A decade ago, Diana Nyad completed a historic feat, solidifying her reputation as one of the world’s most accomplished marathon swimmers.
The new Netflix movie Nyad, starring Annette Bening in the title role, recreates the real-life story of the swimmer’s obsession, upon turning 60, with the “Mount Everest” of ocean swims: the 110-mile trek from Cuba to Key West, Florida.
Nyad, now 74, has written four books, including the 2016 memoir Find a Way, which detailed the philosophies and experiences behind her single-minded determination to come out of swimming retirement and finish what she started years before—at what most assumed was the peak of her athletic career. “I failed and faltered many times, but I can look back without regret because I was never burdened with the paralysis of fear and inaction,” she wrote.
Adapted by screenwriter Julia Cox from Nyad’s memoir, directed by Free Solo Oscar winners Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, and co-starring Jodie Foster, Nyad is in theaters and available to stream on Netflix. Read on for the extraordinary true story of the woman who inspired it.
Who is Diana Nyad? Nyad was born in New York City but moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida soon after her mother’s second husband adopted her. Her swimming career, she told The New Yorker, began under former Olympian Jack Nelson, who coached her as a teenager all the way to becoming a Florida state champion in backstroke events.
After graduating from Illinois’ Lake Forest College with a degree in English and French, Nyad enrolled in a Comparative Literature PhD program at New York University in 1973. Throughout the 1970s, her marathon swimming career flourished, gaining her national attention, including appearances on Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. She then transitioned to a career in sports journalism, with her work appearing in print publications, morning news shows, and public radio.
An out lesbian, Nyad now resides in Los Angeles. After initially sharing her opinion that trans women athletes should be celebrated but not compete with cisgender women in elite sports, Nyad told Out in October that she stands “firmly on the side of inclusion… We are all sisters and siblings under the blue sky, and we should all have equal opportunities to play the sports we choose, the sports we love.”
What notable marathon swims did she complete? Diana Nyad gained widespread fame for completing a swim around the island of Manhattan in 1975 on her second try. Her time of 7 hours 57 minutes broke a 50-year-old record and was the first attempt in many years.
Per The New Yorker, she also set a women’s world record for the 22-mile route from Capri to Naples, Italy, and became the first person to swim Lake Ontario in the north-to-south direction.
In 1979, she completed the 102-mile trek from the Bahamian island of Bimini to Florida in just over 27 hours, setting another world record. Finishing that feat on her 30th birthday, Nyad resolved it would be her last competitive swim ever.
The year before, Nyad had made her first attempt at the Cuba-to-Florida swim, within a steel cage protecting her from sharks and other sea creatures. She totaled 76 miles of swimming and reached almost 42 hours, but veered off course into the Gulf of Mexico, failing to finish.
What is the history of the Cuba-to-Florida swim, and how many times did Nyad attempt it? Of the 110 miles from Havana, Cuba, to Key West, Florida, Nyad told NPR in 2015, “You can’t find a stretch of ocean more rife with Mother Nature on steroids—for a swimmer—as you can across the Straits of Florida.”
The trek had first been attempted by long-distance swimmer Walter Poenisch, a Guinness World Record holder at the time for the longest ocean swim: 125 miles in the Florida Straits. In July 1978, two days before Nyad tried her first Cuba-Florida swim, the then-65-year-old Poenisch became the first person to complete it.
Notably, both Poenisch and Susie Maroney, who became the first woman to finish the notorious swim in 1997, used a protective cage that surrounded them in the gulf’s shark-infested waters. Poenisch also followed The International Federation of Ocean Swimmers and Divers’ rules that dictated he was allowed fins and short rests on an accompanying craft but did not file for recognition of the unprecedented swim. Doubts about his unverified swim led to Poenisch suing several parties, including the International Swimming Hall of Fame and Nyad. He won an out-of