Diana Nyad swam through five-foot ocean swells that washed over her head. She swallowed mouthfuls of saltwater that made her retch. Swollen lips and tongue turned each breath into a scraping suck from the bottom of her soggy lungs. Her arms, windmilling 50 times per minute, felt as heavy as anchors. Her brain, counting to 20,000 in Spanish and back to zero in French, felt like flotsam drifting away. She flinched in flashback horror as she stroked into a jellyfish minefield.
She hallucinated. She laughed. She sang. She bargained. She cried.
Nyad begged to stop, but kept swimming, and completed her 110-mile odyssey from Havana to Key West in 52 hours, 54 minutes and 18.6 seconds.
It was only after she staggered onto Smathers Beach that sharks began circling.
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Perhaps because her swim occurred at a time when artificially-enhanced heroes such as Lance Armstrong and Alex Rodriguez keep falling, Nyad’s record feat was distrusted, too. Perhaps because the realization of her impossible dream on her fifth try was so incredible — a 64-year-old woman swimming across seas that had consumed countless souls traversing by boat — there were questions about how she did it. Perhaps because she is a celebrity in an obscure sport, her peers wanted proof.
Nyad and her support crew have quelled doubts and provided evidence in recent days to show that she swam from Cuba to Florida under her own power, without hanging onto or climbing into a boat or receiving flotation assistance from the handlers, divers or kayakers accompanying her.
“We did it squeaky clean,” Nyad said. “It’s all authentic. I took a vision that was deep in my imagination and I never gave up until I finally saw those palm trees on the shore.”
She became the first swimmer to make the journey without the protective and drafting aid of a shark cage. Yet official categorization of her record remains in limbo.
“I’m not waiting for any petty little judgment,” Nyad said from her home in Los Angeles. “To think that the 44 people out there would collude in a fraud is absurd. We’ll keep celebrating.”
Four previous attempts by Nyad, dating back to 1978, had ended in agony or exhaustion. Powerful eastward-flowing Gulf Stream currents and maddening eddies pushed her off course. Lightning forced her out of the water. Potentially lethal stings from box jellyfish left her writhing on deck, striped by red welts from the toxic tentacles, as doctors injected her burning legs with epinephrine.
Over Labor Day weekend, Mother Nature seemed to acknowledge an equally relentless force and gave Nyad a break. A northerly current nudged her along. A Sunday night squall didn’t defeat her. Her shark wranglers didn’t have to chase away predators. The jellies never swarmed.
“The elements aligned, at long last,” said navigator John Bartlett, who plotted Nyad’s course from aboard the 32-foot Voyager. He had been on two previous attempts. “But it is Diana’s will that is something to behold.”
Whether her crossing of the Florida Straits will be accepted as “unassisted” or “assisted” is debatable in the minds of some in the loosely-organized, tradition-bound sport of marathon swimming, which, like other extreme sports, has no universal governing body or commissioner.
One of the most fundamental rules of the sport is that swimmers cannot be touched, according to Evan Morrison, a corporate data analyst and marathon swimmer from San Francisco and leader of the forum marathonswimmers.org on which people initially expressed skepticism about portions of Nyad’s swim and questioned her during a Sept. 10 conference call.
Nyad acknowledged that she was touched when she put on her protective “stinger suit” at night and her handlers used duct tape to seal her gloves and booties at wrists and ankles.
“I’m holding my calf out of the water while they wrap the tape, and I don’t know how you do that by yourself unless you’re a member of Cirque de Soleil,” Nyad said. “I was touched, but there was no aid, and if anything it’s a cumbersome process that slows me down but the suit has been recognized as a lifesaving necessity by the sport.”
The “touching,” which Nyad sees as incidental contact, is an exception to the rules in the view of Morrison and other swimmers.
“I don’t believe Diana cheated,” Morrison said. “But when someone claims a specific record, it has meaning, it should be verified and it should be placed in the correct category, otherwise people make all sorts of claims. To remove the word ‘unassisted’ would not negate one of the greatest endurance feats in history.”
Nyad and marathon swimming authority Steven Munatones argue that different local rules exist according to the geography of different swims — such as the English Channel or Santa Barbara Channel or Cook Strait — and that her pioneering use of a “stinger suit” and any non-buoying contact in fastening or unfastening it should be allowed in Cuba-Florida swims.
