Diana Nyad and the ‘Demons of the Sea’
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on December 2nd, 2011

If you follow marathon swimming—or even the news—you’ll recall that the biggest swimming story of the past year was Diana Nyad’s attempts to swim from Cuba to Florida. In August she was thwarted by currents, in September by jellyfish.  Next summer, at age 62, Nyad plans a fourth attempt. (In 1978, at age 28, she swam for nearly 42 hours before aborting the swim.) The NY Times article Marathon Swimmer Diana Nyad Takes On the Demons of the Sea,  asks whether the demons are nature’s or her own. What drives someone in her seventh decade to persist in a quest that has three times turned her back decisively?

One reason the article hints at is the attention it brings: Her ‘sisyphean swims’ last summer drew far more press than Sun Yang’s incredible 1500m world record, with the media spotlight continuing for months before she finally entered the water. In the ‘70s, Nyad was arguably the best marathon swimmer in the world. She set a speed record for swimming around Manhattan and a distance record by swimming 102 miles from the Bahamas to Florida.

As the article states, “Nyad’s achievements and Muhammad Ali-like bravado  earned her spots on ‘The Tonight Show’ with Johnny Carson” friendships with celebrities, and helped lead to a broadcasting career. With the possible exception of Matthew Webb the English Channel pioneer, no other swimmer has matched her knack for converting sheer endurance into fame and (a measure of) fortune.

The article is well worth reading. Here I’ll comment on two points that struck me.  The article opens as follows: Diana Nyad is swimming for four hours in the 50-meter pool at the Rose Bowl Aquatic Center. When Nyad swims in a pool, she counts in her head, ticking off laps, first in English, then in German, then in Spanish, then in French. The goal is to focus her mind on repetitive thought, as a yogi does with a mantra.  When Nyad swims in the ocean . . . she doesn’t just count, she sings. She’ll do “It Ain’t Me, Babe” 10 times then “Paperback Writer,” 10 times. Nyad keeps in her head a playlist of 65 songs. Nyad knows how many seconds each takes, how many strokes. “When I complete 2,000 ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’s, I know I’ve gone 4 hours and 45 minutes exactly,” Nyad says. “I never lose track.”

Mindful Marathoning

My [far more modest] experience with marathon swimming taught me a similar lesson: You must train for mental discipline even more than physical endurance.  In preparing for my first 28.5-mile (47km) Manhattan Island Swim in 2002, my main goal was to ‘hardwire efficiency’ so deeply that it would endure hour after hour and in any water conditions   I might encounter. My tools for neural imprinting were Focal Points and Stroke Counting.

Focal Points I drew from a list of dozens I’d refined over the years, but focused mostly on Balance and Streamlining.  Balance Thoughts included  . . . Weightless  Head and Hand . . . Arm Floating Forward . . . Light Relaxed Legs . . . Head Resting on the Water while breathing. Streamlining Thoughts included  . . . Swim Tall . . .  Separate Water Molecules . . . Banish Bubbles . . . Swim Silently.

These thoughts had two effects: While training they improved my efficiency and deepened awareness of nuances in my stroke. During the marathon, they kept me ‘present.’  I strove to experience and optimize every stroke. Focusing only on this stroke was the best way to avoid being overwhelmed by the enormity of the tens of thousands of strokes that lay ahead.

Stroke Counting In training it let me compare the efficiency effects of one Focal Point vs another, and helped me organize my practice. I aimed to swim a certain percentage at 12SPL, 13SPL, 14SPL. (One of my goals was to complete MIMS in fewer than the 27,000 strokes taken the previous year by TI Coach Don Walsh.) During the marathon counting provided a framework for Focal Points . . .  100 breaths (300 strokes) Weightless Head  . . . 100 breaths Swim Taller  . . . 100 breaths Mail Slot . . . Repeat.

The defining distinction between my approach to mental discipline and Nyad’s is that playing mental music is actually a form of disassociation, a way of  distracting oneself from what otherwise might feel like crushing tedium. When I swam my first marathon—across Long Island Sound from Greenwich CT to Oyster Bay NY in 1972—I played the Kingsmen’s  Louie, Louie in my head for hours on end.

Waterproof mp3 players are as popular among those who swim to ‘get the yards in’ as watching TV or reading magazines are to the hordes ‘burning fat’ on treadmills and stair-climbers. But real moving meditation requires immersion–finding purpose in tiny-yet-meaningful details–in what you’re doing. In every swimming stroke, there’s no limit to opportunities-to-optimize your stroke.

Can a Marathon Change Your Life?

The second intriguing question raised in the article also addressed Nyad’s motivation. Besides enjoying the spotlight, what else drives her? These words appear near the end: Some of Nyad’s closest friends wish she would apply her considerable energy to other pursuits. “You know, it’s enough already,” says Bonnie Stoll, Nyad’s lead handler, business partner and best friend. “Diana thinks that it will change her life, and I think Diana will be disappointed that it doesn’t change her life.”

