Published December 12, 2015
Endurance swimmer Diana Nyad became the first person to swim the treacherous waters from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage on Monday, arriving in Key West two days after starting her 110-mile trek.
Nyad, 64, arrived at the beach just before 2 p.m. EDT, about 53 hours after she began her swim in Havana early Saturday. She had unsuccessfully tried to swim the Florida Strait four times, mostly recently in 2012.
"I have three messages," Nyad said on the beach. "One is, we should never, ever give up. Two is, you're never too old to chase your dream. Three is, it looks like a solitary sport, but it is a team."
The New York City native’s latest journey began when she jumped from the seawall of the Hemingway Marina into the warm waters off Havana. As she closed in on the Key West shores, a couple of hundred people gathered on the beach to watch her make the final leg of the swim. Nyad swam within a couple dozen feet of the beach and walked on to dry land, appearing dazed and sunburned. She was later taken by ambulance to a hospital.
"I have to say, I'm a little bit out of it right now," said Nyad, gesturing toward her swollen lips and adding "seawater."
Nyad told supporters a silicone mask she wore to protect her face from jellyfish stings caused bruises inside her mouth, making it difficult for her to speak. Doctors traveling with Nyad had been worried about her slurred speech and her breathing, but they didn't intervene, according to Nyad's website.
"I am about to swim my last 2 miles in the ocean," Nyad said earlier to her 35-member team from the water, according to her website. "This is a lifelong dream of mine and I'm very, very glad to be with you."
Nyad’s previous failed attempt ended amid boat trouble, storms, unfavorable currents and jellyfish stings that left her face significantly swollen. In her latest attempt, Nyad wore a full bodysuit, gloves, booties and a mask at night, when jellyfish rise to the surface. Before the swim, she said the kit would slow her down, but Nyad believed it would be effective.
"I admit there's an ego rush," Nyad said before the swim began. "If I — three days from now, four days from now — am still somehow bringing the arms up and I see the shore ... I am going to have a feeling that no one yet on this planet has ever had."
Jose Miguel Diaz Escrich, the Hemingway Marina commodore who helped organize the Cuba side of Nyad's multiple attempts, characterized the accomplishment as "historic" and "marvelous."
"I always thought she could do it given her internal energy, her mental and physical strength, her will of iron," said Diaz Escrich, whom Nyad has described as a longtime friend.
"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."
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 abandon the attempt. 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 rose to national prominence in 1975 when she swam the 28 miles around the island of Manhattan in just under eight hours. Four years later, Nyad 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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.