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Diana Nyad: Extreme swimming with the world's most dangerous jellyfish

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Yeah, so a couple of years ago I was turning 60, and I don't like being 60. (Laughter) And I started grappling with this existential angst of what little I had done with my life. It wasn't the resume of breaking this record here, it was more like, who had I become? How had I spent my valuable time? How could this have gone by like lightning? And I couldn't forgive myself for the countless, countless hours I had lost in negative thought -- all the time I had spent beating myself up for losing my marriage and not stopping the sexual abuse when I was a kid and career moves and this and this and this. Just why, why didn't I do it better? Why? Why? Why? And then my mother died at 82. And so I starting thinking, not only am I not happy with the past, now I'm getting choked with, "I've only got 22 years left." What am I going to do with this short amount of time that's just fleeting? And I'm not in the present whatsoever.

And I decided the remedy to all this malaise was going to be for me to chase an elevated dream, an extreme dream, something that would require utter conviction and unwavering passion, something that would make me be my best self in every aspect of my life, every minute of every day, because the dream was so big that I couldn't get there without that kind of behavior and that kind of conviction. And I decided, it was an old dream that was lingering, that was from so many years ago, three decades ago -- the only sort of world class swim I had tried and failed at back in my 20s -- was going from Cuba to Florida. It was deep in my imagination.

No one's ever done it without a shark cage. It's daunting. It's more than a hundred miles across a difficult passage of ocean. It's probably, at my speed, at my age -- for anybody's speed at anybody's age -- going to take 60, maybe 70, hours of continuous swimming, never getting out on the boat.

And I started to train. I hadn't swum for 31 years, not a stroke. And I had kept in good shape, but swimming's a whole different animal. As a matter of fact, this picture is supposed to be me during training. It's a smiling face. And when you're training for this sport, you are not smiling. (Laughter) It's an arduous, difficult sport, and I don't remember smiling at any time during this sport. As I said, I respect other sports, and I compare this sport sometimes to cycling and to mountain climbing and other of the expedition type events, but this is a sensory deprivation, a physical duress. And when I started in with the eight hours and the 10 hours and the 12 hours and the 14 hours and the 15 hours and the 24-hour swims, I knew I had it, because I was making it through these.

And when I said I'm going to go out and do a 15-hour swim, and we're coming into the dock after a long day and it's now night, and we come in and it's 14 hours and 58 minutes and I can touch the dock and we're done, the trainer says, "That's great. It's 14 hours 58 minutes. Who cares the last two minutes?" I say, "No, it's got to be 15 hours," and I swim another minute out and another minute back to make the 15 hours.

And I put together an expedition. It's not that I didn't have help, but honestly, I sort of led, I was the team leader. And to get the government permissions, you read in the paper, you think it's easy to get into Cuba everyday? Try going in with an armada like we had of 50 people and five boats and CNN's crew, etc. The navigation is difficult. There's a big river called the Gulf Stream that runs across and it's not going in the direction you are. It's going to the east and you'd like to go north. It's tricky. And there's dehydration. And there's hypothermia. And there are sharks. And there are all kinds of problems. And I gathered together, honestly, the world's leading experts in every possible way.

And a month ago, the 23rd of September, I stood on that shore and I looked across to that long, long faraway horizon and I asked myself, do you have it? Are your shoulders ready? And they were. They were prepared. No stone left unturned. Was the mind ready? You know, you're swimming with the fogged goggles, you're swimming at 60 strokes a minute, so you're never really focused on anything, you don't see well. You've got tight bathing caps over your ears trying to keep the heat of the head, because it's where the hypothermia starts, and so you don't hear very well. You're really left alone with your own thoughts. And I had all kinds of counting systems ready there in English, followed by German, followed by Spanish, followed by French. You save the French for last.

