use her crawl again, and soon, as she swam beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, the sun setting over Wall Street behind her, the evening crisp and bright, all the fear in her boat was gone.
The current was moving upstream now. She passed the Empire State Building at 6:45, and as it grew dark, all along the East River Drive, from 50th Street north, people were coming to the river. "You can make it, Diana," they shouted, running along. She did. "I feel very proud," she said, and she spoke of a book she had started last fall, after climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa. The title: It's Not Easy Being Wonder Woman.