Diana Nyad

“My Real Value is Going Through Life Awake.”

Interviewed by Eleanor Pam, VFA President, February 2023

EP:  As everyone knows, you’ve won global recognition and acclaim through your stunning 53 hour, 110-mile swim in 2013 from Cuba to Key West, Florida, without a shark cage. This was your fifth attempt, and you did it at age 64, when most people at that age are thinking about retirement, not obsessively pursuing bold and punishing dreams. This was a feat that reflected uncommon courage, discipline, and personal power. But more on that later. I was going to ask you about early days in your family and the name Nyad that your stepfather gave you, and how that was present in relation to your later career. Do you want to address that or should we move on?

DN:  Yes, but I think the first thing I’d say is, we now know, I, and years later any public who cares, that that was my stepfather but I never knew that. I never knew that growing up. I didn’t know it as a young adult. You know, we’re all discovering that we have family secrets and things that have been kept from us, and my mother had her good reasons for getting rid of her first husband, who was named William Snead. And I used the term ‘getting rid of’ quite literally.

When he walked out the door, she had me and she had my brother, who was a little bit younger. And she said to him, “You’ve been a lousy father, you’ve been a lousy husband, and you’ve been a lousy human being. You walk out that door, I’m glad for it. But you must know that these children are never going to know about you. Diana and Bill are never going to know your name. They are not going to know that you were their birth father, and you’re a worthless human being. And I’m going to have their names legally changed as soon as I can, as soon as I remarry.”

So, she married Aristotle Nyad. My sister was born from Nyad and my mother, but my sister and I never considered ourselves stepsisters. Stepsiblings. We didn’t even know that that was the case. When I was 48 years old, Aris Nyad died, and my mother told me the truth, that there was a birth father named William Sneed. I found him. He was an antisemitic. He was a racist. And I quickly realized why my mother got rid of him. But I don’t call Aris Nyad my stepfather. Believe me, he was no prize in some ways, too. But I grew up with this father, not stepfather. Aristotle Nyad.

EP:  You experienced sexual abuse from him as a child, and also by your swimming coach, Jack Nelson, when you were in high school. As we know, being abused by powerful men often fatally fractures self-esteem and induces self-loathing. However, and here you were a pioneer again, you spoke out publicly about the sexual abuse you experienced as a young athlete and its effect on you, 40 years before it was an acceptable topic to raise. So, here are a couple of questions in relation to that. I’ll give them all to you and you can parse them out and answer as you like.

How did you use these experiences in your own life to help and inspire other victims of sexual assault, find their own agency and restore its power?

What were those occasions of public sharing like?

How did the women who heard your remarks respond to you?

How did those traumas damage you, and how did they strengthen you?

How did you self-repair if you did?

DN:  Oh boy, there’s a lot to delve into right there. We could go for hours on these topics. Let me start with the future, and that is that I would very much like to launch and perhaps curate, a registry for survivors of sexual abuse. One of the clear issues of the trauma is that people don’t speak up. They’re silenced. In my case, they’re silenced by people whom at the time, they love and respect. I had my coach on a pedestal that went up into the clouds. So, it was terribly, emotionally confusing, to be humiliated and to be denigrated by this hero of mine.

Like most of these perpetrators, when they’re in the particular category I was in, someone in your life, someone you have respected and you look to for guidance; A coach is supposed to help you mature and grow into a confident, life loving person, who’s going to go into the future and grab it by the tail instead of to demean you. And that was his particular, let’s say, talent. He was very good at demeaning and debasing his female swimmers, whom he attacked, and the way he attacked me over those years, from 14 to 17, I would love to start a registry.

By the way, what you do, with this new wave of feminists, I’m so honored to be included with this group. I’ve read a number of the people you profiled, all of whom are courageous, barrier breaking, maverick women. So, I’m honored, honestly, Eleanor, to be part of that group. I would also like to start sort of a similar tribute and place for people to finally speak, to have their words believed, to have their words heard on the written page, or in video if they’d like. So that’s a sort of a future thing.

But going back to the past, I haven’t done anything that formal. I haven’t joined an already existing group. I’ve spoken with Gloria Allred, the lawyer for many victims of sexual abuse, about this potential registry. But in the past what I’ve done, is I’ve just been outspoken. Once I got to be 21, so a few years past the abuse, I refused to be silent anymore. And it wasn’t easy in those early days. We’re talking about early 1970s. Still, I don’t even think, you could tell me perhaps, I don’t think that the term sexual abuse was already in the vocabulary. It was sexual assault, it was molestation, those sorts of words.

If I would speak, and I’ll tell you about a very particular case, I was in South Carolina giving one of the talks that I give to different corporate groups and community groups around the world. I did mention my particular case with the coach during this talk, and an elderly woman, she was in her upper 80s, as I remember, came to me afterwards. A number did, to get a photo or to tell me some of their story. And she was scared. She was trembling. And she asked if I was going to be around anymore that day, or if I was taking off. And I said, “No, I was going to be there all day and all night.”

I gave her my room number at the hotel and said she should give me a call. When she gave me a call, she came upstairs and she cried like a baby. She had had a good career. She had had a nice husband who had now passed away. She had children. But she told me that she had never, ever, ever, spoken her story to anybody. But after hearing me that day, she could see that I was powerful, strong, seemingly happy, and she felt she could trust me with it. She told me that it was her father, and it all started when she was three.

