In her new memoir, Find a Way, Diana Nyad describes her historic swim in 2013, when, at age 64, she became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage. But that accomplishment is just one aspect of a book that reveals a very personal side to the athlete. In a candid interview with TIME, Nyad opened up about doubters, personal trauma, our changing attitudes about athletic accomplishments and why, for her next big act, she’s walking.
TIME: You’ve sat in on a lecture by Jean-Paul Sartre, had Julia Child make you breakfast, and Bette Midler used to call you ‘Muscles.’ Which person made the most lasting impression on you?
I honestly think people who hit me deepest, touched my soul in some way are just strangers. I met a person recently who with their partner was raising a severely intellectually challenged child. Their life dramatically changed and they don’t have the freedom they thought they’d have. The thing I admire about them, is that this couple doesn’t wallow in the self pity of it. They feel the joy this child feels — the child just sees a painting, or the sunset, and breaks into a smile. They are dedicated, and this is just the life they got, and they are living it. I admire people like Sartre, Julia Child, Michelle Obama, Martina Navratilova and a whole list of people who are accomplished, and philanthropic but honestly I think people I meet who must have the gumption to live a good life even though they are dealt a pretty bad hand touch me most.
It took you five tries to complete the swim from Cuba to Fla., and nearly four decades — your first attempt was in 1978. If you could turn back time and complete your historic swim the first time, at age 28, would you do it?
It would have been big to accomplish it back then. But I don’t think as a 28-year-old, more brash, more cocky, and less evolved, I would have taken it into the very marrow of myself the way I did this time in my 60s. I would never have said this before, but now that I know what I know, and it turned out the way it is, I’m glad I didn’t make it in 1978. I’m even glad, and I never thought I’d say this, but glad I didn’t make it all the other four times.
During all five attempts, what’s been your darkest moment, your lowest low?
The lowest was the box jellyfish stings in 2011 in September, so that would have been the third attempt. I was lying on the boat on the way back to Key West. When you put that much into it, believe in it, do research, and fine hone all the science, to be lying on the boat motoring slowly back, there’s this sort of despair. Those moments were low. I couldn’t on that boat imagine what it would take to get through – they were everywhere. But that’s where will, human spirit come in. As soon as I hit the docks, my mind was staring to churn. Five days later as soon as I touched down back home in Cal., I called prosthetisists to build something to protect me, and go to the next level.
It didn’t take long after your swim for people to question it. They accused you of cheating by getting on the boat. You don’t seem to be someone who would let something like that slide. How did you react?
In the beginning I admit I tried not to show it, but I was both pissed off and my feelings were hurt. I thought why would a group of marathon swimmers, my own kind so to speak, question it? Then I tried to become a little more clinical about it, and say we’re living in — shall we say the Lance Armstrong generation — where any time these days someone does something seemingly outrageous, something that hasn’t been done before, something that many people tried, and boom somebody does, we are not in that Pollyanna world anymore to say isn’t that great? We say, really?
[My team and I] had a long, long, long, 13-hour conference call with a bunch of [the doubters] and my navigator went through every quarter mile. At the end of that call, almost everyone on that call wrote me to say “Diana Nyad swam fair and square, shore to shore from Cuba to Fla.” There’s one guy in Ireland who is just a hater, just hates me and still doesn’t agree. But I guess there are still people who don’t believe Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
You write about being sexually abused by your stepfather and your coach Jack Nelson when you were younger. What do you think would help victims of sexual abuse most?
This is changing state by state but I cannot fathom the logic of statutes of limitations. If a person is wounded, for their entire life they are going to be at some level burdened with the imprint of childhood sexual abuse. I am still not free of the imprint of all that — what’s the best word — all that damage that happens when you’re young. You interpret it all in such a self-blaming way, and you are so confused between sex and love, and you don’t get to make your own decisions. You’re paralyzed. I even to this hate to admit it.
The other month I put some soup in the microwave and forgot it, and the entire china bowl exploded. I went into, I’m embarrassed to admit, a rage. I was saying all those words that Jack Nelson used to say to me, the demeaning, mysoginistic, hateful, anti-female words. I threw the pieces of that soup bowl all around the kitchen, and I was crying hysterically, foaming at the mouth. Then I saw my dog, cowering on the couch and I felt so ashamed. These people don’t understand the damage they are doing, and most of them don’t care – they think I didn’t kill her. They don’t realize how deep this runs. Why do they get to get away with statutes of limitations — what, because the hurt and the imprint isn’t there any more after seven years? Those laws should change so you are able to prosecute these people many years later.
