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'Find a Way,' swimmer Diana Nyad's stirring tale, is not for the squeamish

Nyad's message: 'You're never too old to chase your dreams.'

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Find a Way
by Diana Nyad
Knopf
320 pp.

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For most of us, a long-distance swim is a few extra laps at the pool; the biggest danger – getting elbowed by another swimmer.

For Diana Nyad, a long-distance swim was a 110-mile odyssey from Cuba to Key West, Florida.  And danger?  There were toxic box jellyfish, and sharks that make no distinction between a woman attempting a historic journey and lunch.

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So the many obstacles, and sheer unlikelihood of anyone enduring this route, makes the title of Ms. Nyad’s new book – Find a Way – spot on.  In this outstanding sports memoir, Nyad tells how she realized her “beautiful Dream.”

Before this book gets to Nyad’s 2013 triumph, and her vivid description of this almost 53-hour effort, she shares some of her life story.  She also details her four earlier attempts; ordeals that convinced even some of her staunchest supporters it was not humanly possible to cross this distance without the protection and assistance of being inside a shark cage pulled by a boat.

But Nyad proved it was possible.  And the early September day she shakily stood up and walked from the ocean onto dry land, her mouth swollen from exposure to salt water, she managed to utter this message: 

“One: never, ever give up.

“Two:  You’re never too old to chase your dreams.  (She was 64.)

“Three:  It looks a solitary sport, but it’s a Team.”

Indeed, Nyad’s achievement was a team effort.  And much of her thoroughly engaging book is about the many people who helped her.  And about people who hurt her.

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As a young girl Nyad’s stepdad encouraged her to think of herself as the Naiads from Greek Mythology, and a champion female swimmer.  His prophecy proved correct, her devotion to swimming accelerating throughout childhood and her teens.  But her stepdad, and later, a trusted swim coach, ended up being scoundrels who sexually molested her.

She remarks, “Even those of us strong and successful and together can be deeply wounded by the crimes committed against us in our youth.” Thus her extraordinary athletic achievements are shown to be an expression of her determination – including her determination not to allow these horrifying events define her.

Then, at age 21, she realized she’s lesbian.  If she experiences prejudice, she doesn’t mention it.  Instead, she enjoys close relationships with both men and women, commands the devotion of dozens “Xtreme Dream” team members, and inspires countless admirers.

It was a swim in 1975 that made her famous.  After five years as a competitive marathon swimmer, she circumnavigated the 28.5 miles around Manhattan in record time.  Then, in 1978, Nyad made her first Cuba to Florida attempt.

This watery passage becomes “a life quest” and “a symbol of how I want to live my life, believing you can touch magic if the Dream is worthy enough, if you’re willing to sacrifice enough for it.”

But winds, currents, and waves pushed her far off course, and the effort must be abandoned.  The following year she was denied entry to Cuba, and instead, made a record-breaking 102.5-mile swim from the Bahamas to Florida.  Apparently locked out of her life quest, at 30 she retired from swimming and accepted an offer to work for ABC’s Wide World of Sports, the beginning of her broadcasting career.

Thirty years later she resumed her quest.  Although during that time she hadn’t “swum a stroke” she began a punishing training program. 

Nyad’s swims are hard even to read about.  She endures brutal ocean conditions, and some gruesome encounters with jellyfish.

She also must choose the exact, right time weather-wise, aided by her team of 35, including kayakers, shark-protection divers, and crewmembers on several boats.

“Find a Way” is a masterful memoir and powerful demonstration of what’s possible when you don’t give up your dream.  Physiological details about her ordeals may make some readers squeamish.  But as a whole, “Way” tells an absorbing true-life adventure story, along with its meaningful backstory. 

On her final successful effort, beyond exhaustion from days of extreme exertion without sleep, it appeared she might again have to abandon her effort.  But then Bonnie, her best friend and “handler” pointed out the lights of Key West.  Nyad’s sheer strength of character kick in.

When Nyad describes stepping out of the ocean and being greeted by a jubilant crowd, having overcome years of momentous obstacles, her story may, if you are like me, douse your own eyes with salt water.

Dave Smith, from Brookline, Mass., avoids sharks and jellyfish by doing laps in an indoor swimming pool.