Fifth time's a charm for 64-year-old Cuba-to-Florida swimmer

Cammy Clark,Christina VeigaMiami Herald
Endurance swimmer Diana Nyad, right, and her trainer, Bonnie Stoll hug after Nyad walks ashore Monday, Sept. 2, 2013 in Key West, Fla. after swimming from Cuba. Nyad became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without the help of a shark cage. She arrived at the beach just before 2 p.m. EDT, about 53 hours after she began her swim in Havana on Saturday. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter) J Pat Carter

Long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad, on her fifth attempt to cross the treacherous Florida Straits, completed the historic journey Monday afternoon.

The 64-year-old Nyad accomplished her lifelong dream when she staggered onto a Key West beach just before 2 p.m., becoming the first person to complete the treacherous swim without the wave-breaking aid of a protective shark cage. Her 110-mile voyage took 52 hours, 54 minutes and 18.6 seconds to complete, according to a tweet by Nyad's team.

The crowd at Smathers Beach swarmed her in the water, applauding and waving American and rainbow flags. In typical Key West fashion, conch shells sounded.

According to media reports, Nyad walked out of the water when it became too shallow to swim any more. Her lips were swollen by jellyfish stings and her mouth bruised by face gear she wore to protect her from the venomous tentacles.

She hugged her team members and was carted off on a stretcher, but not before she reportedly told supporters: "Never give up."

People from around the world tracked Nyad on her website and rooted for her on social media.

President Barack Obama and Florida Gov. Rick Scott took to Twitter to congratulate her.

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

Nyad left Hemingway Marina in Havana on Saturday to cross the Straits, home to stinging box jellyfish, sharks, sudden storms, eddies and the strong Gulf Stream.

Despite a Sunday-night storm that brought winds of up to 23 knots and bouts with nausea, Nyad made good time in the first half of the swim, with about 51 strokes per minute. A favorable current helped her average about two miles per hour, and by about 5 a.m. Monday she was on course to conquer her dream.

"The greatest variable here is the extension of human endurance," said her navigator, John Bartlett, who was leading her escort boat, the Voyager. "How long will it take her to make those last 100 strokes at the end, and all the ones from here to then?"

For Nyad, the journey began 35 years ago in 1978, when she first tried with a shark cage but came up short. She gave up swimming for decades, but conquering the Florida Straits continued to eat away at her. So in her 60s, she plunged back into the water and trained to regain her old form.

With a good marketing team that helped raise the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to support such an endeavor, she made her second attempt in 2011. It was hampered by shoulder pain and an asthma attack. Months later, jellyfish stings ended a third attempt.

Last year, she tried for a fourth time. The jellyfish got her again. She was pulled from the water, her face badly swollen.

This time at dusk and night hours when the jellyfish and other stinging creatures are most prevalent, she wore a jellyfish protection suit. The first night she wore a specially designed prosthetic face mask that also covered her lips, but it made it difficult to swim. The second night, she used a protection cream, dubbed "Sting Stopper," that was created by jellyfish expert Angel Yanagihara and the University of Hawaii.

A diver also was in the water with Nyad to scout for jellyfish. If any were seen, the mask would go on, according to her website. The divers were part of a 35-person support crew that included kayakers, accompanying her in a flotilla of five boats.

Most long-distance swimmers have never even attempted the swim, with or without a shark cage.

It's a quest that Australian Chloe McCardel called the "hardest swim in the world today" before she attempted it earlier this summer. McCardel, 28, made it only 11 hours in her only try before suffering a "debilitating severe jellyfish sting" that forced her to stop.

Australian-based British swimmer Penny Palfrey, a 54-year-old grandmother, made it 78 miles in 2012 before she gave up primarily because of a strong eddy whose currents were pushing her away from the Keys.

In 1997, celebrated 22-year-old Australian Susie Maroney was hailed as the first person to complete the swim. She used a shark cage.

Walter Poenish, then 84, claimed that he was the rightful owner of that title. He said he made the swim, in 1978, also in a shark cage, and using flippers.

But the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame does not recognize either crossing because they were not completed under traditional English Channel swimming rules that forbid such aids.

At the time, Maroney was accused of cheating, by hanging onto the shark cage, which was pulled by a boat. But even if she didn't hang on, it appears that the shark cage created smoother water for her to swim.

Her time was an astounding 24 hours and 30 minutes for more than 100 miles. That swimming pace was much faster than the 2012 Olympic gold medalist averaged for just 6.2 miles.

That's why today's swimmers say the Florida Straits was still an unconquered body of water -- until Monday.

A documentary about Nyad's voyage, called "The Other Shore," will premiere Sept. 26 and is available online at


The Miami Herald