“I don’t want the record if they’re going to call it assisted because that’s the equivalent of fins or shark cage,” Nyad said. “I would like it to be official for posterity’s sake, and I’ve already received apologies from swimmers about the quibbling and maliciousness of this debate, and I’m confident we’ll be reasonable.”
Said Munatones, chief of the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame: "When Sir Edmund Hillary climbed Mount Everest, there was no official record because he was the first to do it. Diana's swim was also off-the-grid, with no organization regulating it. The classification of her record may not be resolved."
Nyad vows to spread the message she delivered in slurred speech as she stood unsteadily on the beach Sept. 2: Never give up, you’re never too old to pursue your dreams, and trust in a team to reach your goals.
Nyad, ebullient as ever, did the talk show circuit and signed with Creative Artists Agency last week; her already busy speaking engagement calendar is filling up. A documentary about her by her nephew, “The Other Shore,” comes out later this month. She plans to write another memoir. She’d like to create a one-woman Broadway show. She’ll be grand marshal of Key West’s Fantasy Fest in October, after she completes a 48-hour swim in a 40-yard portable pool in New York City’s Herald Square to raise money for Superstorm Sandy victims. Oh, and her one “shallow wish”? To compete on Dancing With the Stars.
“I’m not sitting around pinching myself,” she said. “I’m still walking my dog, still playing Scrabble with friends. I planned to do this swim, so I’m not shocked. I’m glad it’s done. I no longer have to think, ‘Will I try this until I die?’”
Nyad embarked on her fifth attempt from Havana’s Hemingway Marina at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 31. Bartlett, a boat builder and licensed captain from Fort Myers, had been monitoring conditions for weeks with advice from oceanographer Frank Bohlen in Connecticut. The computer models and altimetry readouts Bohlen sent were “right on the money” for a favorable Gulf Stream flow and what Bartlett first projected as a 60-hour swim with landfall at Bahia Honda State Park.
“We were 100 percent focused on getting to Florida, even if it was South Beach,” said Marlin Scott, a Key West charter captain who was part of Nyad’s flotilla as pilot of the Kinship, with his wife. He’d been on Nyad’s 2011 attempt. Four shark divers alternated six-hour lookout shifts. “If they saw anything, they jumped in. We’ve had 12 sightings of Great Whites in the Keys this year, so that was a concern. We were worried about swordfish, too.”
Nyad said she was “happy as a clam” for the first nine hours in 86-degree seas, pausing to tread water every hour or so to eat bananas and peanut butter sandwiches, sip an energy drink or a smoothie concoction blended with ginseng and honey by her friend and longtime business partner Bonnie Stoll.
“Diana’s cardinal rule is, she never wants to know how far she has to go or how far she has gone,” Stoll said. “She has her own way of doing things. When I used to run with her she had to go a minute past the time we were supposed to end.”
According to notes from observers Janet Hinkle and Roger McVeigh, Nyad kept a plodding, steady freestyle pace of 1.5 mph, following a white ribbon that hung off a starboard boom of the Voyager and dragged in the water, mimicking a lane line in a pool. Kayakers paddled adjacent and behind her and carried electronic “shark shock” repellent devices. She altered course slightly to avoid a freighter her crew dubbed the HMS Rust Bucket. At 6 p.m. she felt tingling on her skin — sea lice.
As dusk turned skies gray, Nyad braced for night — prime time for an attack by box jellyfish. University of Hawaii jellyfish expert Angel Yanagihara slipped under the surface in scuba gear to make the first of many scouting dives for jellies. Nyad ate pasta, then spent 15 minutes squeezing into her Lycra “stinger suit.” After pulling on her custom-made hooded silicone mask, she joked with the crew, demanding, “Give me all your money!”
Eleven hours into the swim, Yanagihara told the boats to kill their lights so as not to attract jellies. In the pitch black, Nyad followed a row of red lights on the ribbon. By midnight she had traveled nearly 20 miles. Nyad took nutrition breaks but felt nauseous. The mask, attached inside her mouth by a retainer, caused her to ingest saltwater.
At 4 a.m., Yanagihara and a shark diver reported no jellies, a kayaker got seasick and Nyad began vomiting. At 6:43 a.m., she removed the mask and suit.
“I was miserable, my mouth was cut up and I didn’t like the wind and the chop,” Nyad said. “But I had a mantra: Find a way.”