Eleanor, I could jump to the end of the earth to strangle these people who would ever touch a child that young, you know, to terrify a child that young. I was terrified already, as a strong, in shape, national caliber swimmer, I was terrified. So, to be three years old, it just makes your heart shrink. And she told me the story of the years that she went through, and she was so ashamed. It’s odd that we would feel the shame, but we do. She was silenced, as I was, and she never told her husband, who was her best friend, and he had passed away. So, she told me that day, and it just got me thinking.

If you hear my story, you have to know it’s the tip of the iceberg. This is an epidemic that happens, of course, all over the world. We’re talking about countries where women are still stoned for having sex out of marriage. Not the man. The man isn’t stoned, but the woman is. I’m not going to go on with a history or sociological chronology of women’s rights. But even in our country, where women are now presidents of universities, and astronauts, and pretty much do whatever we want to do in life. I’m sure that most who have been through sexual abuse as young people, don’t speak it out. And so, my little part has been just showing my confidence and showing that a person can wind up with a good life and a smile, even going through all that stuff.

I sort of rail against the sort of phraseology of like, “Oh, did anything positive come out of that experience?” I’ve actually had interviewers who have deigned to say the words, “Well, you must be grateful in some way, no doubt that that experience led to how tough you are, and how determined you are.” And I say, “You just stop right there. I was that person, and better, and happier, before all that crap happened to me. So, don’t ever ask me to turn around and say, wasn’t it, in the end a good thing that I went through this?”

Believe me, I would love to take a time machine and bounce back to those years and not have gone through this. I am never going to give that man credit for helping to make me any sort of strong, determined person. I was that person, and it took me years to fish around and make sure that I rediscovered that, and not just acted it out, but truly felt it down deep.

But I will share with you, here I am, 73. I don’t know what 73 is supposed to look like, or feel like, but I feel pretty terrific. I feel pretty vital. I bounce out of bed every morning. I’m in an excellent superlative state of fitness and mental acuity, et cetera. But still, after all the therapy, after all the being loved by the people I cherish in life, still Eleanor, there’s a cellular shame. There’s a cellular anger. It’s not every minute of every day, of course not. But the odd crazy moments, a moment of frustration, of dropping all the groceries and having them spill out all over the sidewalk, can just throw me into a rage. And that rage is filled with those words, those demeaning words that the coach used on me and against me, to humiliate me through that process.

I’m sure there are lots of psychologists and psychiatrists who could say, “Well, you got to keep working on it. There are different forms of therapy. There’s perhaps hypnosis.” I feel like I’ve gone to a degree of dealing with it all, and embracing the chaos of life with great joy every day, feeling that I’m privileged and I’ve led a privileged life. But I’m just saying, it’s naive for anybody to say, “Well, at one point you’ll get over it.” Just like you don’t get over any of your past history, it’s all part of the fabric of who we are. So, there is a lot going down in that big statement there. But I think that pretty well sums the whole experience up.

EP:  What were the coping mechanisms or mental tricks you used to deal with the fear and exhaustion when you were surrounded by, and this list blows me away, roiling waves, violent lightning storms, deadly box jellyfish, predator sharks, fatigue, pain, nausea, bodily injuries, asthma attacks, hallucinations, and other unpredictable, sometimes life-threatening dangers?

DN:  I think all of our endeavors in life, the phrase ‘education is power’ comes in. If you go out there and you have no earthly idea what the climactic weather changes are going to be, or you just haven’t studied and really interviewed all the top experts of the sharks in the tropics, if you don’t know that the box jellyfish has now migrated from southern oceans up into tropical waters, and it emits the most deadly poison on earth, if you’re going to be blind going up Mount Everest and have no idea what you might encounter, then you’re an idiot.

I was involved in a grueling sport and a sometimes dangerous sport, and I made sure to surround myself with the experts of the entire world of that region, and the experts of what it is to go through a bodily exertion that’s that deep, and that tiring. And then with that education, with that power, I, as one of the few people who has ever swum distances like this out in the open sea, I started to develop my own, I wouldn’t call it mental tricks, but I developed my own sort of set of standards as to how to get through that morass of obstacles.

Now, other swimmers turn to me, and turn to my story. So that when they go out, whether it be in the Sea of Japan, or to try the Cuba swim, as I did, they have their own knowledge, bringing themselves their own power. So, I don’t think I’d go so minimal as to call it mental tricks. I’d call it intelligent research, so that you know what the heck you’re going to be up against, and then you physically, mentally, and even in kind of a group dynamic, develop all the systems that are going to help you possibly get across.

EP:  I was thinking of your singing and your counting.

DN:  That’s different. Particularly if you address the sensory deprivation. Because you have to picture in all the extreme adventurers and athletes and their endeavors around the world, and I respect all of them, if you tell me you have snowshoed across the Antarctic continent, if you have climbed Annapurna or K2 or Everest, if you’ve ridden the Alps on your bicycle, I bow down and I respect you. And all of those different endeavors have different eccentric obstacles that come your way.

So, I’m not dealing with oxygen deprivation as you are on the top of Everest. They have to deal with that, and then most of them deal with it by sucking on bottled oxygen. But the people who don’t, who decide to do it the pure way without bottled oxygen, now they’re dealing with headaches and inability to focus anymore, clearly shortness of breath. So, they’ve got to develop their mental tricks to help them to take another step, and another step. But for me, and the few who have swum for that long, you imagine you’ve got fogged over goggles, you’ve got a tight cap over your ears, you’re turning your head 53 times a minute to take a breath. So you are seeing very little and you’re hearing very little.

