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Diana Nyad Returns To Key West With One-Woman Stage Show

Walt Michot
Miami Herald

Diana Nyad’s most famous journey, her swim across the Florida Straits, started in Havana and ended in Key West. Her newest project – a one-woman stage show – is starting out on the island.
The distance swimmer made international headlines when she came ashore in Key West on Labor Day 2013. It was her fifth attempt at the crossing. She was 64 years old.

And she still suffers from post-traumatic stress from what she endured on those swims. Like when a stray hair brushes across her lips.

"That’s the the feeling of the box jellyfish tentacle," she says.

Or when she jolts awake at 1:30 in the morning, thinking she needs to wake up and start force-feeding herself for an 18-hour training swim. She even feels the effects when she gets into the shower.

So why would she want to relive those long, scary, painful hours, alone in the ocean? Let alone relive them night after night, alone on a stage?

"I don’t want to be a person who opens up their jacket and has their press clippings hanging on the inside of their coat," Nyad says. "I move forward."

Or, as the motto of her quest to cross the Straits became, onward. That’s also the title of Nyad’s new one-woman stage show. It’s making its debut at The Studios of Key West, on the island where she finally reached that goal. The show is playing Thursday, Feb. 19, through Sunday, Feb. 22.

But the show isn’t just about crossing the Straits. It goes back to Nyad’s childhood. She remembers and recreates her Greek-Egyptian father. On her fifth birthday, he pulled out a dictionary and showed her one word.

"He spoke in these buzzing Zs and rolling Rs," Nyad says. "And he said, 'Darling — your name — the name of my people, darling, it's in the bold black-and-white important dictionary. Let me show you. This is your destiny, darling. It says naiad. Girl or woman champion swimmer! What did I tell you darling? It is your destiny!'"

Nyad also recreates another scene with her mother, when she first envisioned the crossing she would make her own.

"I was standing on the beach in Fort Lauderdale and looked across with my mother who said, 'It’s right over there. It’s so close. You could almost swim there.' You know, I had that in the back of my imagination as a 9-year-old,"she says.

This isn’t the first time Nyad has been on stage. She’s been on public radio and network TV. She’s done a couple of TED talks. After she made it in 2013, she was on "Dancing With The Stars."

But a one-woman show is different. She’s working with the same director who took Carrie Fisher’s show "Wishful Drinking" to Broadway.

So she’s re-examining her life story. Nyad had spoken publicly about her sexual abuse as a teenager. But director Josh Ravetch asked her to describe the experience in just three words.

"So I thought about it and I came back and I said, well, it was quick. It was violent. And it was humiliating. And he said, 'I guarantee you that’s all you need,'" Nyad says.

Nyad says she’d had some offers to bring the show to larger stages on the mainland but has no immediate plans to do that.

"Would I like to make to Broadway? Yes. I think big," she says. "But right now, that’s absurd. It’s absurd to talk about that. Let’s just make Key West successful."

Nyad’s connection to the island will likely continue after the show’s run. She says she’s even thought about trying to buy a place in Key West. But she does have one bone to pick with the island city. She's unhappy about the island's penchant for claiming that it is 90 miles from Cuba. That may be true in nautical miles.

"But you need to trust me because, who would know better than me? It’s 103," Nyad says. She's talking about statute miles — the kind everyone knows and uses in everyday life.

"The commissioners of Key West know that I feel this way and they’ve they been respectful and said they would like to look into it but evidently – and I appreciate this – they have bigger things on their plate at the moment," Nyad says. "But I want it changed. Yeah."

And when Diana Nyad decides she wants to get something done – especially when it involves Key West — history says it would be unwise to bet against her.