What does the theme song from television’s “Beverly Hillbillies” have to do with world-class endurance swimmer Diana Nyad?
It’s one of the songs on the “mental playlist” that kept her going during her epic 111-mile swim from Cuba to Key West — and it features prominently in the one-woman stage show she recently presented on the island where she completed her near-impossible athletic feat in 2013.
Picture Diana onstage, her strong muscular body prone on a platform in swimming position, arms and legs moving in time to those stirring lyrics, “Come and listen to a story ‘bout a man named Jed / A poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed …”
The moment was a highlight of “Onward! The Diana Nyad Story” presented by the charismatic athlete, whose performance proved she’s almost as good a storyteller as she is a long-distance swimmer.
On Labor Day 2013, an exhausted Diana walked ashore on Key West’s Smathers Beach, becoming the first person ever to swim across the Florida Straits from Cuba to the Florida Keys without a shark cage. She was then age 64, and the grueling swim took her just under 53 hours.
“You don’t really get a better drama than that — a 35-year story, a 64-year-old chasing a dream that no one else ever accomplished,” Diana said after the opening night of her sold-out show at The Studios of Key West.
She first attempted the Florida Straits crossing in 1978 when she was 28 years old. More than three decades later, in 2011 and 2012, she tried three times but was foiled by shoulder pain, a debilitating in-water asthma attack and multiple severe jellyfish stings.
Written and performed live by Diana, “Onward” focuses on her athletic feat while showcasing her ability to spin tales often spiced with self-deprecating humor.
In well-paced vignettes, she recalls childhood events that put her on the road to becoming a long-distance swimmer — including a pivotal moment when her French mother told her Cuba was close enough to her Fort Lauderdale home that “you could almost swim there.” She also chronicles triumphs and failures along the way, and sings snippets of the “mental playlist” that helped power her through the arduous Florida Straits crossing.
“Onward!” was directed and adapted for the stage by Josh Ravetch, the co-creator of actress/writer Carrie Fisher’s solo show “Wishful Drinking.” Employing audio and visual effects ranging from ocean sounds to eerie lighting, it even transports audiences to the Straits with Diana during a devastatingly painful jellyfish encounter.
But the play doesn’t just tell Diana’s story. In addition, the inspirational production points out how much can be accomplished with sheer tenacity and determination, despite seemingly insurmountable odds.
“Whether you’re someone up against cancer, or a disabled child you’re raising — really tough circumstances — if you want to get through it, you’ll find a way to get through it,” Diana stated earnestly. “I think that is really the message of this play.”
When it came time to pick the perfect venue for her show, Diana didn’t hesitate about choosing Key West. The theater in The Studios of Key West’s Armory building isn’t far from Smathers Beach, where she made athletic history in 2013.
“Key West is my special place and the place that will forever be associated with the swim,” she explained. “It’s fitting that I take the stage on the island that was my home training base to bring the story to life in theatrical form.”
The audience loved it, giving Diana an enthusiastic standing ovation on opening night. And as she took her final bow, the applause washed over her … like the welcoming waves off Smathers Beach.