If you and I were to sit right here where we are, you in Florida, me in California for 53 hours. And let’s say we’ve got a little food, we’ve got water, we have our sustenance, but we’re not going to go to sleep and we’re not going to watch television. We’re just going to sit here. All your vision is going to allow you, is the room you’re sitting in. You can’t talk on the phone. You’re just going to sit there for 53 hours. Trust me, very quickly you are going to go into, first of all, just a lot of thinking, and then you’re going to go farther to fantasies, and then you’re going to go farther to actual hallucinations.

So, picture swimming in an open sea. It’s not calm, like a nice freshwater lake, it is a roiling ocean out there, even on the calm days. Picture the energy and the calories you’re putting out per hour. You cannot possibly keep up with that output, with what you’re trying to take in. You’re never allowed to touch the boat, but you can take a camelback hose and take down electrolyte fluids. You can stop and take a sandwich of banana and ginseng, but you’re treading water and then you’re boom, you’re getting back to swimming right away. You are very quickly, forget about 53 hours, in 6, 7, 8 hours, you are in the interior of your mind.

And so, I started to come up with songs and counting, logarithms to get through. You’ve got this mechanized kind of stroke that’s like a metronome after a while. Bonnie, my head trainer, Bonnie Stole, just for fun, she would stop me every now and then when we’d do training swims, and she’d look at her watch and say, “Diana, how long we’ve been going since the start?” And I say, “8 hours and 14 minutes. Not 8 hours and 15 minutes. But I’ve been counting a series of songs that I know take a very specific amount of time and she would say, “Oh my goodness, it’s 8 hours and 14 minutes to the second.” So those songs, and now you’re right, those are mental tricks. I think most endurance athletes do that.

They count and they sing and they get through the time. They count the time, and they pass the time with those songs.

All my songs were of my generation. It was Elton John and Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin. And sometimes, when your mind really gets foggy and you can’t quite grasp onto the memory of complicated Bob Dylan lyrics, I would go to silly little children’s songs. I mean the Itsy-Bitsy Spider, my mother used to sing me Alouette. She’s a French woman, so I’d be out there singing, “Alouette, gentile alouette. Alouette, je te plumeria.” And that song means ‘I’ll pluck.’

So that song goes Alouette, then the next verse is, I’ll pluck the hair, then I’ll pluck the nose, then I’ll pluck the shoulders, and you go through the whole body, and that could get me through a couple of hours, that singing. It was very helpful, and I still use that. I do pretty intense workouts these days, and I still do the singing and the counting to get through them.

EP:  So, the next question is kind of a segue to that. My sense of view is that the strength of your will and body, are not coequal partners. That your will is the stronger of the two, especially when an extremist. Even when your body starts to fail, your will often appears intact and willing to fight on. Do you agree with that?

DN:  It’s a question up to debate. And again, with all these different endurance athletes, number one, you couldn’t do it if it was just your will out there. If I hadn’t swum those hundreds of hours, and the shoulders were ready to withstand the arm coming over hundreds of thousands of times, if you count the training as well as the actual attempts on the Cuba swim, plus the other swims I had done around the world; the body has to be in fine superlative form to get through it.

I kind of buck up against the idea that talented athletes are the ones who do short distances. You’re born with the ability to run the 100-meter dash or to play tennis the way Rafael Nadal does, or Serena Williams did. Well, first of all, they put in huge amounts of training, and they have will. We’ll never know how many other athletes, tennis players who were out there, who might have played as strong as Serena did, but didn’t have the will, didn’t have the desire that she did. So, it’s like a fine line that you cross over both ways.

I was tested by many different physiologists and found that my vo2 max, that’s a measurement of the ability to use oxygen. My pulse, when I was in my 20s, my pulse was in the 20s. I had a pulse rate of 28, 29, a resting pulse, and that wasn’t just from training. I actually have some genetic traits that make it much easier for me to be able to swim a distance like this. So, there’s a lot of body, and there’s a lot of physical to it.

And then, when you’re at the brink, when you’ve given everything and you’re wearing down, when there’s very little glycogen left in the bloodstream to rely on, now is when the will, now is when you get through and you take all that training and all that genetic superiority, and you bring it up even another level. So, they’re quite equal the physical and the mental. But I think you’re right when you say if one supersedes the other, then it’s the will that’s really going to get you to the other shore.

EP:  Aside from smashing records, Diana, you wrote four books, including an autobiography, Find a Way, which I read by the way, often with my heart palpitating, which I very much enjoyed.

DN:  Thank you.

EP:  Now, here are some of the things I learned about. During your lifetime, you’ve also published many articles, given multiple speeches and motivational talks. You speak several languages fluently. I believe they are French, German, Spanish and English. Is there anything I left out?

DN:  I would pull back on the German. I speak a pretty good German, a pretty passable German, but I wouldn’t call myself fully fluent, whereas I would in French and Spanish.

EP:  Okay. You’ve been a regular contributor in the print and electronic media, the subject of documentary films, performed and written a solo show in Los Angeles, become a successful sports personality and public commentator on many issues, appeared in a music video, been featured and interviewed on multiple TV shows, and even competed as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars.