You’ve lived in Paris, climbed Kilimanjaro and biked through Vietnam. What place touched you the most?
When I walk out into the Serengeti Plains, Olduvai Gorge, and the swamps in Botswana, I don’t know. East Africa to me is the moment DNA developed and moved from the amoeba stage into now the body structure stage of life. I am just swept away when I’m there. Some prehistoric wind goes through my right ear, through my brain and out the left ear. The whole world is a beautiful place, and I’m lucky I visited lot of it. I do believe that east Africa, the cradle of mankind is the place that takes my breath away the most.
You once went on a date with Woody Allen but you knew by then you were gay. So many questions…
I was a cheat. I was a liar and a cheat. Now mind you that was a different era, way before the circumstances that came up later with Mia Farrow. I had appeared on Saturday Night Live [after swimming around Manhattan] and the producer called me and said I have a friend who would love to ask you out. I knew she meant a man, so I said No, I’m not interested. She said, ‘It’s Woody Allen.’ I said ‘Tell him to call me right now.’ I was a total liar, presented myself as straight, because I was such a fan. Manhattan had just come out, and it is one of my favorite movies of all time. This is one of the great geniuses of our time and how hysterical is it that here I am in New York, how much fun would it be to go to dinner with him. And it was fun.
The second night, I was totally uncool and when he told me Diane Keaton was a big fan [of mine] I was overly enthusiastic and said ‘Really? Why don’t we call her, have her over and do something with her!’ He didn’t like that. That was the first clue, and whatever the next clue was, he went and opened the door and ushered me off. He was pretty pissed off, and I don’t blame him. I was young — I was a jerk.
Not to much longer after that, I lived in the Upper West [side of Manhattan] and he became a friend. I went to Thanksgiving dinner at his house several times, played tennis with him. He gave me money, which I paid back — I think it was $20,000 or $40,000 for the Cuba swim in 1978. He was a buddy. I can’t comment on what happened later, but I still write him notes and comments on the films he makes.
At the last World Swimming Championships, they introduced mixed gender relays with men and women competing on the same team. Do you think male and female swimmers should still compete separately?
They should remain separate. It’s fun if want to be social. But except for a very few sports — ironically marathon swimming is one of them, and I see billiards and horse jumping being examples too — there are a number of sports where gender has nothing to do with it. But in almost all sports we are different animals. All the swimming events at the Olympic and world championships level are too short to make gender a non-issue. If I were going to go from Cuba to Florida, chances are I am going get there, and have just as good a chance of getting there as a man. It’s not your speed that’s getting you there. I put myself equal to the best man in the world to stand on the beach in Cuba — you could put money on me as much as him — maybe more so.
But in all the events in Olympic swimming, none are long enough so strength and muscle mass and speed are huge factors and [men and women] are just different animals. I love to watch the women swim, and I love to watch the men swim, but I don’t want to watch them together. Call me old school.
You’re next project is to walk across America with a million people. You’re a swimmer; why walk?
I will forever be a swimmer. I wish I could do a swim with a million people and encourage swimming as a national pastime. I wish I could look back 10 years from now and see the numbers of people with diabetes, and people with heart disease, and the levels of obesity, and say, look, they all now swim, and swimming changed their life. But it’s not real. Economic circumstances, practical day to day circumstances, chlorine hair — make that just not real.
Whereas walking, just about everybody, even when talk about rolling in terms of the disabled, can walk. I just mean getting out the door, going down the neighborhood street after dinner. We clearly are a fast food nation. Our poor eating choices led to the obesity epidemic and a non sedentary society. But all the most recent studies point to our sedentary lifestyles even more than out poor eating. People are slogging along in this country. I want this be my legacy. Bonnie and I going wake people up. When we arrive in Washington DC it would be great if Michelle Obama and her Let’s Move! folks and the girls, and the President would walk the last 25 miles, and say today is the day we become a nation of walkers.
It’s called EverWalk and Bonnie and I will walk from coast to coast for five months starting in early May to late September Bonnie and I could walk it a lot faster but that’s not the point. This isn’t the same as Cuba. It isn’t some incredible athletic achievement, it’s a participation walk. People can sign up and walk with us for a week or join for a mile or 25 miles.
Do you still swim everyday?
I swim because I believe in it. I travel and can’t always find a pool. So I don’t swim every day but I keep my stroke together. I can still power through the water, and I’m still and always will be a swimmer.