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For ocean swimmer Diana Nyad, 60 represents a sea change as she prepares for Cuba-to-Florida swim

Nyad gave up major ocean swims when she was 29, after trying (and failing) to complete the 103-mile Cuba-to-Florida trek in 1978. Now, just weeks from her 61st birthday, she aims to give it another go, in notoriously shark-infested waters, proclaiming, '60 is the new 40.'

July 26, 2010|Bill Dwyre

Diana Nyad failed in a 1978 attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida, but is now ready to complete unfinished business.

Being in your 60s means many things. It can be the joy of getting your shoes tied every morning. For Diana Nyad, it is swimming from Cuba to Florida.

Diana Nyad: Bill Dwyre, in his column in Tuesday's Sports section, said 60-year-old long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad is a sports commentator on NPR. Nyad actually works for Santa Monica-based KCRW, an NPR affiliate. —

That's 103 miles, and, yes, that's nuts.

But all signs point to its happening, and Nyad, a world-renowned open-water swimmer who has been landlocked for 31 years, is as determined now as she once was when setting off on record swims around Manhattan Island, across Lake Ontario and from the Bahamas to Florida.

Late last week, Nyad received permission from both governments to do this. She began her requests in January, and says that if Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had not stepped in recently, her dream might have been drowned forever in red tape. The United States government still sees Cuba as a hot potato, and Cuba, eager for this event to take place, badly wanted Nyad to complete her swim in Havana, not leave from there.

"The Cubans don't like the implication of somebody walking out on one of their beaches and swimming away," Nyad says.

She also says she would be more than happy to make the big arrival show in Havana, but that prevailing currents in the Gulf Stream make that much more difficult.

Nyad, who will be 61 next month, stopped swimming when she was 29, but never strayed far from the spotlight. She is a nationally known speaker, author, travel expert and sports commentator on NPR. She was born in New York City, grew up in Florida and lives in Los Angeles.

Actually, for the last 10 months, she has lived both in L.A. and in various oceans. She would fly to spots off Mexico or a Caribbean island, do some ocean swimming, then return to tend to her professional life in Los Angeles.

"Last January, I flew to Mexico, hired a boat and swam for 6½ hours," she said. "I got on the plane to come home and suddenly knew I was going to do this, I could do this, I still had it in me."

Nyad says that encroaching age never bothered her, that 50 and 55 came and went with no thought. But 60 was different. She had a feeling of "being disenfranchised, of being no longer valued." That, coupled with the death of her mother, left her worried that her best days were behind, and she was struggling to find a way to disprove that to herself.

She went back to who she was, what she did. She quietly went to the Rose Bowl Aquatic Center, then other area pools, and the work began. The long-range goal was easy. In 1978, she had attempted to swim from Cuba to Florida, struggled in huge waves for nearly 42 hours and had to give up.

At 60, she saw it as unfinished business.

Now, weather permitting, she will wade into the water in Havana in the next few weeks. She has the team and equipment in place, which is no small undertaking and no small expense. She has to house and feed boat captains, kayak paddlers, trainers, medical personnel and more until the weather is perfect.

"I'm looking for two or three days of doldrums, where the ocean is so flat you can put your breakfast plate down on it," she says.

That's exactly the weather she had July 10, when she did a successful 24-hour training swim in Florida.

There was one small hitch: At dusk, a shark surfaced close by. Her safety diver spotted it, and it went away. Nyad will swim the entire shark-infested route without a shark cage, unlike her first attempt in 1978. A similar route was accomplished by Susie Maroney in 1997, but she did it in a shark cage and some have theorized that the cage helped pull her along. Maroney did her crossing in 23 hours 47 minutes. Nyad expects to take about 60 hours.

Nyad says she will be protected by a newly developed shark shield. She said the four-pound device, dragged along by accompanying boats, emits something that keeps sharks away.

"They tested it in Australia," she says. "They put a bloody leg of a cow on a surfboard and then watched from a helicopter. Within minutes, hundreds of sharks came and just tore the thing apart. Then they did the same thing with the shark shield device. Nearly 5,000 sharks were in the area, but none touched it."

There are doubters.

"I get e-mails from people saying they are shark experts," she says. "They say I will be like a dinner bell out there. I've started deleting those immediately.

"Whether it is true that the shield works or not, I've decided to believe it will."

Although there is obviously commercial value and ego enhancement in her incredible quest, Nyad has a revealing answer to whether just a good try will be OK.

"I'm an athlete," she says. "I don't feel that way. I didn't make it the first time, and I'm sure not going to wait another 30 years."

When she does this, Nyad says, she wants people in their 60s to feel good about themselves. She likes to say that "60 is the new 40."

There will, of course, be a day or two after she finishes when she will be too stiff to tie her shoes.

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