DN:  Thank you for that long bio, but the only thing I would correct is that the solo show in LA. was just sort of a build-up of rehearsals to my appearing off Broadway at the Minetta Lane Theatre in the fall of 2019. That was a lifelong dream for me to be close to Broadway, off Broadway, and so the Los Angeles thing wasn’t so important, but being off Broadway, it was very important and near and dear to me.

EP:  Well, now you’re in Hollywood because I understand a movie is shortly to be released about you starring Annette Benning and Jodie Foster. So, you are an eclectic and renaissance woman for sure, Diana, and you have had enough in your life to fill at least ten other lifetimes. Given all these achievements, how would you best like to be remembered?

DN:  I would love for my two dearest friends, for 45 years now, Bonnie Stole and Candice Lyle Hogan, to stand at my cremation and say, “You have no idea what a friend is, until you’ve been a friend of Diana’s.” I value the energy, the care that the three of us, and it’s really me with Bonnie, and me with Candice, have given each other. I’m never going to belittle the closeness I have with my sister and with my nephew, my two family members.

We have a very small family, but it’s these two people. It wasn’t blood, it was friendship that really has touched me and made me want commit to Bonnie and to Candace. There’s never been a depressive day, or a dog that’s died, or a doctor’s appointment that needs tending to, or an emotional trauma that has to be gone through, that Bonnie and I have not done together, and Candace and I have not done together. So above all, and it’s really not the achievements, honestly, even beyond the friendships, that’s how I’d like to be remembered. But my real value in life, is going through life awake. Awake and alert and alive, every waking moment.

It doesn’t have to do with achievement. It has to do with gratitude. I could take my dog to the beach at dawn and take in the horizon out there, and think of Stephen Hawking and the majesty of the universe and the fact that we don’t know if there was ever a beginning to the universe. Probably not. It probably extends onto infinity, and it has always been and will always be. And these are difficult concepts. But I would take my dog to the beach at sunrise and qualify that as just as important as finishing the children’s book.

I’m working on my first children’s book right now, so it’s not always about, “Oh, let me get into a Hall of Fame and let me break a world record and let me be the best possible.” Yes, I have that side to me. We’re all multifaceted, so I have that side to me. But deeper, and what I am, and I value more, is that I go to bed every night and I say, “I was fully awake from the moment my eyes opened this morning until now, many hours later. I was taking it all in. I was being the best I could be. I was noticing everything around me. I was fully awake.” So that’s my value more than achieving.

EP:  There’s a question that’s coming down shortly involving that, but let me ask, what impact do you think that your sexual orientation and gender has had on your life and career?

DN:  Well, those are two different animals, aren’t they? Your gender and your sexual orientation? I, as a younger person especially, and you can probably understand why, people who go through sexual abuse when they’re young, wind up going in all different kinds of directions psychologically and even in their life habits. But for me, I was very angry about being female when I was a kid. It turns out I’m not transgender. And maybe if today’s world were happening when I was younger, I would have thought to maybe, not truly go all the way transgender, but be able to dress as a boy and act as a boy and change my name to a boy’s name. I don’t know, I wasn’t in that era. But I was very angry about being a girl.

When I saw the way my mother was treated, hit across the face by my father and having no way to fight back. I was angry to see the way girls and women were treated. Just go along to the kitchen while the boys play chess and do important things and discuss the world. I had to see a shrink when I was 17 years old, and the first thing he said to me was, “Well, you’re thinking about being a doctor. You’re an athlete. You want to drive a sports car. Why are you trying to be a boy?” As if those are boy activities?

So, I’ve always been just up against being what the definition of female has been through the years that I was growing up. The 50s, the 60s. Now, I don’t give that much thought. I am who I am. I walk into any meeting, I dress the way I want, I speak the way I want, and I don’t sort of notice. I don’t present myself as a gender, as female or male. I’m just fit and strong and energetic. And if some people see me as female, then that’s their thing. But I don’t think of myself as, “Oh, I’m going out into the world and I’m female.”

Now, sexual preference is a whole different issue, and I wished I had known earlier. As far as I know, the parents I speak to of gay children, and now that binary is really just exploding all over the universe, into ‘they’, I have a real problem with ‘they.’ I have a godchild who’s now calling herself, and I shouldn’t say herself, it’s ‘they’. I just have a grammar problem with ‘they’ and my Goddaughter says, “Well, you know what, Diana? Get over your grammar problem, because this isn’t about grammar. It’s about identification and personal choices.” And so I say, “Fair enough. You are they. So, would you/they like to come over for dinner?” So, we’re exploding away from the binary universe.

I know that in my living in a former era, I only wish as an elementary school kid, a junior high school kid, I knew that there was such a thing as girls being together and boys being together and making choices. Because I didn’t want to date, I didn’t want to kiss boys. I had no curiosity about their body parts. I had none of that. And I really don’t think that was associated with the sexual abuse. It was exacerbated later on, but I think it was just me early on.

I think I was a tomboy and wanted to be more of a boy than a girl, because girls were treated more poorly, and girls didn’t have as many choices. Girls couldn’t be anything they wanted. Boys said, “You go out and just be what you want in the world, and girls, you’re going to do what we want you to do.” So, I think my sexuality was delayed partly because of the era I grew up in.

EP:  You remind me a little of Amelia Earhart. You both share that beautiful androgyny. One is, in my mind, the goddess of the air, and the other, you, the goddess of the sea.

DN:  I’ll tell you, anybody who would mention my name in the same breath with Amelia Earhart, I’ll take it.

