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Video: Diana Nyad: Leaving the water ‘was devastating’

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TODAY contributor
updated 8/22/2012 9:27:37 AM ET 2012-08-22T13:27:37

Diana Nyad can deal with the vicious thunderstorms, lurking sharks, high winds and tricky currents, but it's tiny jellyfish that have her questioning whether to attempt a fifth try at a historic swim.

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The endurance swimming star was pulled from the water by her crew early Tuesday morning during a thunderstorm, suffering from exhaustion, hypothermia, swollen lips and jellyfish stings. It marked the end of her third attempt in the last calendar year and fourth try overall to become the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage. After logging 41 hours of an estimated 60-hour, 103-mile journey, Nyad, spoke with Savannah Guthrie on TODAY, the swimmer's 63rd birthday.

Story: Diana Nyad ‘moving in the right direction’ on Cuba-Fla. swim

“If all of those things were all I had to face besides the will and the body to get across, I would still go out and do it again,’’ Nyad said. “I would go to my grave still trying. It’s not about all that stuff. It’s about the jellyfish. I just don’t know what to do."

Less than 24 hours after her operations chief told TODAY that Nyad was moving at a steady pace, her journey came to an end. “I did the most intelligent moves I could — got the world expert, made a suit, wore pantyhose over my face, and still was stung so badly on the lips," Nyad told Guthrie. "I had nine stings on the first night. I don’t know how to conquer them, I really don’t.’’

Jellyfish rise to the surface at night and then go below when the sun goes out. A specially designed suit that covered everything but Nyad's lips was not enough to stop their tiny tentacles from lashing her lips.

Video: Diana Nyad continues swim from Havana to Key West (on this page)

“Its tentacles are literally no bigger than a strand of your hair,’’ she said. “What are the chances that I’m in that gigantic, vast ocean and the only part of my body that is open is my lips, and the tentacles come whipping across. You have no idea what the pain is. Searing pain, and if it were just the pain, I would be willing to suffer through that, but it’s not. You start trembling and you start going into paroxysms of inner system difficulties.

“How are you supposed to do something that’s already so difficult with your body debilitated like that? To me, it’s a mystery, and I feel like I threw the kitchen sink at it, and I do not know how to combat them. I am at a loss.’’

No regrets
But while jellyfish proved to be her undoing, they weren’t all that Nyad was dealing with in the open sea. “That second night I was out there, my shark guys, they’re in the water every minute, were seeing pairs of eyes of large predators all around,’’ she said. “The thunderstorms were hellacious. The Gulf Stream was moving in a very tricky and powerful way. (The current) turned our boats around a couple of times.’’

Nyad insisted on swimming ashore when she arrived with her 50-person support crew in Key West on Tuesday. Her crew serenaded her with an early rendition of “Happy Birthday.’’

Video: Exhausted Diana Nyad abandons swim to Florida (on this page)

“There aren’t a lot of things like this to be done in the world anymore, and this is one of the people, handful of people on the planet, that would step up and try it,’’ her operations chief, Mark Sollinger, told NBC News.

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“It was devastating,’’ Nyad said about having to stop. “On the other hand, it’s like life, isn’t it? We don’t always get what we want. All our dreams don’t come true. This is a big, big, larger-than-life dream. We called it the ‘extreme dream.’ “ This journey over the last three years has been magnificent. What I’ve learned, and the spirit of it, I don’t have any regrets.’’

Video: Diana Nyad: Leaving the water ‘was devastating’ (on this page)

Australian Susan Maroney is the only person to swim from Cuba to the United States, and she did it at 22 years old in May 1997 while using a shark cage. Accomplishing the feat without one has been a passion of Nyad’s for the past 35 years, as she made her first attempt at 28 years old in 1978.

“Maybe somebody else is going to get lucky and get in there and one of those box jellyfish isn’t going to touch them,’’ Nyad said. “All I know is, what are the mathematical chances that I’ve gone three times in the last calendar year and each time I was stung by this very tiny little animal?”

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