It took five attempts, but on September 2nd, 2013, U.S. endurance swimmer Diana Nyad accomplished the dream she has been harboring since 1978 - Become the first person to swim from Cuba to the Florida Keys without a protective 'shark' cage.
The 103-mile epic journey began on the morning of Saturday, September 1st, when Diana dived into the warm waters off Havana, Cuba.
Surrounded by a team of 35 members that included support assistants, a doctor, a shark hunter, a navigator and even a jellyfish expert, the athlete swam almost continuously for the entire 52 hours 54 minutes stopping only, for short food breaks.
Despite the grueling swim, the badly sunburnt, slightly dazed and disoriented athlete still seemed to have the energy to acknowledge the thousands of fans that had gathered to greet her and inspire them with this brief speech :
"I have three messages. One is, we should never, ever give up. Two is, you never are too old to chase your dreams. And three is, it looks like a solitary sport but it's a team."
After that, she was quickly whisked away to the hospital for a check-up and some well-deserved rest.
And while Diana made it look relatively easy, the epic swim was anything but. Besides the grueling currents and blazing sun, she also had to combat hoards of jellyfish that have been her nemesis in past attempts. To avoid their deadly stings, Diana wore a full body suit, gloves, booties and a mask at night when the jellyfish rise to the surface. This not only slowed her down but the constant biting on the silicone mask resulted in abrasions and bruises inside her mouth, making it difficult for her to speak. In addition the seawater made her so nauseous, that she had a hard time keeping food down.
But despite all these hardships, the 64-year-old who says she keeps herself mentally occupied by playing tricks like counting her strokes in different languages and singing from a repertoire of 85 songs she has committed to memory, did not give up on her dream.
This is not the first time Diana is making headlines. Regarded as one of the greatest long-distance swimmers in the world in the 1970's, she broke several world records including one for swimming around Manhattan Island and another for covering the 102.5 miles between the Bahamas and Florida. Her first attempt at this particular route was when she was just 28 years old. However after 42 hours of excruciating effort the swimmer had to abandon her quest because of strong winds that strayed her too far west from her destination. Soon after that she quit the sport to pursue her other interests which include broadcasting, motivational speaking and writing books about her experiences.
Then to everyone's surprise, at the age of 60 she announced not only a return to the sport, but also, the desire to purse her dream of completing the 103-mile trek - This time, without the shark cage. Her second quest in August 2011 was thwarted by strong ocean currents and a shoulder injury. Not ready to give up, she returned to the water for her third attempt a month later, only to be sidelined by debilitating jellyfish and Portuguese man of war stings. The swimmer tried again in August 2012, only to be derailed once more by the pesky jellyfish and a bad lightning storm that veered her off course. When asked what motivated her to even try attempt it the second time, leave alone, five times, she said that she wanted to prove to other women her age, that it is never too late to fulfill their dreams!
Australian swimmer Susie Maroney, successfully swam this course in 1997 - She however did it inside a shark cage, which not only protects from predators, but also, creates a draft that helps pull the swimmer along. Two other fellow Australians, Penny Palfrey and Chloe McCardei tried to attempt it without shark cages in 2012. Neither were successful - Penny was plagued by strong ocean currents and Chloe, fell victim to jellyfish stings!
Resources: Huffingtonpost.com, cnn.com, msnbc.com,wikipedia.org,diananyad.com