EP:  I’m not pandering. I really felt that.

DN:  Thank you.

EP:  Maslow said, that there’s a ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ and that at the top is self-actualization. You actually talked about that. He defines that as the complete realization of one’s potential. Does the Cuba to Florida swim complete the circle of your own journey towards self-actualization? And does that achievement reinforce your phenomenological self-image as a bold, engaged, persistent person, who never gives up? I know that’s a mouthful.

DN:  No, it’s well put, though. But, you know, it’s a quandary. The world of sports, because how is Serena Williams, look, she’s got one child, and I don’t know for sure, but I bet you anything she has another child or two. How could you say that her tennis career would be more important than raising a child? But the truth is, I am quite sure that Serena Williams will never know drama. She’ll never know high actualization drama, like she knew on center court at the US open, at night, in front of thousands of people and millions of others watching and cheering for her, and seeing the best who ever played the game on the women’s side.

I don’t know. And it’s a quandary for me, if I’m ever going to feel the high that I felt stumbling up onto that beach in Key West after having that dream in the back of my mind since I was nine years old. After chasing that dream for 35 years, from the age of 28 up to when I did it at the age of 64. But does that mean that that completes my self-actualization? I hope that I’m sitting here today saying, “Even though my life doesn’t seem as dramatic and as charged as training 14 hours a day and facing oceanic white tip sharks swimming across the surface of the ocean, I hope, that my life is still as rich, and that I’m still always seeking my potential.”

As a writer, as a friend, as a person who can sort of think about what this life is, and what this planet is, I hope that I’m still evolving. And I would hope, Eleanor, that if you and I sat down to talk ten years from now, I could say to you, “Oh, Eleanor, remember that day when we talked and I was 73 and I was saying, oh, I’m at the pinnacle of my self-actualization now. How silly of me to think that.” Because hopefully for me, until the day I take my last breath, I am going to be continuing to actualize and to seek my potential, because it’s become broader, that term potential. It’s not just the potential of an athlete. That’s minor compared to the potential of a human soul.

EP:  Yes, I agree. Okay, since this is a Veteran Feminist of America interview, we’d be remiss if we didn’t get to a couple of topics on feminism. So, your great grand aunt, Laura Curtis Bullard was a women’s rights activist. I’m going to leave out your great grandmother and Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, but we’ll talk about your great grand aunt. So, you appear to have some feminism in your DNA, at least in your genealogy. Can you recall your first, “Aha” moment of insight, when you recognized a gender injustice or act of gender inequality?

DN:  Well, it’s easy for me because I was living in this home. I was living in a home where there was a father who was, it’s a crazy dichotomy, but he was Aris Nyad, a charmer. He spoke 17 languages, he was a dancer, he was a card player, he was a storyteller. Everyone who met him would say to me, especially later would say to me, “Oh, your father is the most charismatic person I’ve ever met in my life.” And he was all that. And I think that it’s something about the young me, I had some of those talents. Of the storytelling and being charismatic with people, and being curious about people, enjoying other people and wanting to them to come out and tell their stories and be their full selves.

My father was all that, and he was an unevolved liar, thief and womanizer. He was a tyrant in our home. We were all very afraid of him. I used to go and lock my door and hope that I could get down the hall without him seeing me if he was reading in the den. So here I had this male figure whom, yes, he was fun, he was a sexy guy around other people. But for me, as a little kid, as a child, he was terrifying. When he’d go away on business trips, and when I say business trips, he was out to scam people on more money. We never knew what he did. There was never a definition of what he did for a living. He played cards and he gambled. And he’d win some money and we’d get a new house, and then he lost some money and we’d get out of that house. So, we were always insecure.

We were always, and children know when they’re being lied to, we were always being lied to and conned, because he was a professional con and he conned right in his own family. Conned my mother. It took her a long time to figure out that he was a sexy, fun guy, but not a good guy. And she should move on if she wanted to protect her own life and her children. But I got the word right away, as I watched him and ran down the hall to get away from him, that men, it’s unfortunate because there are a lot of good men in this world and I know a lot of them, I have a lot of good men and friends. But it took me a long time, I’d say into my thirties to believe that was true.

And then, of course, the coach in high school just reinforced all that. That was the person I trusted more. The father, at least I knew was a con artist. So, it almost didn’t surprise me about his egregiously, immoral behavior toward me, and toward my mother, and in life in general. So, I got this distinct impression, and let’s just make it up, age three. Very young. That men were evil and they were out to hurt you and belittle you, and it took me a long time to believe that there are good men in the world.

So that was my first sort of feminist reaction. I remember a particular time, I was reading, I was a big reader. I can’t remember the ages, but I would just say I was 8 or 9 years old, and he patted me on the fanny and said, “You know, it’s useless for you to be sitting here reading. You’re wasting your time. This isn’t what you’re going to be doing in life, reading and thinking. You run along and help in the kitchen.” And my brother got to stay there, play chess with my father, read further, it was just that the line Eleanor, for me was distinctly drawn. You’re female, you’re useless. You’re there to service males in this world. So, I was filled with feminist anger as a little kid.

EP:  Thank you for that answer. From early on in your life, you challenged yourself to achieve things that few women ever achieve, and you have continuously transcended gender norms that typically do not associate women with power, strength, and speed. It seems as though your life is feminism, rather than necessarily identifying as a feminist. Can you talk about that a bit and perhaps share your view of feminism with me?

