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June 29th, 2010
04:47 PM ET

Diana Nyad chases a dream

If the name Diana Nyad sounds familiar, it's probably because you've heard of her incredible feats of human performance. Before there was Lance Armstrong, before there was Michael Phelps there was Diana Nyad. (Watch Video)

Marathon swimmer Diana Nyad showing off the headlines from her world record setting swim

When you meet Diana, you can instantly tell there's something different about her.  If you spend 5 minutes with her - better yet, if you watch this 60 year old swim - you'll be able to tell you're in the presence of an amazing athlete.

In the 1970s, she was unstoppable. In addition to winning multiple swimming marathons, she was the first woman ever to encircle the island of Manhattan, and she holds the World's record for longest ocean swim – 102.5 miles from the island of Bimini in the Bahamas to Jupiter, FL. But there was one goal that eluded her.

"About a year ago now, I'm turning 60," she said, "and I thought 'what have I done with my life? What haven't I done with my life?' I started thinking, you know what, Diana? You've got to get real with life's lessons; one of which is you can't go back."

But a chance sighting of her own, 60-year-old face in the rearview mirror – a very ironic coincidence – changed her outlook completely.

"I caught my eyes, and I thought 'wait a second! There's one thing you actually can go back for,' and that's the dream swim which was Cuba to Florida."

And now, 30 years after her last competitive stroke, she will take to the waters of the Gulf Stream once again to attempt the 103-mile swim.

She made her first attempt in 1978.

"I remember, I got down to the shore with my 6 handlers. We're looking out at a raging sea of whitecaps." Diana says her navigator assured her that the seas calmed down almost to the serenity of a skating pond, just a few miles out. Unsure, she took his word for it, and dove in.

"If you're on the Everest team that's on the penultimate climb, and a storm comes in, you don't say 'what the heck, we're going anyway," she said. "In this swim, we just said 'what the heck, we're going anyway."

41 hours and 49 minutes later, Diana's team was pulling her out of the sea – battered, delerious, ravaged by jellyfish, scarred by the salt water; and only 50 miles from where she had started. That left her almost 60 miles from her intended landing spot.

Almost 32 years later to the day, she'll be facing that same mission, but this time, she says she's ready.

"It's daunting, I will admit to you that I'm scared to death," Diana said, in a rare moment of self-doubt, "but in other ways, I'm very confident."  She continues, "I've left no stone unturned in training, I follow that oil spill every single minute, I look at the weather, I look at my team, I look at shark devices, so I'm ready."

Speaking of sharks, Diana is attempting the swim without a physical shark cage, and is relying on an electronic shark repellant device, and a team of divers to keep the dangerous fish away from her.

It seemed as though she had thought of everything.  But why do it?

"I would be lying if I said I'd just been stewing over this for 30 years. I really haven't," she says. "The issue here isn't as much about making that big athletic dream. Really bigger than that is this existential grappling about being 60."

She went on to paint a picture of 60-year-olds "back in the day" as old people - wrinkled, shriveled up and discarded by society.

"Look at 60-year-olds today. They're not old, and I'm not old. I'm older than I was, yes. I'm slower than I was, but I'm still vital and I'm still powerful, and when I walk up on that shore in Florida, I want millions of those AARP sisters and brothers to look at me and say 'I'm going to go write that novel I thought it was too late to do. I'm going to go work in Africa on that farm that those people need help at. I'm going to adopt a child. It's not too late, I can still live my dreams.'"

Editor's note: CNN Medical will be reporting on Diana Nyad's 24 hour Key West swim next month and her attempt to swim to Cuba in August.

 


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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.