Nyad the Naiad: Finding Play at the Extreme End of Competition

The Greeks imagined three kinds of water nymphs: Oceanids inhabited seas, ponds, lakes, and springs; Nereids swam in the deep salt water particularly the Aegean; and Naiads made their homes in fresh water streams, and even in wells and fountains. That Diana Nyad, journalist, radio commentator, ranked professional squash player, and most notably, endurance swimmer, should have a name that sounds like a water nymph is a coincidence too rich not to mention. Nyad turns 63 in a few days, and she’s embarked on a feat of endurance and strength to deny the passage of years. As I write this, she is paddling along somewhere between Cuba’s Hemingway Harbor and one of the Florida Keys, a punishing 103 mile swim that raises an important question about competition and play.

First, though, the nature of the challenge—an athlete must be surpassingly tough to even consider such a feat. Imagine, for starters, spending 60 or 70 uninterrupted hours walking on flat, dry land. Could you do it? Could you do it in a bathing suit, in a chilly, driving rain? Nyad’s environmental challenge includes 80 degree water that will dehydrate her for the first hours and later chill her to the point of hypothermia. Wind may raise chop that can make distance swimming feel like climbing many small hills. The Gulf Stream’s current, which runs between five and six mph, will make landfall hard to predict. Nyad hopes for Key West, but where she comes ashore nobody knows.

Mythical beings like Naiads and Mermaids floated near the top of the ocean kingdom’s hierarchy, but humans are, at best, guests in the sea. In the Straits of Florida, a swimmer must share the environs with several species of shark. Note that she swims without a shark cage, but has brought along a kayaker who drags an electronic repellant to keep hammerheads and lemon sharks at bay. She faces other challenges from sea creatures, the most noteworthy of which is the venomous Portuguese Man O’ War that drift there in the mega millions. Step on one of these that’s washed up on a Florida beach and you’ll not soon forget the searing pain. Some who’ve been stung have also experienced breathing difficulties. In one of her previous attempts, box jellyfish stings on the forearms and neck forced Nyad to abandon her goal. “The devastation of those stings took the body down” she says in her rousing TED talk. “I was on fire,” she said. “Fire, fire, fire,” she had yelled to her crew.

She calls finishing the swim from Cuba to Florida an “extreme dream.” She’s competing with herself, seeking revenge on the ocean for defeating her the last time. Competition is an important part of play, but there seems to be nothing playful in this case, and nothing conventionally pleasurable. “When you’re training for this sport,” which she compares to cycling and mountain climbing, “you’re not smiling.” Considering dangerous sharks, poisonous sea creatures, intense fatigue and pain, and the likelihood of vomiting salt water, why do such an extreme thing? Where is the reward? She knows of the prospect that the ocean will defeat her in this rematch, and she finds no pleasure in her demanding training, but from sacrifice and privation instead, she achieves what she identifies as a state of “grace.”

The question of “why” is separate from the question of “how.” How does she do it? She says the “how” is connected with play. When she’s cold, nauseous, aching, and tired beyond description, rather than give in to despair she appeals to a playlist of 80 upbeat songs that she keeps in her head—the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin’s version of “Me and Bobby McGee.” Replaying these songs keeps her going. “It’s kind of stupid,” she chuckles. I imagine that the protracted night hours, sensory-deprived, churning mechanically along at 60 strokes a minute, is the worst for a long-distance swimmer. Yet this water sprite says that on her long swims she can’t wait “until the dark of the night…because that’s when Neil Young comes on.”