DN:  I have to agree that I’m certainly not a tried-and-true feminist in terms of a background of academia, or really diving in and belonging to the feminist majority or other powerful feminist groups. My friend Candace is. She’s been immersed in that whole world. But I would say, that in an organic, living-out-loud way, I’ve always been a feminist. I worked for ABC sports during the heyday of ABC sports, for ten years, and that was a boy’s club.

I’m not saying there weren’t some very nice gentlemen who worked for ABC sports when I did, but the collective, there was really a boy’s club that didn’t allow for women to speak at meetings, speak up about the injustice of covering women’s sports in a belittling sort of way compared to men’s sports, et cetera. But I myself, if I walked into a meeting, even with Roone Arledge, the president of ABC sports and news, I never walked in with an aura of, “Oh, I’m the woman. I’m the lowly level person in the room.” I was an announcer, which makes you already a high-level kind of a star among everybody.

I walked in not feeling my gender. I didn’t walk in dressing in some way that said, “I’m going to be the woman of the group.” I walked in with my good brain, and my imagination, and my creative skills as an announcer and a storyteller, and they respected me. They weren’t going to act funny around me, that’s for sure.

But I heard tell of a lot of other women who worked at different levels of ABC sports who were treated miserably. A lot of them filed lawsuits, et cetera. I like to say that I just always refused to not only let that happen, I refused to even recognize that it would possibly be a possibility.

So, I think you put it very well. I am a true live-out-loud feminist in every sense of the word, but I haven’t been in the politics. I haven’t been immersed in the academia or the politics of feminism as I’ve gone along, and maybe that’s been my loss.

EP:  No, actually, you’ve done fine. You’ve represented women very well, more than very well. And you’re a model, frankly. When you came to New York city in the early 1970s, Diana, were you aware of the second wave feminist movement that was taking place, and did you know any feminist?

DN:  You know, again, I think it was more for me, an organic thing. I had read Betty Friedan. I had read some of the feminists, but that wasn’t the biggest, you know, sort of lineup of books on my bookshelf at the time. So, I would say that I wasn’t educated. It’s just that I was drawn toward, and again, use the organic, I was drawn toward feminists. I was drawn toward women who wouldn’t take any guff from men. Who knew that they were as smart and as creative and as talented as the men they were working with, and refused to think of themselves as anything less.

So, they may have lost jobs, they may not have had the opportunities because they refused to bow down and succumb, but I think I was living a feminist life, surrounded by friends and colleagues who were feminists, but I’d say I wasn’t in that formal feminist milieu.

EP:  You do something important. You inspire future generations, and that’s one of the highest callings of feminism by the way, and one of our missions at VFA.

DN:  I know that you’re supposed to ask the questions, but I have a question on the timeline. I have heard many young women these days. I just recently heard a Harvard graduate, so, we consider one of the cream of the crop of educated young women in the country, and I heard her on an MSNBC program saying, “Well, I’m not a feminist.”

So, there’s a younger generation, who has somehow mistaken and retranslated that word of feminists, which as far as I know, and you tell me, you educate me, was always about, ‘we need to be treated respectfully and equally with men.’ It’s not that we want to throw men out the window and get them all locked up. We just want to be equal, and get everything we should get, and seek our potential just like they do. But why is there this younger generation who has now, as I say, misinterpreted the word feminist as something man hating, which it never was?

EP:  It always was. It was always that way. We were called every name in the book, including man hater, freaks. Feminism, for us, when we first began in the era of early pioneer, modern feminism was about choice and equality. Very simple. It was a very simple thing. But we were insulted daily by men and women. The women primarily because they wanted to curry favor with their male friends, and lovers and husbands and brothers and so on, and bosses. Maybe they internalized it, and believed it, but that’s never gone away.

DN:  Wait, you’re talking about something different. You’re talking about how feminists have been treated and seen. What you’re saying, always had a negative response and connotation. I’m talking about identifying as feminists. So, the feminists of your generation should be no different than a Harvard graduate of 2022 in saying, “Of course I’m a feminist.” Which means I believe in equal pay for equal work. I believe in equal rights and seeking our potential. So why would a young woman say, “You know, I don’t want to be a feminist.” I’m not a feminist, even though I’m a Harvard graduate and I’m probably going to be president of the United States one day. Why would that be offensive to her?

EP:  We’ve been very aware of 3rd, 4th, 5th wave feminism, and how difficult it is to get the generations to be on board with a very simple concept, that they actually believe in themselves, even though they don’t like the label. That they really are all beneficiaries of the work that we did. And they just don’t know it. They just don’t have an organized, formal way of processing that, and calling it by its rightful name. That doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen to them, and that they don’t live as feminists. But that label has always been problematic for us.

DN:  Okay.

EP:  I’m glad you asked the question. Please jump in and feel free.

DN:  Thank you.

EP:  I’m going to get to this other subject that we kind of touched on. How do you feel about the current controversies around trans females? Competing in women’s sports is a hot issue these days.

DN:  The reason it’s a hot issue is there are two things going on. One, is we have very quickly come into a world of inclusion, which is a wonderful place to be. I mentioned before, we’re no longer the binary. I mean, how long has it been since humankind evolved on the Earth? You could be a good artist and you could be a good athlete, but really what humankind is, is male or female. It’s always been that binary. And we are mushrooming out of that. I did some research on this. There are evidently 66 different ways to define gender because of different hormonal issues and different genetic chromosome issues, all kinds of combinations.

