Sixty-four-year-old US long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad became the first person to swim across the Florida Straits from Cuba without a shark cage, succeeding on her fifth attempt at the feat on Monday.
Her face sunburned and lips swollen, with barely enough energy to speak, Nyad waded ashore at Key West, Florida, after a 53-hour swim and told onlookers: “We should never, ever give up... You never are too old to chase your dreams.”
Nyad completed the estimated 177km journey after departing from Havana on Saturday morning. She set a record for the longest ocean swim without a shark cage or flippers, her crew said.
She was met by crowds in Key West who surrounded her, snapping photographs, as they enjoyed sunny beach weather on the Labor Day holiday.
Helpers immediately placed Nyad on a stretcher and hydrated her with an intravenous drip before she was taken to a hospital.
Nyad had been trying to achieve the crossing for 35 years, describing it on her Web site as her “Xtreme Dream,” and seemed determined to prove The Beatles were right that there is plenty to live for “when I’m 64.”
“With all the experience I have in this ocean, I never knew I would suffer the way I did,” Nyad told CNN in an interview.
The first day was especially difficult because of winds and “even people with iron will quit when its really tough,” said Nyad, her lips swollen from exposure and from the mouthpiece of a prosthetic mask used to protect her from deadly box jellyfish.
She said she told herself: “Forget about surface up... With your left hand push Cuba back and push Florida toward you.”
Nyad’s team said her attempt benefited from several key factors, including calm seas, the surprising lack of jellyfish and favorable currents in the powerful Gulf Stream that flows eastward through the Florida Straits.
The marathon swimmer had said this would be her final attempt, this time equipped with the mask, as well as a body suit to better protect her from box jellyfish that forced her to end one of two attempted crossings last year.
A team of ocean kayakers and divers accompanied Nyad on her journey, dragging an electronic device in the water that emitted a current to repel sharks.
Nyad has spent much of her life in the water. She described in a 2011 YouTube documentary how her father told her when she was a young girl that she was destined to swim, saying her last name is derived from the Greek word for water nymphs or female swimmers.
The Florida Straits had been conquered twice previously, both times with the aid of a protective cage. The second time, in 1997, the cage glided on ocean currents and enabled Australian Susie Maroney, 22, to make the journey in just 25 hours.
Nyad made her first attempt at the crossing aged 28 in 1978, when she gave up after covering 122km in 42 hours with the aid of a shark cage.
With Key West in her sights on Monday, Nyad halted briefly about 3km offshore to thank her support team.
“This is a lifelong dream of mine and I’m very, very glad to be with you,” she said, according to her Web site. “So let’s get going so we can have a whopping party.”