Diana Nyad

On this date in 1949, endurance swimmer Diana Nyad (née Sneed) was born in New York City to Lucy Curtis and William Sneed, a stockbroker who died while she was an infant. When she was 3 her mother married Greek land developer Aristotle Nyad and the family moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Taking her stepfather’s name, Nyad emerged as a swimming sensation. Despite hardships such as sexual abuse by her coach and a less-than-stable household, she won accolades as a high school swimmer.

A battle with endocarditis prevented her early Olympic aspirations, but within a year she recuperated and went on to pursue a college degree. She was briefly a pre-medical student at Emory University (expelled for parachuting out of her dormitory window), then earned degrees in English and French as well as Phi Beta Kappa status from Lake Forest College in 1973.

After graduation she resumed her focus on long-distance swimming, setting major records, including swimming around Manhattan in under eight hours in 1975. She set the women’s record for swimming 10 miles across Lake Ontario and subsequently broke a series of distance records at locations such as the Suez Canal, the Nile River and the Caribbean.

 On Sept. 2, 2013, she accomplished an arduous, 110-mile swim from Cuba to Florida, unaided by shark cage or fins. In 1978, at age 28, she first attempted the journey from Cuba to Florida but her dream was derailed by unsafe conditions necessitating an unwieldy shark cage.

A year later, after setting a world record for crossing from the Bahamas to Florida, she took a 30-year hiatus from long-distance swimming and worked in broadcast journalism, including on “Wide World of Sports” on ABC and NPR’s “The Savvy Traveler.” In 2011 she decided to reattempt the trip from Cuba to Florida. She tried three more times until finally accomplishing the feat in her fifth attempt at age 64. She attributed her success to mental strength and discipline more than physical stamina. 

Nyad is a multilingual motivational speaker who was honored by the International Swimming Hall of Fame and National Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. Her books include a memoir, Other Shores (1978). She is “out” about her long-term relationship with a woman. She completed a 48-hour charity swim to help victims of Hurricane Sandy.

She was featured in a controversial episode of Oprah Winfrey’s “Super Soul Sunday,” during which she discussed her identity as an atheist in “awe” of the universe and humanity.

Freedom From Religion Foundation