Diana Nyad talks of grit and determination

When people use the phrase “swimming with sharks,” they don’t mean it literally. Diana Nyad does.

The celebrated marathon swimmer, who completed an historic open-water swim from Cuba to Florida in 2013, has written a book about how she finally achieved what she called her “life dream.” It is Find a Way and she will visit Wilton Library on the day of its release, Tuesday, Oct. 20, from 7 to 8:30 p.m.

Nyad’s triumphant swim in 2013 was her fifth try at what she called the “Mt. Everest of the Earth’s oceans” when she spoke with The Bulletin on Tuesday. “It is the most difficult, arduous, dangerous swim on the planet,” she said.

She managed to make a trip — more than 110 miles in 53 hours — that so many have tried before in one way or another. “They call it the Cuban graveyard,” she said.

How long had she been thinking about it?

“Thirty-five years,” she said without hesitation. “I tried when I was 28, I thought about it a decade before that.”

That first attempt was in 1978. After 42 hours of swimming inside a shark cage, strong westerly winds forced her to quit. Thirty-two years later she took up the mantle again, and began training. Her next attempt in August 2011 was unsuccessful due to currents and a flare-up of her asthma. Jellyfish stings put an end to her third attempt a month later, as they did nearly a year later on her fourth attempt in 2012.

What propelled her? “Just the difficulty,” she said. “It was honestly that swim, an emblem of living a big life, chasing after a dream that might be impossible.

“It made you tap into every edge of courage, every new scientific, technical discovery, learn about nutrition that you didn’t need to know before that.”

Although disappointed, Nyad used each defeat as a learning experience. “Every time anybody goes out for a run at Earth’s big expeditions, you come back with new discoveries of science and human nature. Every time we went, something was different. … We tried to solve the problems.”

The training was grueling. “I’m not sure there’s a sport that has more difficult, painful training than marathon swimming,” Nyad, now 66, said. “I would swim for 15 hours a day, the next day you swim 16 hours. You’re lying on the toilet floor, you get up, you swim 17 hours. Eventually your body and mind are ready to give it a go, you believe with every fiber of your being when you stand on the shore in Havana you are going to make it.”

And she did, indeed, make it, at the age of 64.

While Nyad endured the training and made the 53-hour swim, she was supported by a team of 44, with many more who supported them from a “mother ship” that made the trip as well. Working with Nyad were jellyfish experts, shark experts, navigators, and a personal training team who “know when there’s nothing left how to somehow drag some bit of grit out.”

Nyad wore a special suit to protect her from the jellyfish and had six divers who swam with her in shifts, two at a time, to fend off any sharks. No sharks were killed during her swim. They would poke the sharks with a PVC pipe if they got too close.

Nyad first gained public notice as a world-class swimmer by the end of high school. She turned to open-water swimming in her 20s, swimming around Manhattan in 1975 in just under eight hours. In 1979, after the failed Cuba-Florida attempt, she swam from North Bimini in the Bahamas to Juno Beach, Fla.

But the Cuba swim always stuck with her, and the title of the book, which became her mantra, came to her as she stood on the sand in Havana about to make her fifth attempt.

“Find a way were the words that Bonnie (Stoll), my head handler and best friend, said to me. … We were afraid of failing again and she grabbed me and said, ‘Let’s find a way.’”

In her book, Nyad shows “someone who wasn’t going to give up. All of us in our lives, whether it’s emotional hardships or our life’s dreams, we want to get to some other shore. It’s easy to give up. If we’re willing to dig down and be smart, we can find a way to all of our other shores.”

“Her story is about so much more than swimming — it’s about setting your mind to something and the perseverance, motivation and strength it takes to make it happen,” said Karen Danvers, program manager at Wilton Library. “It’s such a great message for young and old, athletes and non-athletes, someone dealing with adversity or change. There’s something in it for everyone. We’re looking forward to this very special night.”

Kathleen Millard, general manager of Elm Street Books of New Canaan, with whom the library collaborates, agreed. “This is not just a book about swimming. It is a book about a whole life, with bumps and hurdles which do not prevent Diana from reaching her goals. I was so inspired hearing her speak last May, I knew if we could get her for an author talk the audience would feel the same way.”

Tickets for the event are $30, which includes two seats at the talk and a hardcover copy of Find a Way. A portion of the book sales will benefit Wilton Library. Books will be distributed at check-in beginning at 6 on the night of the event. Additional books will be available for

purchase at the program courtesy of Elm Street Books. There will be a Q&A and book signing after the talk.

To purchase tickets, visit wiltonlibrary.org or call 203-762-3950, ext. 247.