In the end, emerging from the great big ocean wearing a blue swimming cap and goggles – and having swum roughly 110 miles in 52 hours and 54 minutes – Diana Nyad still had enough strength to walk ashore Monday.
Failing four times over the years, on her fifth and final attempt this weekend, the 64-year-old Nyad officially became the first swimmer to go the distance from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage.
Upon reaching shore at Smathers Beach in Key West, Fla., Nyad had three things to tell the mob of onlookers who had watched her achieve a lifelong dream.
“One is, we should never ever give up,” said a slightly dazed Nyad, whose slurred remarks were received with a roar by the crowd. “Two is, you’re never too old to chase your dreams.
“Three is, it looks like a solitary sport, but it’s a team,” Nyad concluded, and then was taken away on a stretcher for medical examination.
The crossing from Cuba to Florida has been attempted several times before, often punishing swimmers with jellyfish stings, sunburns, blisters and hallucinations.
Australian Susie Maroney, then 22, used a shark cage to complete the crossing in 1997 and fainted on live television after reaching the beach in Florida. Another Australian, Penny Palfrey, then 49, made it 76 miles north of Havana last year before calling it quits; she was then hospitalized to receive IV drips and pain pills to deal with dehydration, jellyfish stings and a blistered tongue.
Nyad, beating back worries over possibly having caught a cold, left Hemingway Marina in Havana on Saturday morning with a small flotilla of support staff, which included kayakers and shark divers to protect her from jellyfish and sea trash that might hinder her swim.
By Monday morning, on an official website that tracked the swim, Nyad’s staff reported that her tongue and lips had become swollen and that her doctors were “concerned about her airways.”
The waters had also gotten so cold at night that Nyad had not stopped to eat in the hopes that continuing to swim would keep up her body temperature.
In a 2011 live chat with the Los Angeles Times, Nyad said that in her first attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida, she lost 29 pounds in less than two days of swimming before she had to stop. The weight loss was inevitable, she said, in that swimming uses up more calories than she’s able to take in during a swim.
That raises the question of why one would attempt such a punishing feat in the first place.
“I am stunned, at age 61, at how fast it all flies by,” she said in the chat, explaining her motivation to keep going. “My mom just died. We blink and another decade passes. I don’t want to reach the end of my life and regret not having given my days everything in me to make them worthwhile.”
Two miles from the end of the swim Monday morning, Nyad stopped to address her support crew.
“This is a lifelong dream of mine and I’m very, very glad to be with you,” she told her team, according to an update on her website. “Some on the team are the most intimate friends of my life and some of you I’ve just met. But I’ll tell you something, you’re a special group. You pulled through; you are pros and have a great heart. So let’s get going so we can have a whopping party.”