Long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad, on her fifth attempt to cross the treacherous Florida Straits, completed the historic journey Monday afternoon.
The 64-year old Nyad accomplished her life-long dream when she staggered onto a Key West beach just before 2 p.m., becoming the first person to complete the treacherous swim without the wave-breaking aid of a protective shark cage. Her 110-mile voyage took 52 hours, 54 minutes and 18.6 seconds to complete, according to Nyad’s team.
The crowd at Smather’s Beach swarmed her in the water, applauding and waving American and rainbow flags. In typical Key West fashion, conch shells sounded. About 2,000 people gathered to witness history being made.
Police had barricaded a section of the beach for her arrival, but Nyad swam off course the last few hundred yards. The crowds hustled down the beach to try and glimpse her as she pulled herself out of the water.
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Nyad dragged herself up to her feet when it became too shallow to swim, wobbling up the last few feet to the sand. She looked like a zombie, her sunburned face staring straight ahead. Her lips were swollen and her mouth bruised by face gear she wore to protect her from venomous jellyfish.
With the record official, a friend and crew member hugged her, saying: “You did it.”
She stood dazed for a few minutes as journalists, TV crews, supporters, tourists and residents crowded around her. A friend finally helped her take off her blue swim cap. In a video posted online, Nyad addressed the crowd:
“I’ve got three messages: One is, we should never, ever give up. Two is you never are too old to chase your dreams.”
She paused for a moment while the crowd shouted “That’s right!” and “Amen, sister!”
Nyad continued: “Three is, it looks like it’s a solitary sport, but it’s a team.”
Then she stared into the distance and gripped onto a woman standing by her side as paramedics worked through the crowd with a stretcher.
Nyad finally was lifted onto the stretcher and was taken to shady area, where paramedics gave her cold water and fluids through an IV. She asked a paramedic what he could do for the pain inside her mouth.
After several more minutes, she was taken to the Lower Keys Medical Center on nearby Stock Island. For the first time, she managed a smile and raised her hand as she waved to the throng of well-wishers shouting: “Way to go Diana,” “Amazing” and “Unbelievable.”
Across the world, people on social media congratulated Nyad. President Barack Obama and Florida Gov. Rick Scott took to Twitter to acknowledge her achievement.
“Never give up on your dreams,” Obama tweeted.
Nyad left Hemingway Marina in Havana on Saturday to cross the Straits, home to stinging box jellyfish, sharks, sudden storms, eddies and the strong Gulf Stream .
Despite a Sunday-night storm that brought winds of up to 23 knots and bouts with nausea, Nyad made good time in the first half of the swim, with about 51 strokes per minute. A favorable current helped her average about two miles per hour, and by about 5 a.m. Monday she was on course to conquer her dream.
“The greatest variable here is the extension of human endurance,” said her navigator, John Bartlett, who is leading her escort boat, the Voyager. “How long will it take her to make those last 100 strokes at the end, and all the ones from here to then?”
For Nyad, the journey began 35 years ago in 1978, when she first tried with a shark cage but came up short. She gave up swimming for decades, but conquering the Florida Straits continued to eat away at her. So in her 60s, she plunged back into the water and trained to regain her old form.
With a good marketing team that helped raise the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to support such an endeavor, she made her second attempt in 2011. It was hampered by shoulder pain and an asthma attack. Months later, jellyfish stings ended a third attempt.
Last year, she tried for a fourth time. The jellyfish got her again. She was pulled from the water, her face badly swollen.
This time at dusk and night hours when the jellyfish and other stinging creatures are most prevalent, she will wear a jellyfish protection suit. The first night she wore a specially designed prosthetic face make that also covers her lips, but it made it difficult to swim. The second night, she used a protection cream, dubbed “Sting Stopper,” that was created by jellyfish expert Angel Yanagihara and the University of Hawaii.
A diver also was in the water with Nyad to scout for jellyfish. If any were seen, the mask would go on, according to her website. The divers are part of a 35-person support crew that includes kayakers, accompanying her in a flotilla of five boats.
Most long-distance swimmers have never even attempted the swim, with or without a shark cage.
It’s a quest that Australian Chloe McCardel called the “hardest swim in the world today” before she attempted it earlier this summer. McCardel, 28, made it only 11 hours in her only try before suffering a “debilitating severe jellyfish sting” that forced her to stop.
Australian-based British swimmer Penny Palfrey, a 54-year-old grandmother, made it 78 miles in 2012 before she gave up primarily because of a strong eddy whose currents were pushing her away from the Keys.
In 1997, supported celebrated 22-year-old Australian Susie Maroney, who was hailed as the first person to complete the swim. She used a shark cage.
Walter Poenish, then 84, claimed that he was the rightful owner of that title. He said he made the swim, in 1978, also in a shark cage, and using flippers.
But the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame does not recognize either crossing because they were not completed under traditional English Channel swimming rules that forbid such aids.
At the time, Maroney was accused of cheating, by hanging onto the shark cage that was pulled by a boat. But even if she didn’t hang on, it appears that the shark cage created smoother water for her to swim.
Her time was an astounding 24 hours and 30 minutes for more than 100 miles. That swimming pace was much faster than the 2012 Olympic gold medalist averaged for just 6.2 miles.
That’s why today’s swimmers say the Florida Straits was still an unconquered body of water — until Monday.
A documentary about Nyad’s voyage, called The Other Shore, will premiere Sept. 26 and is available online at www.theothershoremovie.com.