Long-distance swimmer completes 110-mile journey through treacherous waters on fifth attempt
On her fifth attempt spanning 35 years and involving many agonising interactions with jellyfish, the long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad finally achieved her lifetime ambition to enter the record books as the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage.
Nyad came on shore at Florida’s Key West shortly before 2pm local time and despite having been in the ocean for about 52 hours managed to walk on to the beach unaided before falling into the arms of a supporter. She succeeded in making the 110-mile (180km) journey through treacherous waters, currents and the constant threat of attack from what she once described as “Mother Nature on steroids”.
At lunchtime on Monday Nyad, 64, was just a couple of miles off the coast of Florida, her extreme dream finally within her grasp. Though she was said by her team to be “really hurting”, she took time out to deliver a euphoric message to her 35-strong support crew.
She began by saying that she had trouble talking as a result of abrasions in her mouth caused by a silicone mask she has been wearing to protect herself from jellyfish stings and apologised for being hard to understand. Then she said: “I am about to swim my last two miles in the ocean.
“This is a lifelong dream of mine and I’m very, very glad to be with you. 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.”
In the course of her prolonged struggle to cross the Florida Strait, Nyad has proved herself to be a supreme embodiment of the adage “perseverance works”. She first attempted the crossing in 1978, then aged 28 and swimming within a shark cage, though she was blown off course and gave up after about 76 miles.
Her fourth attempt, made in August 2011, was called off early after she was stung in two separate attacks by box jellyfish whose deadly venom has claimed more human lives in the past 50 years than shark bites. Nyad said the stings felt like having her entire body submerged in hot, burning oil. “I was yelling: ‘Fire, fire, fire!’” she recalled.
Nyad made clear that this fifth attempt would also be her last – success or failure. She made the 110.36-mile swim without the protection of a shark cage, surpassing the only previous person to negotiate the strait, Susie Maroney, who made the crossing in 1997 with the benefit of the cage.
She started out at 8.59am on Saturday, jumping into the water at the Marina Hemingway in Cuba with a shout of: “Courage!” From there it was front crawl all the way, broken only by feeds every 40 minutes of nutrition gels and water through a tube.
The swimmer wore a specially designed jellyfish suit to offer some protection against the box jellyfish’s tentacles, covering all exposed flesh but adding to her burden by slowing her. For added security she used a cream called Sting Stopper on her face and her crew helped steer her safely through the ocean by travelling in front of her and laying a trail for her to follow through un-infested waters.
After about 46 hours in the water, Nyad had to suffer the disappointment of being told by her team that a change in the currents meant that her final stretch would take much longer to complete than expected. By then she was just 6.5 miles off coast, but tiredness was already setting in.
Doctors who accompanied her reported that her tongue and lips were swollen – hence the difficulty she had in talking. They were worried about the impact that would have on her breathing, but decided not to intervene and allowed her to go on to make something that had eluded her for so long a reality.
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