And I had songs, I had a playlist in my head -- not through headphones, in my own head -- of 65 songs. And I couldn't wait to get into the dark in the middle of the night, because that's when Neil Young comes out. (Laughter) And it's odd, isn't it? You'd think you'd be singing Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" out in the majesty of the ocean, not songs about heroin addiction in New York City. But no, for some reason I couldn't wait to get into the dark of the night and be singing, ♫ "A heard you knocking at my cellar door ♫ ♫ I love you baby and I want some more ♫ ♫ Ooh, ooh, the damage done" ♫


The night before I started, I finished Stephen Hawking's "The Grand Design." And I couldn't wait to trip the mind fantastic. About the 50th hour, I was going to start thinking about the edge of the universe. Is there an edge? Is this an envelope we're living inside of, or no, does it go onto infinity in both time and space? And there's nothing like swimming for 50 hours in the ocean that gets you thinking about things like this. I couldn't wait to prove the athlete I am, that nobody else in the world can do this swim. And I knew I could do it.

And when I jumped into that water, I yelled in my mother's French, "Courage!" And I started swimming, and, oh my God, it was glassy. And we knew it, all 50 people on the boat, we all knew this was it, this was our time. And I reminded myself a couple hours in, you know, the sport is sort of a microcosm of life itself. First of all, you're going to hit obstacles. And even though you're feeling great at any one moment, don't take it for granted, be ready, because there's going to be pain, there's going to be suffering. It's not going to feel this good all the way across. And I was thinking of the hypothermia and maybe some shoulder pain and all the other things -- the vomiting that comes from being in the saltwater. You're immersed in the liquid. Your body doesn't like the saltwater. After a couple of days, three days, you tend to rebel in a lot of physical ways.

But no, two hours in, wham! Never in my life ... I knew there were Portuguese men o' war, all kinds of moon jellies, all kinds of things, but the box jellyfish from the southern oceans is not supposed to be in these waters. And I was on fire -- excruciating, excruciating pain. I don't know if you can still see the red line here and up the arm. Evidently, a piece this big of tentacle has a hundred-thousand little barbs on it and each barb is not just stinging your skin, it's sending a venom. The most venomous animal that lives in the ocean is the box jellyfish. And every one of those barbs is sending that venom into this central nervous system. So first I feel like boiling hot oil, I've been dipped in. And I'm yelling out, "Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire! Help me! Somebody help me!" And the next thing is paralysis. I feel it in the back and then I feel it in the chest up here, and I can't breathe. And now I'm not swimming with a nice long stroke, I'm sort of crabbing it this way. Then come convulsions.

A young man on our boat is an EMT. He dives in to try to help me. He's stung. They drag him out on the boat, and he's -- evidently, I didn't see any of this -- but lying on the boat and giving himself epinephrine shots and crying out. He's 29 years old, very well-built, lean, he's six-foot, five, weighs 265 lbs., and he is down. And he is crying and he's yelling to my trainer who's trying to help me. And he's saying, "Bonnie, I think I'm going to die. My breath is down to three breaths a minute. I need help, and I can't help Diana."

So that was at eight o'clock at night. The doctor, medical team from University of Miami arrived at five in the morning. So I swam through the night, and at dawn they got there and they started with prednisone shots. I didn't get out, but was in the water taking prednisone shots, taking Xanax, oxygen to the face. It was like an ICU unit in the water. (Laughter) And I guess the story is that even Navy SEALS who are stung by the box jelly, they're done. They either die or they quickly get to a hospital.

And I swam through the night and I swam through the next day. And the next night at dusk, again, wham! The box jelly again -- all across the neck, all across here. And this time, I don't like it, I didn't want to give into it, but there's a difference between a non-stop swim and a staged swim. And I gave in to the staged swim. And they got me out and they started again with the epinephrine and the prednisone and with the oxygen and with everything they had on board. And I got back in. And I swam through that night and into the next day. And at 41 hours, this body couldn't make it. The devastation of those stings had taken the respiratory system down so that I couldn't make the progress I wanted. And the dream was crushed.