A doctor gave her Zofran for nausea and said her pulse was good at 66. She complained about sore biceps and chafing.
As the sun climbed higher on Day 2, she passed the 24-hour mark, ate eggs, drank Coca-Cola, felt better and sang Happy Birthday to McVeigh. By noon, the Gulf Stream current had increased to 3.8 knots and turned in a more northeasterly direction, with a counterclockwise-churning eddy to the west — “Just what we’d hoped for,” said Bartlett, beaming and flashing a thumbs-up to the crew. For seven hours Nyad sped up to an average of 3.6 mph due to the conveyor-belt current. By 4 p.m., she had covered 63 miles. She kept her rhythm by singing to herself a playlist of 85 songs stored in her head: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Janis Joplin, Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles.
“I repeat the lyrics over and over and I go into a metronomic trance,”said Nyad, breaking into song to demonstrate with a bar from the Beatles’ No Reply. “Sometimes my brain isn’t doing well and I revert to the Beverly Hillbillies theme or Row, Row, Row Your Boat.’”
Nyad also pondered astrophysics, and her relationship with her late mother.
“Every swim is like six months on a psychiatrist’s couch,” she said.
At sunset on Sunday, Nyad took a risk and refused to don the mask. Yanagihara applied “sting stopper” gel to her face. Stoll assured her there would not be a third night and Nyad was energized by the news; she dreaded the nights and a possible onslaught of the prehistoric, four-eyed creatures.
The mighty stream slowed to 2.2 knots. Nyad grew tired, disoriented and kept veering to the right. At 10:45 p.m. a squall descended. Rain and wind battered the flotilla for two hours. Nyad paused, treading water, and wept. At one point, she fell behind the boat and a shark diver beckoned her back to the red light line.
“Come on, Diana!” her kayaker escorts yelled as Nyad struggled to maintain her pace. “Take us home.”
Confused, she switched to breaststroke and blurted, “Are we there?”
She stopped and started, again and again — a reflection of the conflict in her mind. Stoll whistled and purred a stream of encouragement. Then she told Nyad to look up at a white glow.
“Is that the sun coming up?" Nyad asked.
No, Stoll said, that’s Key West.
"I had never seen those lights before," Nyad said. "I still had 15 hours to go but in that moment I knew we would make it.”
She summoned a second wind to keep pulling Florida closer with one arm and pushing Cuba back with the other. At 2 a.m. she hit the 93-mile mark. Under a starry sky, calm seas.
“She was swimming strong so I decided to cut across a current coming off the Keys rather than bear away to the East,” Bartlett said as the boat slowly crabbed sideways against the current.
At dawn of Day 3, kayakers sang: “Onward to Florida, find a way to Florida!” Nyad apologized to the divers for throwing up, and they said, “Don’t worry, it’s just fish food.”
"I used my iPhone stopwatch to count her strokes, and it was the same 50 per minute at 45 hours that it had been at 10 hours," Hinkle said. "There was a surreal feeling that history was being made."
Mid-morning, Nyad gathered her crew and thanked them. Just before 2 p.m., she stroked toward shore, surrounded by onlookers whose curiosity turned to awe. Cameras zoomed in on her blue bathing cap. People waded beside her, and her handlers warned them not to touch her.
Nyad walked stiffly out of the water and onto the sand, her skin turned to bark, her eyes puffy like a boxer’s. By age 30, she’d swum around Manhattan, from Bimini to Florida, across the Bay of Naples. But she didn’t reach her ultimate destination until age 64. Three inspirational messages tumbled out before she collapsed into Stoll’s arms.
“Those people were looking into my eyes, and I didn’t have a speech prepared, but I wanted to give them something to use every day in their lives,” she said.
Nyad could have chosen a different part of the world for her epic swim. She considered the drowning Maldives. Guam or the Gulf of Thailand. But the fascination — the obsession — with a Cuba-to-Florida swim never left her. She was a young swimmer growing up in Fort Lauderdale when Fidel Castro’s revolution sent waves of Cubans to South Florida. Some became her friends. She recalled afternoons at the Lago Mar beach club with her mother, who had visited Cuba as a tourist.
“It’s a beautiful island, 100 miles away,” her mother told Nyad, pointing across the ocean to a “forbidden, magical place.”
“You mean it’s right over the horizon?” Diana asked.
“Yes,” her mother replied. “You could practically swim from there to here.”