Linda Robertson

Linda Robertson: An epic of human spirit fulfilled at last

Diana Nyad’s No. 1 rule of marathon swimming prohibits support-crew members from telling her how far she has to go to reach her destination.

For the sake of her brain more than her body, it’s better not to know how many miles she must stroke before she sleeps.

But on Monday morning, two days after jumping into the ocean in Havana, she knew she was getting close to Key West. She paused, treading water, to thank her crew. She was two miles from shore, and nothing would stop her.

“This is a lifelong dream of mine, and I’m very, very glad to be with you,” Nyad said, bobbing in the water, apologizing for the slurred speech emitting from her swollen lips and tongue. “So let’s get going so we can have a whopping party.”

Just before 2 p.m. — after 52 hours, 54 minutes, 18.6 seconds and 110 miles — Nyad crawled out of the water and staggered onto Smathers Beach as hundreds of onlookers cheered and blew conch shells. Her face was puffy, her legs unsteady, and her skin, marinated in saltwater, looked like sandpaper.

Yet Nyad, who only stops talking when she’s swimming, had the strength to share the inspiration of her record feat.

“I got three messages,” she said. “One is: We should never ever give up. Two is: You’re never too old to chase your dreams. Three is: It looks like a solitary sport, but it’s a team.”

She gave a fist pump and flashed a V for victory sign before paramedics lifted her onto a stretcher and hooked her up to IV bags.

On her fifth and what she swore was her final attempt, Nyad became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without the drafting aid of a shark cage.

She did it 10 days after her 64th birthday, which makes her accomplishment even more incredible. Not just because she’s a woman who has been empowering women with her examples of endurance for decades. Not just because she keeps proving that old is a state of mind and that she is, as she says, “in the middle of middle age.” But because she first tried this epic crossing in 1978, as a 28-year-old, and refused to abandon her goal.

Despite four aborted attempts, including jellyfish stings that scarred her arms and chest, ferocious Gulf Stream currents and unpredictable eddies that dragged her far off-course, sharks, storms, hallucinations, nausea, hypothermia, and the one thing no oceanographer, marine biologist or physician could address — doubt — Nyad could not let go of her dream. She could not erase her vision of her arrival in Key West, emerging from blue world into green world, symbolic of man’s evolution.

After 35 years, her journey is complete.

She made the trip by singing Beatles, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and Neil Young songs to herself in rhythm with her 2-mph, 50-strokes-per-minute, metronomic pace. She followed a white streamer by day, adorned with red lights at night, that was attached to a 25-foot boom off the starboard side of her support boat Voyager. Kayakers and shark-scouting divers kept an eye out for predators. Angel Yanagihara, a box-jellyfish expert from the University of Hawaii, was on the lookout for venomous “boxies” that have ruined previous attempts. She administered “Sting Stopper” gel to Nyad’s face. On the first night, Nyad also wore a claustrophobic, abrasive but protective silicone mask that looked like something a lucha libre wrestler would wear. Ideal conditions kept the jellyfish from swarming.

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.”

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