Long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad is determined to halt the obesity epidemic in America.
To do so, she’s taking to the land, seemingly disproving the notion that professional swimmers are less than spectacular when out of the water. Nyad and her best friend Bonnie Stoll plan a walk across America in 2016. Nyad hopes to lure a million Americans to join her team at points along the way as they stroll from the Pacific to the Atlantic. First Lady Michelle Obama will walk the last five miles with the group, Nyad said.
Nyad’s purpose is to spark a national dialogue about the obesity problem. Hopefully, “America becomes a nation of walkers … and gets keyed into obesity and all the diseases that come with it,” she said. “Start working it as a real social movement in this country and bring all those numbers down.”
Tall order. But she’s used to setting big goals. Don’t bet against her.
Still, the numbers she faces are formidable. In 1980, adolescent Type 2 diabetes was unheard of; by 2010, more than 50,000 children 18 and younger were diagnosed. Health experts project that by the 2030s nearly 95 percent of Americans will be overweight or obese and that by 2050, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in three Americans will be diagnosed with diabetes. Most of this weight gain will be as a result of poor dietary choices — such as eating processed foods and sugar consumption, combined with sedentary lifestyles.
Nyad, of course, is not about to become a statistic. She is most famous for her repeated attempts to swim from Cuba to Florida. She succeeded on her fifth attempt in a record-setting 110-mile, 53-hour swim from Cuba to Key West on Labor Day 2013. She became the first person to do so without a shark cage. Her first try to make that landmark crossing across the Florida Straits was in 1978.
After reaching her goal, Nyad, 65, then competed on the 18th season of Dancing With the Stars in March 2014. She was the first celebrity to be eliminated in the second week of competition, a disappointment she attributes to a wardrobe malfunction of another sort.
“They put me in a fat lady’s matron’s dress,” she said in a telephone interview. “I don’t have a dancer’s body but my body is not a bad body for my age. I should have been in something younger, sexier than they wanted to portray me. I was never going to win, but with a little better props from their side I might have made it into the fourth or fifth week.”
Still, the DWTS ballroom dancing experience was a dream fulfilled, Nyad said. She loved the hardcore, month-long training sessions of eight- to 10-hour days with pro Russian dancer Henry Byalikov and the kale salads she consumed for breakfast daily. “The immersion was magical; it was so worth the whole thing.”
Last weekend, she premiered her one-woman stage show, Onward! The Diana Nyad Story, in Key West, where she recreated her Cuba to Key West swim through theater atmospherics, stage design, the script she wrote and some singing. She hopes to take the show to theaters across the country and eventually land it on Broadway.
A day before the premiere, the super athlete, who says she is doing more walking than swimming these days in preparation for next year’s event, quipped, “I think it’s an evening where people will leave saying, ‘Wow. I knew she was a good swimmer but she can sing and tell a good story.’ ”
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