At 5 years old, Diana Nyad’s fate was sealed.
That’s when her Greek-Egyptian father, speaking in his thick accent, called her over and looked up her last name in the dictionary.
She still remembers her father telling her the word means “girl or woman champion swimmer.”
“He said, ‘Darling, this is your destiny,’” Nyad told an audience of 400 women Thursday at The Women’s Connection’s first — and sold-out — Quad-Cities Women’s Leadership Conference at the Quad-Cities Waterfront Convention Center in Bettendorf.
The 63-year-old author, journalist and world-famous distance swimmer — who made her third attempt in August to swim 103 miles between Florida and Cuba — said this is what she learned from her father that day: “Darling, you are important. You are powerful.”
Urging her audience to live with passion and intention, Nyad said the journey is important, “but damn it, I want to get to the destination, too,” telling them she planned to fly Thursday night from the Quad-Cities straight to Key West, Fla., to see if the weather will cooperate in the next few weeks to try swimming that distance again.
“It’s a wonderful high to be committed to something,” she said.
Nyad was the keynote speaker at the conference, which also featured Glenda Hatchett, Georgia’s first African-American chief presiding judge, and retired Army Brig. Gen. Becky Halstead, the first woman in U.S. history to command in combat at the strategic level.
“I thought it was very well worth the time,” conference-goer Susan Zude, vice president and managing director of the wealth management division at U.S. Bank in downtown Davenport, said of the conference. “It was very inspirational.”
Nyad has broken many world records in swimming, including circling Manhattan Island and swimming 102.5 miles from the Bahamas to Florida. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1986 and the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 2003.
She has worked for National Public Radio, ABC’s Wide World of Sports, FOX Sports and the New York Times, and co-owns a fitness business.
But she stopped swimming between the ages of 30 and 60, when she decided to tackle the unfinished Cuba-to-Florida swim again.
After training for three years, Nyad received international attention this summer, lasting 51 hours in the frigid water, dealing with terrible storms, large sharks and jellyfish poisoning that left her too weak to finish the swim, she told the audience.
“We got to Key West on a boat again, instead of swimming in, and I guess, in real strict athletic terms, it wasn’t a success,” she said, pausing with tears in her eyes. “And then, I have to look at, how did I spend these last three years? What sort of effort, what sort of courage did we summon to shoot for the stars? I do believe, our team, we saw and touched a little bit of heaven in those three years of trying.”
Nyad said she hasn’t always reached her goals. She never got to compete in the Olympic Games, she said, but she remembers some of the best advice she ever received came just before she jumped into the pool to compete for the chance.
It came from a 16-year-old girl, who coached her to focus on the moment and do it the best you possibly can. The teen told Nyad to swim as fast and as hard as she could, without paying attention to any of her competitors.
The girl also told her that when she touched the wall at the end, she should close her eyes, pump her fists and believe in her heart, “I couldn’t have done it a fingernail faster.”
That thought continues to drive Nyad, who said she is working with a man who has developed a silicone mask for her to wear on her face and lips to protect her from jellyfish stings in the future. She hopes that will help her keep up her strength to finish the swim this time, she said.
“I want to get to that last day, whenever it is, and be able to close my eyes and close my fists and say, ‘I didn’t win at everything I tried, and I didn’t get to help all the people I would have liked to help,’” she said, “but life’s short, it goes by like a rocket ship, and I couldn’t have done it even a fingernail better.”