My hamstrings are in knots,” moaned marathon swimmer Diana Nyad, after only 10 miles of a planned 24-mile Long Island to Connecticut swim. “My legs feel paralyzed.” Despite the cramps, it took five minutes of anxious coaxing before the headstrong—but by then whimpering—Nyad would allow herself to be hauled out of the 68° water into the escort boat.
Fortunately for Nyad, 26, the aborted swim was only a rehearsal. Her real test will come later this month when she attempts to break the nine-hour, 36-minute women’s record for swimming the treacherous 21-mile English Channel. If she makes it across—some 50 women have before her—she may also attempt the first successful round trip by a woman.
Though Diana’s sleek 5’6″, 125-pound frame puts her at a disadvantage in long-distance swimming, where bulk helps ward off cold and fatigue, her will to succeed is unquestioned. “Diana was always as tough as nails,” recalls former marathon trainer Buck Dawson. “In fact, we thought she was almost suicide-prone—she always extended herself a little beyond what the ordinary person would.”
A competitive swimmer from the age of 12, Diana once dreamed of Olympic gold as a middle-distance racer. Born in New York, she grew up in Florida, where she slept in her swimsuit and swam four hours every day. In 1967 she enrolled at Emory University in Atlanta. A year later, after failing to qualify for the Mexico City Olympics, she sought refuge in India. “I never wanted to have anything to do with competitive Western society again,” she recalls. A month later she returned to Emory, only to be expelled for such stunts as parachuting out of a fourth-floor dorm window and shoplifting for kicks at Rich’s department store. She checked in briefly with a psychiatrist, bummed around Europe and the U.S. and experimented with LSD.
“I think, in retrospect,” says Diana, “that I never had an adolescence. When I was 12 or 13 I was a very serious little kid. Later I was a very confused 17-or 18-year-old.”
Diana plunged headlong into the grueling world of marathon swimming in 1970, the same year she entered Lake Forest College in Illinois on probation. A year later she was the world’s top woman marathoner—a preeminence she retained until 1975, when she began a boycott of the professional marathon circuit because of what she regarded as exploitation by tightfisted promoters. “I swam a 10-mile race once in Quebec,” she recalls, “and they gave me a $35 check. I had tears in my eyes. I wouldn’t accept it.”
A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Lake Forest, Nyad is now a somewhat casual Ph.D. candidate in comparative literature at New York University. (She speaks French and German fluently.) She is coach of Barnard College’s lackluster swim team and keeps in shape with a punishing exercise regimen. On a scant five hours’ sleep and an Amazonian 12,000-calorie-per-day diet—about four times that of a normal man’s—Diana runs 10 miles every day, swims one to eight miles, plays squash four hours, skips rope for 30 minutes and works out with weights twice a week.
Though she has competed in about 25 international marathon swims, setting several women’s world records, Diana has also had her share of failures. “She has a tremendous reputation for not finishing races,” complains Tom Hetzel, seven-time conqueror of the English Channel. “She has gotten more publicity for doing less than anyone I know.”
Such criticism doesn’t trouble Nyad. Concentrating recently on dramatic solo swims, combining showmanship and athletic achievement, she seems determined to cash in on her fame. Last year, amid much fanfare, she set a new seven-hour, 57-minute record—in her second attempt—for swimming around Manhattan Island, through 28 miles of befouled rivers. One result was that a filmmaker promised her $10,000 for a documentary on her life. “I’m going to quit this sport in a couple of years,” says Diana, “and before I do I would like to be recognized.”