Marathon swimming icon Diana Nyad will briefly wash up on dry land Tuesday night in Atlanta, a city where she has some history.
If only she could remember more of it.
“It’s not Emory’s fault or the city of Atlanta’s fault,” Nyad, 66, who enrolled at Emory University as a freshman in the fall of 1967, said by phone from California. “If I had been living in the White House back then, I probably wouldn’t remember that, either.”
It’s understandable in a way. Yes, Emory did expel her for parachuting out of a fourth-floor dormitory window, Nyad confirms in “Find a Way,” the new autobiography-meets-swimming-odyssey she’ll discuss at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library. But it wasn’t the exuberance of youth so much as a desperate bid for attention by the star swimmer from Florida who’d been sexually abused by a coach back home, then says she “lost her identity” when she arrived at Emory, which had no women’s swim team. No wonder she’s mostly suppressed what she now calls a “wretched period.” (The AJC dug into Nyad’s brief tenure at Emory two years ago.)
Her recall is much better when it comes to the 2013 feat that made her internationally famous, her epic Cuba-to-Florida swim through shark-infested waters sans protective cage. Accomplished on her fifth try in a period spanning 35 years, and when she was on the cusp of collecting Social Security, no less.
“It was the No. 1 Google search in the world the day after,” Nyad says about the 110-mile swim that concluded on a beach in Key West on (what could have been better?) Labor Day. “Maybe people were sick of hearing bad news about Syria and other things. Maybe it wouldn’t have meant as much if I were 28, instead of 64 when I finally made it.”
Or maybe we all just wondered what it must’ve been like swimming alone for nearly 53 hours, goggles on, body covered in (hopefully) shark- and jellyfish-repelling goo. And Nyad provides plenty of delicious, “inside swimball”-type details in “Find a Way” — whether it’s the fact that Adolph’s Meat Tenderizer was used to treat her potentially dangerous jellyfish stings during that first Cuba attempt back in 1978; or that during one 10-hour training swim for Attempt No. 2 in 2011, she listened to an entire books-on-tape biography of Steve Jobs (“a delightful diversion”).
Meanwhile, as fascinating as it is to learn that she mentally replayed Joe Cocker’s raspy version of “The Letter” 500 straight times during that successful 2013 swim, Nyad had another, richer reason for writing a book called “Find a Way.”
“It’s a metaphor for engaging and living life to its largest, for grasping onto the journey and not letting go,” said Nyad, “Yes, it’s a book chock-full of the vocabulary and activities of an extreme adventurer. But underneath all that are the precepts of finding your way to your ‘other shore,’ whatever that is.”
Indeed, Nyad’s book offers a deeper dive into her compelling life story: Having a father (technically, Aris Nyad was her stepfather) who made his living as a con man. Becoming an advocate for victims of sexual abuse. Finding (and sometimes losing) love as a gay woman. Building a remarkably supportive team of friends who were literally and figuratively by her side during every attempted Cuba-to-Florida swim.
“I frankly am going to miss it,” Nyad chuckled about her seemingly endless quest to reach that “other shore” — the same quest that still has her experiencing “a little PTSD” in the shower sometimes. No surprise then that she’s throwing herself into planning “Everwalk 2016” (motto: “Let’s become a nation of walkers!”) a coast-to-coast foot trip across America she’ll make with a friend next year in hopes of inspiring others to adopt a less sedentary lifestyle.
“I walked 20 miles yesterday,” Nyad chirped near the end of the phone call.
Of course she did.