Long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad made headlines last year when she became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without the assistance of a shark cage. But, she says, preparing to dance a minute-long foxtrot on the Season 18 premiere of Dancing with the Stars last Monday was just as daunting as gearing up for her multi-day open water feat.
"When I would stand on that shore over in Cuba and look out at the horizon, I knew that what was in front of me was going to be at least two, probably more like two-and-a-half nonstop days in the open ocean, with all kinds of obstacles," Nyad, 64, tells TVGuide.com. "And [Monday], as I stood holding [partner Henry Byalikov's] hands, I was thinking, 'You have one minute and six seconds for this foxtrot.' It's just an absurdly different kind of challenge."
Nyad and Byalikov ended up with an 18 from the judges after their routine, which puts them in second-to-last place heading into Week 2. Though Nyad says she felt OK about the dance itself, there was one aspect of the performance that left her "mortified." Check out our interview with Nyad to find out what frustrated her to the point of tears, as well as what she and Henry are working on for this week's cha-cha.
Week 1 is out of the way! Is the pressure off a little bit? How did you feel about your performance on Monday?
Diana Nyad: Oh my gosh. It is. All I cared about Monday night, honestly? Didn't care about the judges scores, didn't care about anything. I wanted to make Henry proud of me. And he said that was the best I ever did it. So, clearly other people can do a better foxtrot, but I did the best one I could do that night. And, you know, what more can I ask of myself, really? ... But that dress didn't do me any favors.
You didn't like the dress?
Nyad: I don't want to be vain. Look at me, I come out of the ocean after 53 hours of swimming. Do you think I care what I look like? ... But on this show, it's different. There is glamour to it. ... When we were fitting it, I said, "My God, I look so fat and matronly in this thing. This is not me at all." As I said, I don't have those dancers' bodies, for sure, but I've got a pretty damn good body and I was mortified in that dress. I've never felt like the girl over on the side who doesn't belong, and I actually did feel like that a little bit that night. Not on the dance floor with Henry. I decided to go for it. But other times. I've never felt like that ever. So I've gotten together with the wardrobe department and said, "If I get a chance to go another couple of dances or more, don't ever let that happen to me again."
Do you think it had an impact on your performance?
Nyad: I woke up in tears Monday night after the performance. I went home and I felt like I did Henry proud, I did myself proud. And I went to bed and woke up at 3:00 in the morning crying, because I'm proud of this body. I created it. I'm strong, and I represent those 64-year-olds out there who are young for their age, and I am young for my age. I don't compare myself to the young, crazy sexy ones, but I've got a great body and that dress didn't do me any favors. And I'm honestly upset about it and angry about it, because it's part of the show. It's part of the presentation.
Are you going to have more input on what you wear this week?
Nyad: Yesterday I met with the designer, and I said, I'm not going to go out there like these professional dancers or like Meryl Davis. I'm not a tiny little whiff of a thing, to show skin all over the place. But this is going to be a cha-cha, sexy dress. ...They're going to try to make me that and I'm going to try to squeeze into it and feel more confident when I get out there.
You mentioned during rehearsals that the dancing shoes were giving you a bit of trouble, but you seemed to adjust to them pretty well by Monday night. How's it going this week?
Nyad: We did the first cha-cha [rehearsal] going through the choreography with sneakers. And I mean, I'm not telling you I dance like Cheryl Burke with sneakers, but I'd say I'm at least 50 percent better than I can be in heels with flats and sneakers, where I can be grounded. I don't think you can get used to being two and three inches up in the air and poised on a little point on the back of a shoe if never in your life you've worn them. I'm not saying, 'Oh gosh, I wish I could wear sneakers doing the foxtrot.' I'm not. I want to look right and I want to try to pull it off. But I have to say, I'm not good on heels.
This is Henry's first year as a pro. How has it been working with him?
Nyad: The [first] two weeks locked in that room with Henry Byalikov were just a journey. This young man is way mature for his 28 years. He's extremely intelligent. He's an articulate teacher and it's like, we immersed. We locked that door, put on "Sea of Love" by Bobby Darin and just got into it. ... We just sync. We lock in step.
The judges gave you guys an 18. Did you think the scoring was fair?
