Diana Nyad had already attempted four times to swim from Cuba to Florida, but nothing prepared her for the hardships she endured to set a historic record on her fifth try.
On Monday, Nyad, 64, became the first person to swim the 110 treacherous miles between Cuba and Florida without a shark cage. She had announced that this would be her final try at a feat she first attempted in 1978. While she caught some breaks with good weather, favorable currents and an absence of sharks, she also battled illness nearly the entire swim.
“All marathon swimmers and mountain climbers and endurance people have songs and chantings and countings, but I’ll tell you the truth, with all the experience I have, especially in this ocean, I didn’t realize how much suffering there was going to be,’’ Nyad told Willie Geist Tuesday on TODAY. “The wind action was huge. The jellyfish mask made me take in a lot of salt water, so I was sick as a dog.
“(Good friend and handler) Bonnie (Stoll) and my crew couldn’t find anything to eat or drink that I could keep down. I was vomiting constantly, almost throughout the whole 53 hours. You don’t have strength any more. I wasn’t out there just kind of swimming and daydreaming like usual. I was dealing with a crisis.”
Nyad approached the Key West shoreline shortly before 2 p.m. on Monday with a Coast Guard escort as fans waded into the water to cheer her on. She had spent 52 hours, 54 minutes and 18.6 seconds in the Florida Strait to make history. As she worked her way to shore, Nyad made sure to find a television camera to deliver her first message: “You should never, ever give up.”
"You can dream, you can be vital, and you can be in your prime even,'' Nyad told TODAY's Kerry Sanders about completing the swim at age 64. "I may not look it right now, but you catch me on a good day, I'm in my prime."
After her previous attempt in 2012 was derailed by painful jellyfish stings, Nyad enlisted the help of a jellyfish expert and had a special mask created to protect her face from being stung. A suit with sleeves and pant legs protected her body, and she also covered herself with “sting stopper’’ cream. Her shark diving team also swam ahead of her to help disperse any swarms of jellyfish in advance.
Box jellyfish expert Dr. Angel Yanagihara was also in the water, scooping up jellyfish with a net and directing Nyad so that she would swim away from the poisonous creatures.
“Number one, I had the (top) box jellyfish expert of the world with me,’’ Nyad said. “Before (on previous attempts) we just went out saying, ‘Oh my God, I hope we get lucky and make it through,’ and the animals are the most deadly in the ocean. She was there every minute, diving around me, saying ‘They’re not in the water right now.’’’
While the mask protected her face, it also presented its own difficulties.
“Very difficult to swim in,’’ she said. “I took in a lot of salt water, and I now I’ve got huge abrasions, lesions, all in the mouth from the mask rubbing. I decided the resolve was so strong to make this swim, that I had to get through (the jellyfish). That’s their world, and I had to get through them, so that was one big difference this time.”
Nyad was able to keep going through the difficult early morning with an 85-song playlist that included an unorthodox choice.
"The one that sort of really stirs me the most at 2-3-4 in the morning is Neil Young, "(The Needle and) the Damage Done,''' she told the anchors in the third hour of TODAY Tuesday. "I spoke to Neil Young directly about it, and he said, 'It's a story about heroin addiction in New York City. That doesn't sound very inspiring.' It's not the subject of the song, it's that eerie falsetto voice.''
Nyad said she hallucinated while the Neil Young classic was playing.
"I hear that in my ears (and) sing it to myself (at) three to four in the morning and I'm like, 'I am hallucinating,''' she said. "I thought I saw the Taj Mahal. I said, 'I can't cheat, I can't go up on the land.' (My shark divers) said, 'There's no land. We're in the middle of the Florida Straits.' I said, 'No, there's the Taj Mahal.' They said, 'OK, just keep swimming.'''
Nyad’s tongue and lips were still swollen on Tuesday thanks to sun and sea water. Still, nothing could dampen her spirits after achieving a goal 35 years in the making.
“I feel all right,’’ she said. “It’s amazing how the emotional can lift the physical. I remember the feeling only too well right here in Key West the last few years not making it, and I felt pretty beat up and sore and down and tired. To see that beach and see those people and to come in with my intrepid crew, it just takes all the physical pain away.”
Nyad plans to get back in the water next month for an event dubbed the "NYAD 48'' from Oct. 8-10 in Times Square in New York City. She will swim for 48 hours straight in a pool set up for the event to raise money for Hurricane Sandy Relief in advance of the one-year anniversary of the storm.