Diana Nyad’s success all in her head, experts say

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By Maggie Fox

Diana Nyad has beautifully muscled arms, shoulders and thighs. She had a team of experts that helped her make the swim from Cuba to Key West, giving her water to drink, nourishing food, protecting her from jellyfish and monitoring her heart rate.

But in the end, experts say, her success came down to one essential part of her body – her mind.

“I think it was her belief in herself that she could do this,” says Kathryn Olson, CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation, a non-profit devoted to advancing the lives of girls and women through sports. Nyad is a former trustee.

“She had me convinced she could absolutely do this, no question,” added Olson, who has worked with Nyad on Foundation events. “That is what made her different. She worked through the pain. She had such a strong belief in herself and her ability that she was able to convince all those around her as well.”

Nyad, 64, swam 110 miles between Cuba and Florida, finishing Monday, the first person to do so without a shark cage.

Most amazing to many, she succeeded in middle age after failing several times. Her first try was in 1978, when she was just 28.

It took her 52 hours and 54 minutes of what appears to have been pure misery. For one thing, she threw up frequently, undoing much of the effort being made by her friend and handler Bonnie Stoll to keep her nourished and hydrated.

“Bonnie and my crew couldn’t find anything to eat or drink that I could keep down,” Nyad told TODAY. “I was vomiting constantly, almost throughout the whole 53 hours. You don’t have strength any more. I wasn’t out there just kind of swimming and daydreaming like usual. I was dealing with a crisis.”

It would take more than training and support to get through that, says Olson. “It was not just about the physical, but the mental,” she told NBC News. “I am sure there are faster swimmers out there and stronger swimmers out there.”

But Nyad had her heart set on finishing this swim – something she’d wanted to complete almost her whole adult life, even after taking a 30-year break from swimming. “There was a higher calling about this,” Olson says. “That desire allowed her to transcend the pain.”

Nyad says that as a very young girl and woman, competitive swimming was a way to escape the knowledge that one of her coaches was sexually abusing her. "I was in shock….humiliated confused and I kept it to myself,” Nyad says in a documentary about her life. 

“Swimming was the only place I felt safe,” she adds. “It was an emotional safety. I could go into my head and just trip out on the laps and be away from the anxiety and the worry about when am I going to get attacked next.”

In her 20s, she said, swimming was an outlet for her anger. “Now that I am back in it, I feel joy,” Nyad says in the documentary.

Trent Petrie of the University of North Texas Center for Sport Psychology and Performance Excellence says Nyad’s achievement like mostly about proving to herself that she could do it.

“People don’t do things like that for any kind of external glory,” he said in a telephone interview. “They do it because it is important to them.”

Nyad trained for years, swimming for days at a time, as well as lifting weights. And her previous attempts kept her in the sea for as long as two days straight. She says she performs mental tricks to keep herself going, counting her strokes in English, German, Spanish and French and singing songs to herself. “There's a song list in my brain of 85 songs,” she told a news conference on Tuesday. “Neil Young is my favorite.”

And despite the vomiting, advanced nutrition has to have played a role in her success, says Russell Pate, exercise physiologist at the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health and a past president of the American College of Sports Medicine.

“We can only accomplish physically what our bodies will support,” Pate said in a telephone interview.

“She was in the water and very active for a long time without a break or at least without extended breaks. That woman expended a lot of energy.”

The body pulls glucose from the liver and can also pull some energy from fat stores, but fat can’t pump out calories at anywhere near the speed the body would need while swimming in the ocean.

“We can store energy in our muscles, we can store energy in our liver, but not nearly enough to support that duration of effort,” Pate said. “I would like to see what she was consuming and how frequently she was consuming it.”

Nyad says her team of high-tech experts, from an expert on jellyfish to doctors and navigators who kept her on course, were key to her success. “The mental concentration of 53 hours of nonstop swimming is something to behold and respect. The physical duress is something to behold as well but never, ever, ever, could I do this without this team here,” she told a news conference.