Diana Nyad: Ex-NFL player who swam 16 hours to safety showed smarts, determination, courage
She says a well-prepared long-distance swimmer would find it difficult, especially facing sharks
Nyad: He pictured his family to motivate him. NFLers know about endurance. He was a Dolphin
Editor’s note: Diana Nyad is the first person ever to swim the 110.86 miles between Cuba and Florida – in 52 hours and 54 minutes. Her memoir, “Find a Way,” will be published by Knopf in October. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Sixteen hours in the ocean, for a trained swimmer – with an escort boat and all kinds of safety precautions nearby, plenty of water and electrolyte drinks and nutrition at hand – is a long, grueling session.
When I was training for my Cuba-Florida Swim, yes, the 10- and 12- and 14- hour practice swims were tough enough, depending on the day’s wave action. But when we got into the 15-, 16-, 17-, 18-hour sessions, we well knew we were going to be under duress. The concentration, the perseverance, the physical stamina required for that length of time in the sea is formidable.
But for an untrained swimmer, absolutely alone, immersed in a liquid some 25 degrees under normal body temperature, 16 hours is a survival test many might not pass. A less courageous soul might quickly succumb to the hypothermia, the unknown, the salt exposure, the adrenaline spike when face-to-face with a circling shark.
Rob Konrad’s history as a tough NFL player, to my mind, prepared him for this harrowing journey after he fell off his boat Wednesday into the Atlantic Ocean, nine miles off the South Florida coast. He said he swam to shore, was circled by a shark and stung by jellyfish, all while knowing he might not survive. But he did. And it’s almost as if his entire life got him ready to save his own life out there.
First, he had two choices. One was to conserve energy, tread water, and wait for a boat or even a plane to spot him. Instead he took action.
People have drowned when they’ve made the mistake of keeping their clothing on after a boating accident or plane crash leaves them in the water. They think they’ll stay warm longer that way. But Konrad knew he needed to shed everything but his underwear to be able to move. He used the sun’s position, knowing he had to swim west, by day. And he tried to move toward the shore lights at night.
A pro football player knows pain. They say for an NFL player each game is akin to putting the body through 35 car collisions. Most of those players, come Monday, hobble around with aches and deep bone bruises and ripped ligaments, and worse.
A pro football player also knows a long, exhausting season. He needs fortitude for the long haul. He is accustomed to gritting his teeth and enduring discomfort in the moment, with an eye toward the many weeks to come.
Konrad called on his athlete self to set his will and bear down on his goal: survival. It brought tears to my eyes when he talked about picturing his two children as angels on his shoulders to motivate him. I remember Vietnam War POW survivor Jerry Coffee, who suffered unspeakable pain, wrenched into a box the size of a coffin for seven unimaginable years. Jerry pictured his family. He vowed he would see them one day again. Rob Konrad did the same.
You might think it’s a blessing to go overboard in salt water, which allows more natural buoyancy, rather than in fresh water. But any marathon swimmer will tell you that the little flotation you get from salt water is not worth the sickness that comes when you take in gulps of the sea, not worth the salt exposure to the mouth and face, and certainly not worth the encounters with creatures. You’d prefer a freshwater lake any day.
Konrad said a shark circled him at one point. It’s alarming how quickly word gets out in the shark universe that there’s a man overboard. They show up almost immediately when a swimmer is dangling, no rescue boat in sight. Konrad may not have known that, if you can summon the moxie, the right move is a swift, aggressive punch to the shark’s sensitive snout.
But it seems Rob’s particular shark wasn’t starving. We are told by shark experts that humans are not normal shark food. And Rob was close enough to shore that there were likely plenty of reef fish that already kept the sharks well-fed. Had he been 50 or 60 miles off shore, it could have been a different story: There, a shark may not have eaten in a week or two, and a splashing swimmer would be highly enticing.
But all of these considerations are intellectual hogwash when you’re out there totally on your own and a fin is doing figure eights around you. Konrad’s shark left him after a while. Another stranded soul might have panicked; he stayed calm.
Konrad was suffering from hypothermia by the time he touched land. The water temperatures he swam through were about 73 degrees Fahrenheit. True, one has a better chance of surviving 16 hours in those temperatures than in the North Sea, for example, but 73 is nevertheless way below 98.6. To go through the night, untrained, especially given his dense musculature, ideal neither for flotation nor endurance, meant he was going to start feeling cold, which he did.
No, Rob Konrad wasn’t a long-distance swimmer, stroking a powerful freestyle, keeping his metabolic rate up, reaching up for water and food from a handler every half-hour. Rob Konrad was a tough guy, versed in grit and bravery from his football days, determined to outlast the elements, no matter how long it took.
We should all honor your courage, Rob. And we know what else helped you make it to shore. You are, after all, a Dolphin.