And how odd is this intelligent person who put this together and got all these world experts together. And I knew about the jellyfish, but I was sort of cavalier. A lot of athletes have this, you know, sort of invincibility. They should worry about me. I don't worry about them. I'll just swim right through them. We've got benadryl on board. If I get stung, I'll just grin and bear it. Well there was no grin and bearing this.

As a matter of fact, the best advice I got was from an elementary school class in the Caribbean. And I was telling these kids, 120 of them -- they were all in the school on the gymnasium floor -- and I was telling them about the jellyfish and how they're gelatinous and you can't see them at night especially. And they have these long 30 to 40 to 50-ft. tentacles. And they do this wrapping. And they can send the poison into the system.

And a little kid from the back was like this. And I said, "What's your name?" "Henry." "Henry, what's your question?" He said, "Well, I didn't have a question so much as I had a suggestion." He said, "You know those guys who really believe in what they believe in and so they wear bombs?" And I said, "Well it's odd that you've learned of this as a noble kind of pursuit, but yeah, I know those guys." He said, "That's what you need. You need like a school of fish that would swim in front of you like this." (Laughter) "And when the jellyfish come and they wrap their tentacles around the fish, they're going to be busy with them, and you'll just scoot around." I said, "Oh, it's like a suicide army." He said, "That's what I'm talking about. That's what you need."

And little did I know, that you should listen to eight year-olds. And so I started that swim in a bathing suit like normal, and, no joke, this is it; it came from the shark divers. I finished the swim like this. I was swimming with this thing on. That's how scared of the jellyfish I was.

So now what do I do? I wouldn't mind if every one of you came up on this stage tonight and told us how you've gotten over the big disappointments of your lives. Because we've all had them, haven't we? We've all had a heartache. And so my journey now is to find some sort of grace in the face of this defeat. And I can look at the journey, not just the destination. I can feel proud. I can stand here in front of you tonight and say I was courageous. Yeah.


Thank you.

And with all sincerity, I can say, I am glad I lived those two years of my life that way, because my goal to not suffer regrets anymore, I got there with that goal. When you live that way, when you live with that kind of passion, there's no time, there's no time for regrets, you're just moving forward. And I want to live every day of the rest of my life that way, swim or no swim. But the difference in accepting this particular defeat is that sometimes, if cancer has won, if there's death and we have no choice, then grace and acceptance are necessary.

But that ocean's still there. This hope is still alive. And I don't want to be the crazy woman who does it for years and years and years, and tries and fails and tries and fails and tries and fails, but I can swim from Cuba to Florida, and I will swim from Cuba to Florida.

Thank you. Thank you.


Thank you.


And so, what after that? Are you going to swim the Atlantic? No, that's the last swim. It's the only swim I'm interested in. But I'm ready. And by the way, a reporter called me the other day and he said he looked on Wikipedia and he said he saw my birthday was August 22nd 1949, and for some odd reason in Wikipedia, they had my death date too. (Laughter) He said, "Did you know you're going to die the same place you were born, New York City, and it's going to be in January of '35?" I said, "Nope. I didn't know." And now I'm going to live to 85. I have three more years than I thought.

And so I ask myself, I'm starting to ask myself now, even before this extreme dream gets achieved for me, I'm asking myself, and maybe I can ask you tonight too, to paraphrase the poet Mary Oliver, she says, "So what is it, what is it you're doing, with this one wild and precious life of yours?"

Thank you very much.


Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

(Applause) Live it large. Live it large.

Video Details

Duration: 16 minutes and 37 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: None
Producer: TEDTalks
Views: 358
Posted by: tedtalks on Jan 24, 2012

In the 1970s, Diana Nyad set long-distance swim records that are still unbroken. Thirty years later, at 60, she attempted her longest swim yet, from Cuba to Florida. In this funny, powerful talk at TEDMED, she talks about how to prepare mentally to achieve an extreme dream, and asks: What will YOU do with your wild, precious life?

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