Nyad: I'm sure it's difficult for [the judges]. I just can't get wrapped up in that. I've just got to be in the moment and look Henry in the eye and get into it. ... With all these things, anything you do in life, is if you're not too good the first time out, you've got nowhere to go but up. And that is certainly where I'm sitting right now.
So how do you feel about doing the cha-cha next week?
Nyad: The first day I met Henry, within five minutes of meeting him, he said, "Look, I've been told that for our first week we're going to either have the foxtrot or the cha-cha." And I said, "Oh please, let it be the cha-cha." Because, not that I can tell you that I know anything about doing a professional cha-cha, but just with friends out at a club or something, I have a little feeling of Latin music. I've done a little social dancing, salsa, and can move the hips a little bit. The foxtrot was absolutely alien to me. Every single thing about it. It was difficult for me to find the joy in it. Whereas, I pretty much don't care who you are, if you get out doing a cha-cha, a meringue, a salsa, you're kind of feeling the Latin beat. You think you're in the Caribbean. It's easy to smile your way through that. So I'm not telling you I'm going to be great technique-wise, but I guarantee I'm going to be at a much higher comfort level when we go out.
The big twist this season is that the pairs will be switching partners at some point. How do you feel about that?
Nyad: I think it's a great twist. ... I'm more nervous about not being around anymore when that little twist comes. ... I don't want to leave Henry. I would feel like my lifeline's gone away. And I'm sure everybody feels that way, no matter who their partner is. But for one week, if I'm still with the show, I'm sure I'd learn from and have a gas being with any of these people.
Have you given any thought to which pro you'd like to be partnered with?
Nyad: It's probably not popular with Middle America, and I don't even know if it would possible, given who's eliminated and who's left to choose from, but honestly — it's not even a gay thing — I'd like to do a dance with Cheryl Burke. I just think it would be hot, like when you see those 1920s art salons in Paris. The women always got up. And in Cuba, they dance together. ... I did talk to Cheryl about it. She said she'd love to do it. But I'm not sure it would be right for the show. Although, come on. They had Chaz Bono on already. Surely you couldn't get more radical than that.
Have you been able to bond with any of the other competitors?
Nyad: I like everybody on the show, both the pros and the dancers. We're all getting to know each other. Maybe it gets cutthroat if you're in the Top 3 a lot later in the season. But right now, all of them — Candace [Cameron Bure] and NeNe [Leakes], Meryl Davis, Charlie [White] — it doesn't matter what level we're at, and all the pro dancers, they come to me all the time and say, 'You looked great.' They all know about the Cuba swim. They are extremely respectful. ... And speaking of meaning a lot to the public out there, look at Amy [Purdy]. My God. ... To see her on that floor, it's dazzling inspirational. We all feel it. If I were one of the fans out there right now, I'd be voting for her. And I think she's also just a terrific person.
What's the biggest difference, in terms of the training or athleticism required, between Dancing and your distance swimming?
Nyad: I'm proud of my body. ... I haven't been sore at all yet. And I give credit to the fact that I'm just in extraordinary shape for my age. I'm sure that's got to help in some ways. It doesn't necessarily help make me an actual better dancer at the form of it and the grace of it, or all of the transitions and moves and balance.
What's been the most challenging aspect for you?
Nyad: I'm really not good at balance, especially in the heels. When Henry goes away from me, I'm in trouble. I'm wobbling if I'm not on that leg very securely. So, I would say [that's] the worst thing that doesn't translate from swimming, where you have no balance. You're in the water. Your legs aren't propped up on anything ever. I'd say that's my worst trait as a dancer. But endurance and strength and fitness, I just don't think I'm going to have any issue with that as we go along.
Do you think that puts you at an advantage, even over some of the younger dancers or people like Meryl and Charlie?
Nyad: As I say, I don't know that it matters for a minute-long dance. Danica [McKellar], who is a beautiful dancer and did a wonderful foxtrot the other night ... drove up one of the first days and we parked in the same parking lot. ... She said, "I want to get out of my car, but my legs are so sore I can't lift them to move them around to get out." We had a big laugh. But look, so I'm maybe fitter and not having any soreness, but who did a more dazzling foxtrot? She did. So I'm not sure that the fitness is going to really come in in a huge way.
Dancing with the Stars airs Mondays at 8/7c on ABC.