Nyad, Diana (1949—)

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Nyad, Diana (1949—)

American marathon swimmer . Born on August 22, 1949, in New York City; studied at Lake Forest College, Illinois, and New York University.

Became the first person to swim Lake Ontario from north to south; set record for the fastest swim around the island of Manhattan at 7 hours and 57 minutes (1975); completed the longest open-water swim in history, 102.5 miles (1979).

Diana Nyad, who was born in New York City on August 22, 1949, but raised in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, found her passion at the age of ten, when she discovered swimming. Her family was non-athletic, and tried to get her to pursue the piano instead. By 12, she had dreams of becoming an Olympic swimmer and adopted a rigorous schedule of workouts in the early morning, after school, and in the evening. A high-caliber backstroker through her teens, she hoped to make the 1968 Olympics. Two years before the Games, however, she contracted viral endocarditis, an infection of the heart, and spent several months in bed. She sustained a serious loss of muscle, and with it the loss of her speed and her Olympic dreams.

Nyad's career, however, was just about to begin. One of her coaches introduced her to marathon swimming, and by 1969 she was fully engaged in competition. From 1969 to 1977, she was the world's top female distance swimmer. During this time, she completed a spectacular solo swim, becoming the first person to traverse Lake Ontario from north to south. Swimmers had traditionally started at the south shore where the Niagara River empties into the lake, creating a current that gives swimmers a great push northward, but Nyad wanted to fight the currents from Niagara Falls as she made her way to the shore. She also wanted to be the first to swim a round trip across the lake. Even Florence Chadwick , the first to swim the English Channel in both directions, had failed to traverse

rugged Lake Ontario, one of the coldest of the Great Lakes and 32 miles wide where Nyad planned to attack.

Her first eight hours went well. She made great time, and the navigator aboard her scout boat predicted that she would be at the shore in less than 14 hours. But then the wind picked up, and Nyad was soon fighting five-foot waves. More than 18 hours passed before she made it to shore. Wrapped in a blanket, she took a 15-minute rest ("the quickest [15] minutes I've ever known," she later recalled), then waded back into the water. The winds had changed direction again, and again she had to fight combative waves. Nyad lost consciousness after just over 20 hours of swimming, failing to make her round trip, but she was still the first person to cross the lake from north to south.

Nyad also wanted to swim around Manhattan, resurrecting what had been a traditional men's race around the island prior to World War II. In the fall of 1975, she embarked on the swim but had to quit because of severe cold, wind, and rain; she also came down with a virus, probably caused by the polluted waters. She tried again 11 days later, and made it around the island in 7 hours and 57 minutes, breaking the old record that had been set nearly 50 years before. In August 1978 she pursued another dream, that of swimming 100 miles in the open ocean at a time when the record for open-sea swimming was 60 miles. She set out to swim from Cuba to Florida, something no one else had ever done. Although a storm prevented her from completing the trip, before she was forced to stop she had made it 79 miles north of Havana, after swimming 41 hours and 49 minutes. (In 1997, Susan Jean Maroney would become the first person to be documented completing the swim from Cuba to Florida.) Nyad mounted a similar adventure the following year. On August 21, 1979, she set out to swim from the island of Bimini, in the Bahamas, to the coast of Jupiter, Florida. She made it in just 27 hours and 38 minutes, completing the longest open-water swim in history—102.5 miles.

During her years as a marathon swimmer, it was not uncommon for Nyad to swim isolated for 24 hours or more. She often hallucinated during these times, and joked that each swim was worth six months of visits to a psychiatrist. Nyad was also a champion for women's rights, using her position to speak up for equality of the sexes. In 1975, Ms. magazine named her Woman of the Year, as it would in each of the following five years. In 1978, she wrote Other Shores, exploring the physical and emotional growth that evolved from her intense drive to succeed. Nyad's desire for adventure had gotten her expelled from her first college after she parachuted from the fourth floor of the women's dorm. When she finally settled down at Lake Forest College in Illinois, she proved she could be a serious student by earning all A's. She later worked on her Ph.D. in literature at New York University. She turned to television correspondence and also became a regular on National Public Radio, focusing on women's achievements in the sports world. Nyad was named to the halls of fame at Lake Forest College and Pine Crest Preparatory School, where she graduated from high school, and in 1986 was inducted into the Women's Sports Foundation International Sports Hall of Fame.


Gleasner, Diana C. Women in Sports: Swimming. NY: Harvey House, 1975.

Hollander, Phyllis. 100 Greatest Women in Sports. NY Grosset & Dunlap, 1976.

Oglesby, Carole A., et al., eds. Encyclopedia of Women and Sport in America. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx, 1998.

Lisa Frick , freelance writer, Columbia, Missouri