62 and Life to Go

Why the 62-year-old marathon swimmer Diana Niyad can’t stay out of the water. Despite the jellyfish.

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  1. Today Diana Nyad is swimming for four hours. She does this four days a week in the 50-meter pool at the Rose Bowl Aquatic Center, in Pasadena, Calif. Her stroke is rhythmic, high in the water. It’s hard to judge how old she is by looking at her. Her back is well muscled. Her legs are girlish—shapely and short. Her skin is as weathered as a crocodile handbag. Her arms are covered with jellyfish scars. When Nyad swims in a pool, she counts in her head, ticking off laps, first in English, then in German, then in Spanish, then in French. (Nyad is fluent in all but German.) The goal is to focus her mind on repetitive thought, as a yogi does with a mantra. But when Nyad swims in the ocean for a long time—8 or 10 or 12 or even 24 hours—she doesn’t just count, she sings. She’ll do “It Ain’t Me, Babe” 10 times, interspersed with the quatralingual counting, then sing “Paperback Writer,” 10 times, followed by quatralingual counting again. Nyad keeps in her head a playlist of 65 songs. Some are for daytime swimming; others for nighttime. Nyad knows each one intimately, how many seconds each takes, how many strokes. “When I complete 2,000 ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’s, Bob Dylan version, I know I’ve gone 4 hours and 45 minutes exactly,” Nyad says. “I never lose track.”

    Nyad doesn’t swim fast—just over two miles an hour—but she swims steadily, rocking hard to each side to ease the strain she feels in her shoulders, slipping her lead arm into the water at a shallow angle to save what’s left of her...