Diana Nyad was 28 years old in 1978 the first time she tried to swim from Cuba to Florida. She went 42 hours before conditions forced her to quit. The following year Nyad swam 102 miles from Bimini, The Bahamas, to Jupiter, Florida. She got out, toweled off, and determined never to get in the water again.
More than three decades later her record still stands. It’s the longest uninterrupted open-water swim without a shark cage—marathon swimming’s equivalent to Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak—and Nyad did it without the benefit of GPS and other technology that’s now allowing swimmers to push way past the limits of earlier generations.
But as 2010 neared, Nyad, approaching 60, yearned again to do something extreme, something beyond her previous accomplishments. Against all odds she decided to complete that Cuba-to-Florida swim. “I wanted to be filled with a feeling of commitment to something,” she says. “It’s not the swimming, per se, it was the high of being immersed in something that extreme.”
She put herself through an arduous training regimen for two years and, in August of last year, she got back in the water.
By the rules of the swim she could not touch the boat or be touched by anyone on it. That meant not just swimming the 103-mile stretch of the Florida Straits but staying awake and pushing on for at least 60 hours through hard currents in shark-infested waters. With a support team alongside her, Nyad lasted 56 miles and almost 30 hours before an injury to her shoulder and an 11-hour asthma attack that wouldn’t abate finally defeated her.
That she’d try again seemed unlikely. Gathering a good team is expensive and logistically complicated, requiring money, boats, supplies, visas, and travel arrangements. Moreover, trying again would mean maintaining her fitness and positive mental outlook for another year—unless she tried again right away.
And that’s what Nyad did.
In September, barely six weeks after the earlier attempt, Nyad returned with her team to Havana’s Hemingway Marina and leaped back in. She began swimming, between 50 and 54 strokes per minute, propelling herself through water at about the pace of a good walker, hour by hour, as the sun fell into the Caribbean. Her shoulder was fine, and there was no asthma. She swam through the night, the darkness of the sky and the deep sea blending together. She swam all the next day and into the second night. The water was much calmer. For a while it seemed as if she would achieve her dream.
What she didn’t count on were the box jellyfish—umbrella-shaped organisms that give vicious and potentially lethal stings. Nyad suffered an attack only two hours offshore and a second sting at around hour 26. The pain was exquisite. Her face swelled. The doctor who dived in to help free her from the creature had to be injected with two shots of epinephrine.
And still Nyad went on—until doctors warned that a third attack would be likely to kill her. When she stopped she’d gone 42 hours and an estimated 43-69 nautical miles.
Nyad has said she will try again this summer. But whether anyone can do the swim given all the obstacles is a question. Possible or not, Nyad does not believe her age is a factor. “All athletes wish they had the head they have now then,” she says. “Physically I’m stronger now. I used to swim in anger, now I’m happy. I have a whole new attitude about my life and life in general. Sixty is the middle of middle age. I’m just getting started.”
Todd Carmichael placed one foot methodically in front of the other, his shoulders in a harness that pulled a red wagon loaded with 50-gallon jerrycans of water.
It was September of 2010, and Carmichael was attempting to become the first person to walk alone across Death Valley. But he had barely started when he came to an impasse—a 45-plus-degree downhill slope. His only option was to off-load the wagon’s 450 pounds of supplies and carry each drum and then the wagon itself, one piece at a time. After 12 hours, he’d covered a mere 300 yards—of a 160-mile journey.
Ninety miles and ten days later, walking all night and sleeping by day to escape the 118-degree heat (in the shade), Carmichael had lacerations on his legs and puncture wounds on his feet where hard needles had speared his boots. Then, at 3:30 in the morning, Carmichael made a wrong turn and strayed miles off course. In the darkness there was no point of reference, no connection to the rest of the world. It was just him, the moon and Venus, and coyotes trailing behind. He looked up at the sky, drew a breath, and knew at that moment that he had to be the happiest man on earth. A short while later he would regain his position and continue onward one step at a time.
In his ordinary life in Philadelphia Carmichael is the T-shirt-and-dungarees CEO of La Colombe Torrefaction, a coffee supplier to high-end restaurants that exceeds $20 million a year in sales. In 2008 he and his wife, singer-songwriter Lauren Hart, adopted three girls from Ethiopia, one of several African countries where he sources beans and funds projects to improve access to clean water. Trekking, though, is how he responds to that call of the wild and steps off the grid.
A full life, he says, requires risk. “What happens if you fail? How do you mitigate the risk? I look around and see people who live in the safest places in the world, and they are preoccupied with anxieties and fears because they don’t know what risk is anymore.”