So, we are beginning to accept; he identifies as she, and they identify as they, et cetera, and transgenders come into this new world. I agree, that it’s time for us to open up and not have any bigotry about this and say, whatever you, you individual, whatever you want to identify as, in terms of gender, it’s up to you. And you should get to study and earn money and pray and raise children and have opinions and make your way in the workplace as much as anyone else, by virtue of your abilities and your desire and your hard work.

But the only place that that doesn’t work is in women’s sports. I have friends who don’t come from the world of sports, and they say, “Diana, this is not the time to make this argument.” This is not the time to support women athletes. They’re such a minority compared to the world that is opening up and becoming bigger than binary. And so, I say, but how can I stand by and let a woman who it could be her entire sense of identity, a woman who may not have been good at academics, or may have been sexually abused, and she’s turned to sports, and she’s good at it. She’s the one who comes down the track straight away feeling like, this is the place that I’m alive. This is the place where I’m respected most. And all of a sudden, you’re running next to a transgender male who has now become female.

Even if all the hormonal profile has changed, if that person has been on estrogen for a long time and meets the standards of what defines a female in the world of sports, that’s estrogen. But we all know that there are what they call legacy traits. Going through puberty as a male gives you not only, usually bigger hands, wider shoulders, narrower hips, bigger feet, a number of different skeletal obvious things, it also gives you an ability to process red blood cells and use them for oxygen more. We could go down a long list of legacy traits, that even switching from testosterone profile to estrogen profile, make you still male.

Even Caitlyn Jenner, who is exactly my age, and we’ve known each other, he was Bruce Jenner, this famous athlete, worldwide, cover of the Wheaties box. He was always male. He’s a very talented athlete. Even now, by my age at 73, he is, she is, Caitlyn Jenner, she will say, look, I’m really a fan of golf now. I play in tournaments. I live for golf. That’s my thing. But I would never enter a women’s golf tournament. It’s not fair. I know that even though I’ve been on estrogen for years now, and I dress like a woman, I feel like a woman. I live my life as a woman. I’m still a male athlete in many ways. So, it’s not fair for me to stand up at the tee and tee off in a women’s golf tournament. I’m going to have a number of legacy traits that are going to make me superior in that field of women golfers.

So, the woman from University of Pennsylvania this year who competed as a transgender athlete and crashed all the records, I wish her well, as do her female teammates, by the way. In every aspect of life, I want her, Leah, to become anything she wants in this world. But I don’t like her competing against the other University of Pennsylvania and national caliber athletes. That one woman who was the best on the team before Leah came to compete, will now not be able, let’s just make it up, at the age of 50 when she’s introduced to get a great award for JP Morgan.

JP Morgan can’t say, and do you know that Leah was four times at the University of Pennsylvania every year? She was the best in the country. She set the national records. No, because she can’t say that anymore. She was the best for three years, but once she had a transgender superior athlete competing against her, she lost. She couldn’t be the best anymore.

So, there’s no good answer to it at this moment, until we get a huge population of transgender athletes and that will come. Then we will have the Transgender Olympics, and I’ll go to them gladly, and I’ll root for any good athlete who’s the best in that field. But I just don’t think transgender girls who came from women, who came from going through puberty as a male, and I’m not the only one who feels this way, a lot of scientists and people who have really done the deep-down physical research about it agree. I’ve written my opinions in The Washington Post op ed pages and other places, and it’s not popular, but almost on every paragraph, I sort of give a disclaimer and say, “Don’t tell me that I don’t believe this human being deserves to live a full life. I’m just saying not in the world of women’s sports.”

EP:  It’s personal for me because I worked on title IX. I see this directly as an erosion of women’s rights and women’s opportunities. And I agree with you. I think ultimately, we need a third category in competition. You’ve recently made it your mission to lead the way for aging women, as you yourself are increasingly aware of the passage of time. Can you share your thoughts on the experience of being an older woman and how that impacts your life? And you could also tell us a little bit about your latest project, EverWalk.

DN:  I don’t know. First of all, I’m not an age denier. I just don’t worry when I walk out the door that I’m 73. It’s not like a conscious thing, “Oh, how do I look?” Is my body fat percentage a bit more than it used to be? Of course it is, as we get older. Is gravity affecting my skin? Is my skin aging? Of course it is. All that stuff is happening, but what am I going to do about it? Every second I would spend worrying about looking old, so we’re just on the cosmetics now, I’ve just wasted a valuable second of my life that I could have been living life instead of worrying about all that stuff. I just don’t worry about it. I don’t pay attention to it.

I want to know how I feel. All my life, since the age of five, I’ve been in, forget about swimming even, I’ve been in a mode of ultimate physical conditioning. I’m just fit. I’m fit as a fiddle every day. And so, I feel great. I bound out of bed in the morning. I’ve got vitality, I’ve got flexibility, I have strength, I have endurance. And that helps not only with my outlook on life and my energy throughout life, but it helps with my intellectual acuity, it helps with my emotional stability.

And so, one day will come. I’ll call you Eleanor, one day, and I might be 79, I might be 92, and I might say, “Eleanor, today is the day I slowed down. Age is ravaging me, Eleanor. I don’t know what I’m going to do.” But I’m not there yet. I don’t pretend that I’ll never get there, I will. We all do. The cells begin to disintegrate. Either your heart goes, or your mind goes, or your bones go. Something’s going to go. But at age 73, and I think some of it’s genetics, and some of it is that I take very, very good care of myself. I’m just not an agist.