The most valuable life lesson I learned as I moved into my 60s was to Live Fully Today. I’ve always been goal-oriented and expect I always will be. But for some 40 years I focusing on how fulfilled I’d feel at some future point justified sacrificing the quality of right now. In college, I got through months of muscle soreness and bone-deep fatigue by thinking about how fast I’d swim at season’s end.  Five years ago, I was still willing to sacrifice things—scenic bike rides, yoga classes–I thoroughly enjoy to squeeze in a training session that felt necessary to complete a marathon or break a record.

Yet there’d been times when disciplined and faithful preparation was interrupted for weeks, even months, by illness or injury, where I still achieved my dream. Then I reflected that my best practices happened when I was excited to be swimming, rather than checking off an item on my schedule.’ Today, I strive to be guided by a goal to Make Each Practice Transcendent. That occurs when (i) I do what I feel powerfully drawn, not duty-bound, to do and; (ii) when I plan tasks characterized by ‘arduous experience and cognitive difficulty.’

No marathon has the potential to change your life. Only the quality of your experiences along the way can do that.

Learn how to train for an open water or marathon swim in the ebook Outside the Box: How to Swim Your Best in Open Water or the discounted bundle of Outside the
Box DVD and Ebook

Read more about marathon swimming in these posts:

Marathon Swimming as Meditation

How I learned (maybe) I’m not a Marathoner

Reduce speed a little. Save a lot.

How important is speed to an English Channel Swim

Stroke Counting Grows Brain Cells . . . which may be critical to swimming the Channel

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4 Responses to “Diana Nyad and the ‘Demons of the Sea’”

  1. Jenya Rose says:

    Wow! I had never even heard of marathon swimming until I encountered your blog (which is fabulous, BTW). I just started swimming for fitness and have been using some of the techniques that you write about. Your focus on the effortless quality of swimming is fascinating. I read your ebook about freestyle and it took 10 minutes off of my hour-long mile. I think it made my rest periods shorter, but I also feel like I am going a bit faster, more streamlined. Anyway, thanks for the great info, Terry!

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  2. Katie says:

    Let me get this straight: Chasing your dreams = Unenlightened.

    Setting lofty goals, falling short, discarding those goals, and criticizing people who keep trying = Enlightenment.

    Terry, I’m disappointed.

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  3. Katie, did you only read the blog or the article to which I linked? No one can criticize you for feeling Ms Nyad’s continued pursuit of the Cuba-FL swim is admirable but it’s likely you’ll have much less company in that assessment than last year when she first announced the attempt.

    Are you familiar with how Matthew Webb, the English Channel pioneer met his end? In his final years, as public attention began to fade and seeking to continue profiting from his fame and exploits, he embarked on a series of events that were more stunt-like than heroic. His final act, in 1883, was an attempt to swim through the Whirlpool Rapids below Niagara Falls. Though he failed to secure sponsorship and was advised by many that it was suicidal, he plunged in anyway. His body wasn’t found for several days.

    Ms Nyad’s closest friend and swim supporter expresses similar concerns about the motivation and wisdom of this swim and questions whether it is time for her to move on. While virtually the entire world was impressed and supportive of her effort last year, most of the comments posted on the Times website below the article described the swim as quixotic at best. A fair number felt it displayed elements of narcissism and obsession. I do share those opinions.

    Still, it would be presumptuous of me to pass judgement. Rather, my blog was intended for people whose goals are relatively modest. My message to them was that it doesn’t require grand gestures to achieve transformation or transcendence. The quality of engagement, sense of purpose and meaning and of overall experience every day carries that potential. As well, when setting and pursuing goals, one should be able to assess the wisdom and motivation of your goals in a clear-eyed way.

    Your message suggests that I set a lofty goal, fell short and then abandoned it. You’re referring I take it,to my decision not to attempt an English Channel swim last year, after earlier making that a goal. The truth is that after completing two — Maui Channel and Tampa Bay — of a planned four marathon swims over several months I assessed whether the pursuit of more marathons still held sufficient meaning to justify the personal, family, work-related and financial sacrifices entailed.

    After some 10 days of soul-searching and discussing my growing ambivalence with family and friends, I concluded — after swimming a – that adding to my lifetime tally of 7 marathon swims was less important than other things to which I might devote my energy and attention in the next four months. As it happens, shortly after reaching that decision I was hit with an autoimmune condition which would have made the training and attempt impossible.

    Some of Ms Nyad’s closest supporters and associates seem to wish she might do similar soul-searching.

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  4. Hadar says:

    You know, Terry, I’m not sure your approach and Diana’s are all that different. When I did the 6km Kinneret Crossing race this fall–far shorter than Manhattan, but the longest swim I’ve done to-date–I sang songs in my head, but they were not meant to distract me from the swimming; rather, it made my movement more like refined dancing to the tune. My hand entered the mail slot on the beat, so that was the cue for the other hand to begin pulling. Music in your head can be a tool for focus, to necessarily distractions.

    That said, this only works for me if the songs are in my head. I’ve persistently declined friends and family’s offers to buy me waterproof mp3 players. I want whatever happens to me in the water to be the product of my own emotional and cognitive processes, not an external device. It is an internal journey, and as such, an important and pleasurable one.

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