The remarkable story of how long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad completed the Cuba-to-Florida epic challenge at the age of 64


On the Shortlist

Find a Way: One Untamed and Courageous Life

By Diana Nyad (Knopf Publishing Group), £16.99

Review by Jon Culley

Diana Nyad, pictured earlier this year at a sports psychology conference in Phoenix
Diana Nyad, pictured earlier this year at a sports
psychology conference in Phoenix
This is the book that Hillary Clinton apparently said would remain by her side throughout her campaign to be President, as a source of inspiration.

Diana Nyad excelled at open water swimming. In 1975 she swam the entire 28 mile (45km) circumference of the island of Manhattan in a world record time and in 1978, on her 30th birthday, swam the 102 miles (164km) from the Bahamas to Florida.

This despite suffering abuse at the hands of both her stepfather and a swimming coach as an adolescent, and spending three months in hospital with a heart infection.

When she retired from competitive swimming, she pursued a successful career that combined journalism, broadcasting and motivational speaking among other things.

But all the time she was persistently nagged by the memory of something she had wanted to achieve but failed, which was to swim from Cuba to Florida Keys.

Strength of character

Among extreme distance swimmers, Cuba to Florida is like Mount Everest is to climbers, the ultimate challenge, a stretch of water possibly as intimidating as any on the planet, the point at which the Gulf of Mexico gives way to the Atlantic Ocean, prone to violent storms and unpredictable currents and home to shoals of deadly jellyfish and countless predatory sharks.

She had made an attempt in 1978, swimming inside a 20' by 40' shark cage, but had been forced to give up after 42 hours, having swum 76 miles (122km) but having been blown badly off course by winds so strong she was repeatedly slammed against the cage.

Nyad's friends will testify that they never expected one attempt would be enough, such is her strength of character and unwillingness to accept defeat.  Yet they would not have anticipated just how she would get back in the water and pull it off.

She did so on September 2, 2013, when she emerged on to the sands of Key West after swimming 111 miles from Havana in an epic feat of endurance and indefatigable will, completing the passage in 53 hours.

Descriptive powers

It was her fifth attempt, the final four taking place from 2011 onwards.  She was 64 years old.  Along the way, escorted by her support team, equipped with a protective suit to protect her from the horrific, paralysis-inducing jellyfish stings that had been her downfall in previous attempts - but with no shark cage - she sang to herself and regularly revisited the messages of her mantra, the one that had driven her not only in the water but in life.

A map detailing Nyad's five attempts to complete the epic swim from Cuba to Key West
A map detailing Nyad's five attempts to complete
the epic swim from Cuba to Key West
She made it part of the triumphant address she gave to the crowd that greeted her as she stepped out of the ocean at Key West.  "One," she said. "Never, ever give up.  Two: You're never too old to chase your dreams. Three: It looks a solitary sport, but it's a team."

Some critics have felt the book reveals a somewhat needy side to Nyad's personality, seeing in it a constant craving for self-justification.  Others, though, will find it an inspiration.

There is much about her life and the experiences that helped develop her personality.  Whether it is a personality that appeals is a matter for the individual but it is hard to imagine many readers will not be gripped by her descriptive powers as they are taken, almost stroke-by-stroke, through the perils of swimming in a hostile ocean, or will not appreciate the inner resources that sustained her through the long days and nights of training, enabling her to face down her fears and ultimately overcome the force of nature.

Find a Way: One Untamed and Courageous Life, by Diana Nyad (Knopf Publishing Group), £16.99

Buy from AmazonWaterstones or WH Smith

The winner of the 2016 William Hill Sports Book of the Year award, worth £28,000 to the successful author, will be revealed at an afternoon reception at BAFTA, in central London, on Thursday.  There will a poignancy about this year's award ceremony in that it will be the first since John Gaustad, the award's co-founder and proprietor of the much-missed Sportspages book shop in central London, passed away earlier this year.

Also shortlisted: Mister: The Men Who Taught the World How to Beat England at Their Own Game, by Rory Smith (Simon & Schuster), £18.99

Also shortlisted: Mr Darley's Arabian: High Life, Low Life. Sporting Life: A History of Racing in 25 Horses, by Christopher McGrath (John Murray)

Also shortlisted: Endurance: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Emil Zátopek, by Rick Broadbent (Wisden Sports Writing)

Also shortlisted: Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, by William Finnegan (Corsair)

Also shortlisted: Chasing Shadows: The Life and Death of Peter Roebuck, by Tim Lane and Elliot Cartledge (Hardie Grant)

Also shortlisted: Oliver Kay's Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty - lost genius of Manchester United's golden generation (Quercus)

And then there were seven - the full shortlist for the 2016 William Hill Sports Book of the Year

William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2016: the longlist in full

(Picture credits - Main picture of Diana Nyad by Gage Skidmore; Route may by Froggerlaura; via Wikimedia Commons)



Popular posts from this blog

The watchers watched: Collins delivers a masterclass in the art of sharp and witty observation

Heavyweights slug it out for title hat-trick

Hamilton takes William Hill prize for a third time with brilliant biography of the venerated cricket and music scribe Neville Cardus