Nyad paused — never hanging onto the boat — every 90 minutes or so for protein drinks, bananas, peanut butter or pasta except Sunday night, when she was vomiting constantly.
A storm increased swells to three to five feet but the current remained favorable. Nyad got fatigued and disoriented at times but still remembered to stop Sunday morning to sing Happy Birthday to a crew member while floating on her back.
The people who accompanied Nyad across the Florida Straits through two long, black nights (best friend Bonnie Stoll has been on each swim) and the people who waded and paddled alongside her for the last 200 yards were overcome with emotion. All saw a little of themselves in Nyad’s struggle.
Nyad, who began swimming as a youngster at Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale while reading books about polar explorers, wrote in her memoir Other Shores that she seeks challenges in order to “dig deeper and deeper into your gut until you arrive at that same core of pride and dignity that survivors know.”
She was sexually abused as a teen, and swimming helped her cope. Later, International Swimming Hall of Fame chief Buck Dawson encouraged her to be an open-water swimmer. She set records circumnavigating Manhattan Island in eight hours and going 102 miles from Bimini to Juno Beach in 27.5 hours. In 1979, she retired and stopped swimming for 30 years.
As she neared 60, the Cuba-Florida swim taunted the exuberant, Type-A Nyad like an unfinished finish line. She wanted the “high of a commitment.” In 1978, inside a shark cage, she swam 42 hours and 76 miles before currents defeated her. Australian Susie Maroney completed the swim in 1997 in less than 24 hours, but in a shark cage pulled behind a boat.
Nyad, who lives in Los Angeles, tried again without a cage, twice in 2011, then in August 2012, going 51 hours and 100 miles before stings to her lips and powerful eddies forced her to exit.
This time, Nyad would not be beaten by Mother Nature. The swim began Saturday morning at Havana’s Hemingway Marina, named after former resident Ernest Hemingway, whose novel The Old Man and the Sea contained the Nyad elements of age and grit.
Beforehand, Nyad prepared in Key West, where the first sign of good fortune occurred when Nyad met a stranger of Cuban descent who didn’t know who she was but gave her a $2 bill his grandmother had given him years earlier for good luck on his voyage from Cuba to the United States. She intends to pass it on.
She stayed at a friend’s cottage, where a photo of a man contemplating the sea hangs on a wall, inscribed with a passage from Pablo Neruda’s Ode to Salt. No coincidence that Nyad hears subliminal poetry when she swims.
“Yes, that’s it,” she said, comparing her ocean journey to mountain climbing or space travel. “It’s infinitude I’m tasting.”