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Diana Nyad, 64, is first to swim Cuba to Key West without shark cage


As the water became too shallow to swim, long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad picked herself up and walked the last few yards onto Smathers Beach and into history.

On her fifth attempt, and 35 years after she first tried, Nyad fulfilled her seemingly crazy dream and became the first person to swim across the treacherous Florida Straits — from Havana, Cuba, to Key West — without the wave-breaking aid of a protective shark cage.

She was welcomed by nearly 2,000 people on land and on boats, kayaks and paddleboards. They waved rainbow and American flags. One man blew a conch shell.

Police and her crew tried in vain to hold back the swarming crowd that broke past barricades as she finished the 110-mile journey that began Saturday morning from Marina Hemingway in Cuba and ended just before 2 p.m. Monday: exactly 52 hours, 54 minutes and 18.6 seconds, according to her team.

Nyad's sunburned face stared straight ahead as she waddled the last few steps. Her lips were swollen and her mouth bruised by the face gear she wore to protect her from venomous jellyfish.

With the record official, trainer and good friend Bonnie Stoll hugged her, saying: "You did it."

Yes, she did. At age 64.

"I think she is a little crazy, but you have to be to accomplish this," said Lois Ann Porter, one of three people who supervised Nyad's nutrition.

Usually a great talker, Nyad said only a few words after arriving on the beach. The crowd hushed briefly to hear her:

"I've got three messages: One is, we should never, ever give up," she said in a voice hampered by swollen throat and lips.

"Two is, you never are too old to chase your dreams."

She paused. 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."

She had a flotilla of five boats with a support crew of 35.

Nyad was taken to the Lower Keys Medical Center for treatment of dehydration. For the first time, she managed a smile. She raised her hand and made a peace sign, then waved to the crowd.

Across the world, people on social media congratulated Nyad. President Barack Obama and Gov. Rick Scott took to Twitter to acknowledge her achievement.

"Never give up on your dreams," Obama tweeted.

This time, Nyad left Havana more prepared than ever for the sudden storms, sharks, the Gulf Stream and especially the dreaded box jellyfish, which had twice caused her to quit.

This time, she had luck on her side. Navigator John Bartlett said the weather and the Gulf Stream cooperated. She had been making great time, averaging 2.2 miles per hour when the Gulf Stream helped boost her along.

With the exception of a squall that rolled in Sunday night, the weather was clear. The Gulf Stream made a turn north that helped her toward Key West and did not throw her far off course.

The first night she also wore a specially designed prosthetic face mask that covered her lips, but it caused sores on the inside of her mouth, making her swallow more sea water.

The sores also prevented Nyad from eating solid food the second and third days, Porter said. So she was fed liquid nutrition, including blended chicken and dumplings.

The second night, she used a protection cream, dubbed "Sting Stopper," created by jellyfish expert Angel Yanagihara and the University of Hawaii.

When squalls brought winds of 23 knots and forced the flotilla to leave her side, she cried.

Other times, she appeared to tire and treaded water.

But Bartlett said they implemented their storm plan perfectly, which included divers with compasses keeping her on course for about 3 to 4 miles while the storm passed.

The pull of the sea

Crossing the Florida Straits between Key West and Havana has been an inviting journey for sailors and other feats.

On a water ski: In September 1978, Key West Mayor Charles "Sonny'' McCoy water skied across the Florida Straits to Cuba. It took him six hours and 10 minutes for the 110-mile crossing on a slalom ski. McCoy called himself the first person to ski from Key West to Cuba. At times, waves grew to 5 feet. "I've done it. I don't think I'll ever do it again,'' McCoy said.

On a standup paddle board: On Aug. 1, Ben Friberg, 35, of Chattanooga, Tenn., set out from Havana to be the first person to paddleboard from Cuba to Key West. Friberg said he hoped the journey would promote "peace and love" between Cuba and the United States. Friberg completed the crossing in about 28 hours, media reports said.

64 Diana Nyad's age.

52 Hours, 54 minutes it took for the swim.

5 Attempts. (She tried three times in 2011 and 2012. Her first attempt was in 1978.)

110 Miles from Havana, Cuba, to Key West.

Diana Nyad, 64, is first to swim Cuba to Key West without shark cage 09/02/13 [Last modified: Monday, September 2, 2013 11:36pm]
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