Diana Nyad does not believe in destiny.
This, despite the fact that on her fifth birthday, Nyad’s father called her into his study and pointed at the dictionary on his desk. “Darling,” he said in his thick Greek accent, “your name, Nyad (naiad)…means a girl or woman champion swimmer. Oh my God, darling, zis is yourr destiny!”
That Nyad would become a world-class swimmer by the time she left high school and ultimately break the world record as the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida (in 2013, at the age of 64) may have confirmed her father’s prophecy.
Yet Nyad chafes at this idea that such achievement was her fate. “To say that it was my destiny is to deny the enormous hard work and unwavering, undeniable commitment I laid down in order to accomplish that dream. The idea that to be someone or do something is your destiny ignores the power we all have to pursue our wildest dreams and also to rise against the obstacles in our way.”
In her absorbing memoir Find a Way, Nyad drives home her point by inviting readers to witness the less public triumphs and challenges that cultivated the dedication, discipline, resilience, and steeliness that would ultimately serve her in the Cuba to Florida swim. She uses the story of her 110-mile journey as the dramatic narrative framework to tell her greater life story—from her childhood to her days on the high school swim team to lively years living in New York City to her prominent career as a sports journalist.
“The swim is a delightfully metaphoric subject to think about,” she says. “With the suffering comes some joy and awe, and vice versa.”
Indeed, Nyad’s life has been marked by joyful public moments—breaking world records, swimming with Jackie Onassis, dining with Woody Allen, romping around Central Park with Andy Warhol, appearing on Saturday Night Live. But those experiences, she reveals, were accompanied by dark undercurrents—childhood sexual abuse by her father and later her high school swim coach, romantic heartache, injury, and a loss of professional and personal direction.
She wanted to include these painful experiences in the memoir she says, in order to “portray myself as I really am, which is extremely complex. I am not just an athlete, or speaker, or journalist, or author. I am someone who has faced what some might consider insurmountable challenges, and that is a commonality for all of us. I do feel that at this point in my life I have some valuable insight to give and by writing my story as authentically as I can, I will be known, along with whatever other labels people assign me, as an inspirational storyteller.”
Nyad writes that the moment she completed the historical swim in 2013 was “not a sports moment. It was a life moment,” and she wants her stories to “sit low” with a great diversity of readers, not just swimmers and athletes. Those readers, she hopes, take to heart the message behind the book’s title, which became a mantra for her during her training.
“You bang up in your life against obstacles,” she says. “For some people it will be emotional heartache, for some it may be professional, for others it may be a physical limitation. But if you are stubborn enough to believe, and when you are trying to achieve something in your heart, you will find a way to the joy and the awe. You will find the way across.”Emily Lavelle is a writer based in New York City.