EP:  Okay, that’s a great answer. You once wrote that the pride of not giving up, is fuel for your life out of water.

DN:  Yes. You know, I was again giving a speech. It wasn’t that recently, it was probably three years ago. A woman stood up when they did the Q and A session, and she said, “Well, you know how it is at our age”, meaning she was something like my age. And she said, “You know, you’re really stiff and sore every morning.” And I said, “Woah, woah, woah, I don’t know who you’re talking about. Why don’t you just say, I get up every day. I get up every day, and I’m stiff and I’m sore, and I don’t like it. But don’t tell me this sort of limitation and this sort of grouping us all together, that all of us of a certain age are stiff and sore in the morning. You can do something about that, so don’t lump me in with you.”

The other thing I was going to say was, you asked about EverWalk. I never thought, I always poo pooed walking. I’d have to be 95 to start being a walker but I’ve changed my mind. When I got done with the swim, Bonnie, my buddy and I, got together and we said, “You know what?” We had this feeling of swimming across the curvature of the earth. We had this feeling of traveling on our own steam. I mean, I was doing the steaming, but she was there and the team was there. We were traveling together and looking up at the blue sky and imagining just who we could be and what we could do, and feeling the health that comes, and the joy that comes with movement. How could we inspire other people to feel what we felt out there?

Well, very few are going to be ocean swimmers. Cycling gets to be dangerous, et cetera, running starts debilitating your knees, and we said, “Walking.” We called our movement EverWalk, because it has that word, ever. Meaning everybody, every day, forever. And so, we are now walkers. I do a lot of other things. I’m a big, passionate tennis player now. I play every day if I’m not working, 4 to 5 hours a day. But I walk every day, whether it’s walking the dog or walking with Bonnie or walking with a group of EverWalkers. And our whole raison d’etre, is to make walking a regular part of our lives.

The homosapien has been an extraordinary walker. I mean, we walked out of Africa. We discovered Europe and Asia by walking. And we, with technology of course, are now sitting in front of screens. There are doctors at the Mayo Clinic who use the phrase ‘sitting is the new smoking.’ And so, sitting, we sit in front of this screen, and then at night we sit in front of the television screen, and Bonnie and I just feel that walking is the answer. It’s the answer to getting your endorphins going a little bit, to appreciating your community.

During COVID it was all the exercise anybody could do. You’d get out and you’d discover, “Hey, wait a second, that woman is walking a dog on my street. I’ve never seen her before.” We got to know each other. You notice the trees. You notice a little lending library in a neighbor’s tree that you’ve never seen before, because you drove by. Now you’re walking by. And I do think that it’s a true meditation. I like walking with other people, and EverWalk creates a community, but I like going out for a walk on my own, just as Virginia Wolf did. I go out, and I come back having settled a few things, and I used to feel that same way swimming.

EP:  Finally, and I’m afraid to ask, are you at last quiescent and peaceful, or are there new worlds to conquer other than walking across America with a million women?

DN:  I just don’t think Eleanor, anybody who ever knows me would call me acquiescent and peaceful. I admire, and I try to surround myself with people who are just easy going. I’m what you might call sleepless, restless. I don’t use the word blessed, because I’m an atheist, but I was born, I think, with a natural high level of energy. I don’t have to work at it. It’s just my mind and my body are always in a state of, let’s do more, let’s go more, there’s nothing you can’t do.

And so, I’m writing my first children’s book. I’d like to start this registry for survivors of sexual abuse. I am working in several different areas so when the film comes out in the fall, and this might be too narrow a subject for what you post on your site, but that movie, and how more honored could I be to have the inimitable Annette Benning playing me? But when that movie comes out, if there’s a little spark, a little light that is shown on my story, of my life again, as it was ten years ago with the swim, I want to be ready with these projects I’m developing so that they get a boost for them. So acquiescent and peaceful, I’m afraid I aspire to, but I’m not there.

EP:  I would call you homeric, rabelaisian and amazing.

DN:  Thank you. Those are big words. Thank you very much.

EP:  You’re a big personality and a big human being, larger than life, for sure. So, unless you have questions, I’ll say on behalf of VFA and Pioneer Histories Project, we thank you for speaking with us today. It’s been really terrific. Wow.

DN:  I’ve enjoyed speaking with you also. I tell you the truth. I try to be polite. Any interview I agree to do, I’m the one who agreed, so I try to go long, but I sometimes butt up against people. The question I really just have to pass over, or be rude about when someone insists on it is, and it was the old Barbara Walters question. So, with all due respect to Barbara, who just passed, she asked everybody she interviewed, “What would you tell, now that you know what you know, what would you tell your 20-year-old self?”

And I always say, “What do you mean, if I could time travel and I could be 20 again?” Because it’s all life. It’s where that French expression goes, ‘If the young only knew; if the old only could.’ And so, yes, I know a lot more now. I wish I knew. I wish I had been this mature and had this much perspective when I was 20 years old. Of course I do. But I can’t go back and tell that 20-year-old. She had to live her way through this evolution. And as I said to you before, ten years from now, I would say to you, “Did I really say that when I was 73?” If only I knew everything I know now.” I would say then, “What an idiot to say that, because I knew nothing.” So, I continue to know nothing, and try every day to know a little bit more.