Carmichael, a former Washington State track champion, is part of a small, informal fraternity of elite trekkers who eschew such conquests as climbing Mt. Everest as “too Disney World.” He has hiked across portions of the Sahara, Namib, and Arabian deserts. In 2008 he became just the third person—and the first American—to solo to the South Pole, walking almost the whole way because his skis broke, and still doing it faster than those who had finished before him on skis.
At 49 Carmichael is practically geriatric for this community, but even the youngest, hardest-core members regard Death Valley as unconquerable. Because the mountains enclose the main riverbed, the dry air is trapped like in an oven. The valley itself is ripped apart by thousands of intimidating pans and washes—dry river beds—many of them 25 feet deep. The margin for error is extremely slim: Carmichael’s first attempt had failed because his wagon couldn’t stand up to the punishment. This time, he’d redesigned it, creating a gyrating, flexible axle that would turn and bend over the punishing terrain.Still, he hadn’t counted on the tires bursting every 20 minutes from the heat. All the pumping to refill them had left him with raw ulcers on his hands.
For 10 days Carmichael experienced oscillating joys and ordeals, cosmic harmony and physical pain. “People think it’s impossible,” he said before he’d departed. “That intrigues me. With enough focus, drive, and attention, it is possible. It’s just not easy.”
Indeed. By the 11th day, the constant pumping of his tires had finally become too taxing, and it had taken away precious hours that he could have spent resting. After pulling the wagon through seas of roasted sand, hour after hour, day after day, forward progress became impossible. The tires began to burst beyond repair. He had traveled about 90 of the 160 miles. He called his project manager, Patrick Libois. “That’s it,” he said. “It’s over, dude.”
He made his way to the Furnace Creek Ranch, a golf resort whose busloads of day-tripping German tourists could not have been farther removed from his own desert experience.
He’d come all this way, again, another year gone when he didn’t know how many he had left to do this. The hair on his normally shaved dome and face had grown in all white, and when he looked in the mirror he saw his grandfather.
But a few hours and a shave and a shower later, he was already gathering himself for another attempt.
“When you have to fold the tent, it’s not a fun experience,” he would say later. “The word that goes through your mind is ‘fail, fail, fail.’ But once you get some perspective you realize that you learned something important. In the end, it’s not about how many tries you needed to get something done. It’s about not quitting and keeping at it until you achieve the goal. So, no, I didn’t fail. Failure is if it broke me, if I said, ‘I’m done, I’m not going back.’” He paused. “I just didn’t make it—this time.”
“So you’re going back?” a reporter asked.
“Next year, baby! The third time will be a charm.”
Carmichael has plans to make another attempt on Death Valley this September.
The Golf ZenMaster
Ben Witter does implausible things with golf balls. Amazing things. He strikes them far or makes them twist or bend. Sometimes it’s as if a ball he hits is a yo-yo attached on a very, very long string connected to his club. If you blink you miss it. Still, your impulse is to blink to be sure your eyes haven’t deceived you.
‘“A trick shot is only a trick shot if you call it in advance,” he says, and then explains the shot he intends to make to a gathering of about 150 people who have come to see him near his home in central Pennsylvania. He will hit it off a 3-foot-high tee under an arched footbridge, skim it off the face of some water in a lake beyond, and make it land about 250 yards away by an inflated yellow exercise ball in the middle of the fairway. And then, as promised, he hits precisely that shot.
Witter is a former world long-drive champion—he once hit a ball 409 yards, almost all of it carry—and can still mash it jaw-dropping distances. At 6’2” and 215 pounds he has
a physique that most men half his age would envy. For 20 years tour pros such as former LPGA star Jan Stephenson and fellow long-drive champ Carl Wolter have traveled long distances to learn at the knee of this golf Zen master.
If he has lost anything along the way, it’s not because he’s 47. It’s that every time he seems poised to move on, the cancer that he has fought through since he was 22 keeps reappearing. So the amazing things you see—Ben hitting balls while standing on exercise balls, bending the flight of shots, making golf balls fly like F-14s or turn like boomerangs, all while explaining the physics of ball flight and “swing planes” to slack-jawed audiences—is all the more staggering for what you can’t see—that he has one lung and a layer of thick scar tissue around his ribs that constricts his lateral movement or that he has no central vision in his right eye, depriving him of depth perception. Or that the day before, he was getting experimental radiation treatment.
Or that Ben’s lovely teenage daughter, Gabbie, has had to overcome a rare form of cancer. (For more about the Witter family’s struggle, go to takeaswing4benandgabbie.com.)
The thing is to keep going on: “If cancer has taught me one thing,” says Ben who after recent treatment is doing well, “it’s that everyone has a date of expiry, and no one knows what it is. Some of us know it’ll be sooner, but it doesn’t matter. The important thing is to live every day.”
The way he has stood up to adversity and never given up may be Witter’s most admirable trick of all.