September 2, 2013
"You are never too old to chase your dreams."
That was stated most recently through the swollen, sunburned lips of Diana Nyad, who at 64, became the first person to swim the 110 miles across the Florida Straits from Cuba to Key West without using a shark cage. It was her fifth try. Her first attempt was 35 years ago.
Nyad, a well-known long-distance swimmer in her early life, had referred to the swim as her "Xtreme Dream" and had first given it a go in 1978. That time, she stopped after 76 miles. Her most previous attempt, in 2011, was halted by encounters with deadly box jellyfish and unfavorable currents.
This time around, Nyad had very favorable winds, favorable currents, and only one box jellyfish sighting. It helped as well that her crew carried an underwater device that emitted noises to scare away sharks, which are well-known in the area.
Still, Nyad did all the swimming herself, without flippers, completing the feat in 53 hours. More dramatically, she didn't use a shark cage, something that the only two other people ever to have achieved the feat used. She did wear a protective silicone mask and a body suit.
She set out from Havana, Cuba's capital, on Saturday morning and arrived on a sunny beach in Key West on Labor Day, two days later. She was very weak after her Herculean effort, and very sunburned; but she was determined to speak before being carted off on a stretcher, and the message she gave was this: "We should never, ever give up."
Nyad's last name comes from her stepfather, Aristotle Nyad. The name is a derivation of the Greek word for female swimmer. Indeed, she swam up to six hours a day as a child growing up in south Florida. A powerful backstroker, she won three state championships in high school. Born in 1949, she was on target to try out for the 1968 Summer Olympics when she was struck with a serious heart infection. After three months in recovery, she had lost her swimming speed.
At college in Illinois, she played tennis for a time before returning to swimming, this time focusing on long distances. She had a successful long-distance swimming career and owned several world records when she retired. (One record was for circling the island of Manhattan, a distance of 28.5 miles, in less than eight hours.)
Nyad has been elected to both the International Swimming Hall of Fame and the U.S. National Women's Sports Hall of Fame. She has written three books and has written for The New York Times, Newsweek, and other news outlets. She has been a longtime contributor to TV and radio news shows and a regular sports commentators for multiple networks.