KEY WEST, Fla. — Defeated before in bids to swim from Cuba to Florida, Diana Nyad would cry and rage through swollen lips and welts at the jellyfish tentacles that had repeatedly lashed her and derailed her plans to become the first swimmer to make the 110-mile crossing without a shark cage.
Her lips were swollen Monday, as in the past, when she emerged from the waters off Key West, but the 64-year-old American endurance swimmer managed a tight smile for supporters and said one word: “Seawater.” And this time, she was victorious.
“She freaking made it,” her website trumped, along with the words “Party time.”
The stinging sea life that had plagued her four previous attempts to swim the Florida Straits — and the attempts of other swimmers trying to complete the same stretch — failed to appear until the final hours of her journey. That left Nyad free to concentrate on defeating the elements and persevere through about 53 hours in the water until she could step on dry land.
Dazed and sunburned, the athlete waded ashore finally free of the protective silicone mask that had bruised her mouth and a fully-body “jellyfish suit” that she conceded were necessary for the swim she began Saturday — even if they weighed down her crawl strokes.
She was free, too, of the nagging demons that drove her to attempt the treacherous crossing five times. She tried three times in 2011 and 2012. Her first attempt was in 1978.
President Barack Obama was among a flurry of public officials and celebrities who tweeted congratulations. The president’s tweet echoed the sentiment Nyad has repeated many times when faced with defeat: “Never give up on your dreams.”
Nyad’s speech Monday was slurred as she neared her destination and after she made it to the beach, but she planned to address reporters Tuesday in Key West after rest and recovery.
Speaking Tuesday morning to NBC’s “Today” show, Nyad said she and her team were better-prepared for jellyfish this time around. She also used the mask that made it harder to breathe but helped protect her from jellyfish stings.
Nyad told ABC’s “Good Morning America” she used a mantra to help keep her going throughout the swim.
“The phrase I decided to use was ‘find a way,’” she said.
Her doctor, Derek Covington of the University of Miami and Jackson Memorial Hospital, said the swimmer was healthy and would not need a long time to recover from dehydration, sunburn and the swelling in and around her mouth.
“She was incredible to watch the whole way through,” he said.
Nyad leaped from the seawall of the Hemingway Marina into the warm waters off Havana on Saturday morning to begin swimming. She paused occasionally for nourishment, but never left the water until she reached the white sand beaches of the Keys and waded ashore.
The support team accompanying her had equipment that generated a faint electrical field around her, designed to keep sharks at bay. A boat also dragged a line in the water to help keep her on course as she kept up the strokes, hour after hour after hour. Along the way, her team said it spotted thunderstorms on the horizon and even reported on her blog that cruise ships made way for Nyad as she crossed busy ship lanes.
“I always thought she could do it given her internal energy, her mental and physical strength, her will of iron,” Jose Miguel Diaz Escrich, the Hemingway Marina commodore who helped organize the Cuba side of Nyad’s multiple attempts, said Monday after Nyad landed in Florida.
“More than the athletic feat, she wants to send a message of peace, love, friendship and happiness ... between the people of the United States and Cuba,” he added.
Australian Susie Maroney successfully swam the Strait in 1997 with a shark cage, which besides protection from the predators, has a drafting effect that pulls a swimmer along.
In 2012, Australian Penny Palfrey swam 79 miles toward Florida without a cage before strong currents forced her to stop. This June, her countrywoman Chloe McCardel made it 11 hours and 14 miles before jellyfish stings ended her bid.
In 1978, Walter Poenisch, an Ohio baker, claimed to have made the swim using flippers and a snorkel. Critics say there was insufficient independent documentation to verify his claim.
Nyad first garnered national attention in 1975 when she swam the 28 miles around the island of Manhattan in just under eight hours. In 1979 she swam the 102 miles from North Bimini, Bahamas, to Juno Beach, Fla., in 27.5 hours.
Nyad is also an author of three books, a motivational speaker and has been a reporter and commentator for NPR.
Associated Press writer Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana contributed to this report.
Follow Jennifer Kay on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jnkay .
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