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SXSW 2013 Review: "The Other Shore"

Courtesy Photo

Diana Nyad is an athlete obsessed, but what's so unusual about that? Athletes are supposed to be obsessed. But to say Diana Nyad is a woman obsessed, now that's what makes her story so compelling, even worthy of a movie. And that movie was recently given several special screenings at SXSW.

“The Other Shore” documents the life story of Diana Nyad, touching on her childhood, which was tortured by sexual molestation, then her success as a high school and collegiate swimmer, which was marred by sexual abuse from her coach.

What followed in her life has been a long period of coming to grips with these demons while at the same time pursuing a level of extraordinary athletic achievement.

“The tragedy of sports,” she says, “is you retire when you're young.”

Like so many other retired athletes, Diana Nyad took a second career as a sportscaster and highly sought after inspirational speaker. Interesting enough, for sure, but what about the fire in the belly, the competitive spirit? I’ve often wondered about it myself. What does a Magic Johnson do when the magic on the court fades? What about the world class swimmer, Diana Nyad? “I was missing the high of commitment,” she says.

As a younger woman, Diana had made headlines by swimming around Manhattan Island, a distance of 28 miles. In 1974, she had became the first person to swim across Lake Ontario from north to south, a feat which took her 18 hours 20 minutes. Other accomplishments included induction, in 1984, into the National Women's Sports Hall of Fame. In 2003, she was honored by induction into the International Swimming Hall of Fame. Yet she still yearned for the next challenge, the next adventure, the opportunity to go to the edge. After an intensive search, she finally found what she wanted, and that has since defined who she is – the swimmer who wants to swim from Cuba to Florida, to “the other shore.”

“Last year I turned 60 and I was pissed off. I was getting into this metaphysical funk over being 60....I'm gonna blink and it's going to be all over.” >The “XTREME DREAM” became obsession.

“The Other Side,” directed by Timothy Wheeler, focuses the majority of its 1 hour 36 minute run time on the next three attempts to swim the 103 miles from Cuba to the Florida Keys. It tells the story of forming a team, raising money for her passion, carefully calculating the limited window of opportunity for each attempt. There are kayaks carrying electronic devices which repel the sharks, trainers, a doctor, various support personnel – 35 people in all, and always Diana's partner, Bonnie Stoll. If Diana Nyad is the star of this show, Bonnie is best supporting actress. She coaches, cajoles, manages and shows incredible support for Diana's dream. But there are also contemplative moments when Bonnie confronts her fears: “I worry sometimes that her heart is stronger than her body and that she will try to bring her body where bodies don't really go, where only the spirit goes.”

There is certainly no spoiler alert necessary here. Each of Diana's attempts has so far pulled up short.  It's all well documented. Venomous stings of potent jellyfish almost killed her at one point, yet each time she has come back stronger. One wonders if her goal is truly the “other shore,” or is it the edge, the point of light beyond which only Diana Nyad has seen.

“You're almost in this sensory deprivation tank. You're turning your head 60 times a minute, so you're not seeing or hearing very well or very much, you're in your own thoughts. There are a lot of times when I just let the quiet and the metronomic pace of it let my mind go into that unconscious thinking when all of a sudden I am thinking …. if you go out beyond this galaxy and that galaxy and all the universe we know about today, is there a closed edge to it, or does it go on to infinity?”

Oh! THAT other shore!

The Other Shore” is a story well told. The drama is enhanced by the editing of the film which never detracts from the real drama: the screams in the dark, the tears shed by Diana, by Bonnie, and the committed believers on the team. Then there are the doubts and, always, Diana's indomitable spirit.

“I don't want to be the crazy woman who does it for years and years and tries and fails, tries and fails. But I CAN swim from Cuba to Florida and I WILL swim from Cuba to Florida!”

In the end, will there need to be a sequel? Mr. Wheeler might want to keep his camera handy.

James first introduced himself to KPAC listeners at midnight on April 8, 1993, presenting Dvorak's 7th Symphony played by the Cleveland Orchestra. Soon after, he became the regular overnight announcer on KPAC.