On Swimming with Sharks and the Power of Resilience

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg interviews long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad about powering through life’s obstacles, defying expectations and tackling her next big challenge.
Photo by Christi Barli

SHERYL SANDBERG: Diana Nyad is the definition of strength and of resilience. In 2013, she became the first person to swim the shark-infested waters from Cuba to Florida with no cage. She started chasing this dream when she was 28 and made it when she was 64. One of the first things she said when she got out of the water was, “Never ever give up.” Let me start with this question—how do you lean in?

DIANA NYAD: We heard from 25 million people when the swim was over and they don’t care about swimming or records; what they care about is the human spirit and all of us—whether you’re fighting cancer of if you’ve been through a tragedy—if you just don’t quit, you will get to your other shore. I was a living example of that. So that’s how I lean in.

SS: It took five tries, over four decades for you to complete the swim. Your first attempt was in 1978; you said you were glad you didn’t succeed then. Why?

DN: Because the life lessons become bigger. The level of awe of this life we get to lead builds and builds because you can hear the ticking of the clock, you feel the pressure of it. And so it meant so much more. How much sweeter was that triumph of walking onto that beach because it’s not about making it, it’s about not giving up on it and that wouldn’t have been true if I had made it at the age of 28.

SS: You said your third try was your darkest hour—you were stung by venomous box jellyfish and had to end your swim. You threw away all your swim gear on a Monday,
the trash was scheduled for collection on Friday and on
Thursday night you fished it out and said, “I’m going to try again.” What made you keep going? And wasn’t it great the garbage was taken on a Friday?

DN: [laughs] It was. I would’ve had to get all new gear. My expedition leader and best friend Bonnie said to me, “I almost saw you die out there.” No hyperbole, from the box jellyfish. I would rather face a 15-foot-long shark than the little box jellyfish.

SS: I’d rather face neither.

DN: Well if you had to have a choice, you’d take the shark—you could at least punch it in the nose. The box are going to take you down, paralyze your spinal cord, you go into deep anaphylactic shock. I do believe I lived that night on will. When we came out of that third time Bonnie said, “I almost saw you die and I felt helpless. If anyone could have done this swim it would have been you. I just don’t think it can be done.” And I said, “Bonnie, you’ve seen me this past year, I’ve had that Teddy Roosevelt quote on my desk, which say—and I’m paraphrasing—“I’d rather be the guy who fails and at least gives it everything, I want to dare greatly.” Bonnie calls me 24 hours later and says, “Lets go freaking dare greatly.” And we did.

SS: During your final swim to Florida you were in the water 53 hours without sleeping or stopping. You’ve said you went through the words to John Lennon’s “Imagine” in your head 2,000 times to pass the time. What role does music, or that form of concentration, play during those swims?

DN: It’s all about concentration. Picture that you’ve got this tight cap over your head. You’re submersed in a liquid 15 degrees colder than your body temperature so you’re shivering. You’ve got fogged-over goggles on your eyes and you’re turning your head 60 times a minute. And—unlike a climber or a runner or a cyclist—you are in a state of deep sensory deprivation, so I would use songs like Neil Young’s “The Needle and the Damage Done,” sing the entire song and if I sing 1,000 versions of that song, 11 hours and seven minutes have gone by. It’s a discipline thing; it’s not so much that it’s inspiring me, but it’s engaging me.

SS: Like a mantra.

DN: Yes. People ask me do you meditate? And I say, “When you swim 53 hours breath after breath, you’re in a pretty profound meditation.”

SS: So describe that moment for us when you see the shore of Key West and know you’re going to make it.

DN: I was two hours from shore, bright blue skies, palm trees on the shore, and I asked Bonnie to bring our team around. It was an expedition of 44 people—even though it looked like there were only two arms coming up, left arm-right arm for 53 hours—that team sacrificed all the time because they wanted that history as well. So I asked Bonnie to bring the team around and I said, “I guess I’m going to stumble upon shore pretty soon and someone is going to take my picture, but never could I have made it here without you. We made history together.” I remember that, I remember the training, 14 hours one day, 16 hours the next, never sleeping in. That’s the stuff of life more than the triumph on the beach itself.

SS: When you came out as gay, there were far fewer openly gay athletes—you were one of the first. Do you think that played into being able to face this challenge?

DN: I don’t. I think I’ve grown as a person and have found a worldview of being an atheist, being a Democrat, being a pacifist, being an animal lover, being gay. I’m all those things. I never felt any big resistance—although when I was at ABC Sports I was told I might make it a little further if I showed up with a good-looking man on my arm.

SS: Wow, you were told that?

DN: Yes, but it’s not me to fake anything. But I never felt
being gay has been a big struggle.

SS: Well, your openness has helped a lot of people and that’s something to be commended for. So you have a new goal: You are going to walk across America with a million people.

DN: Bonnie and I have started a movement. We have a largely sedentary society, so before we walk across America, Bonnie and I, our goal is to get a million people up and walking. It’s called EverWalk.

SS: Just for health.

DN: Just for health and empowerment. We just walked from LA to San Diego with a bunch of people who are never going to be Iron Men, but they look back and think, “Did I really just walk 145 miles?” This coming September it will be Boston to New York City. Then, after four years of doing all these beautiful corners of America, we will do a national walk where we hope to get a million people participating. We are called EverWalk Nation so I want you to join the tribe and commit right now.

SS: I will. I can’t do one lap in a pool, but I can walk. Okay, lightning round, very short answers. Last time time you swam?

DN: Two days ago.

SS: Another athlete you admire?

DN: Kareem Abdul Jabbar—activist, humanist, has his heart in the right place, no ego. Beautiful man.

SS: Your personal motto?

DN: Find a way, no matter how many times you get knocked down find your way, you’ll get there.

SS: So you were on Dancing With the Stars—what was your favorite dance?

DN: The rhumba is one sexy way to spend an hour.

SS: Sounds good, can I do that instead of walking?

DN: No, you’re going to have to walk. Rhumba on your own time.

SS: Okay, one tip for people who want to build their resilience.

DN: Don’t let anyone else define you. Don’t let anyone else tell you your limitations—this is what your boss says, this is what your definition is as a woman, as a person of a certain age. You look in the mirror and say, “Who am I? I’m going to define myself and knock everyone else out of the way.”

This is an edited version of a Q&A Sheryl Sandberg did Diana Nyad as part of the Lean In Live series.