Fifth Time Was Charm for Cuba-Florida Swimmer

Inside the "extreme dream" of Diana Nyad

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Enrique De La Osa / Reuters

U.S. long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad is pictured in Havana, Cuba, before attempting to swim to Florida from Havana, Aug. 31, 2013.

As foggy as her goggles got in the ice-cold water, Diana Nyad’s “extreme dream” never lost its clarity, or its power.

After four failed attempts, Nyad finally realized that dream Monday, becoming the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage. It took more than 53 hours of virtually non-stop swimming through the shark- and jellyfish-infested swells of the Straits of Florida, carbo-loading with spaghetti en route. But, as her website put it, “She freaking made it.”

The Straits were first successfully swum by Susie Maroney in 1997. The 22-year-old Australian marathon swimmer, who was born with cerebral palsy, used a cage, which besides keeping sharks at bay can slightly aid a swimmer by reducing drag.

Nyad’s cageless world-first was born out of an equally relentless determination. “That ocean’s still there,” the former sports broadcaster told a TEDMED conference in 2011, after her second failed attempt. “I don’t want to be the crazy woman who does it for years and years and years, and tries and fails and tries and fails and tries and fails — but I can swim from Cuba to Florida, and I will swim from Cuba to Florida.”

(MORE: Diana Nyad Completes Cuba-to-Florida Swim on Fifth Try)

She first ventured the 110-mile feat in 1978 as a 29-year old, with the aid of a shark cage. At the time, the world had already acknowledged her as the greatest long-distance swimmer ever, and she had numerous endurance world records to her name (some of which she continues to hold today). She didn’t finish, however, forced to stop after 42 hours by dangerous swells and overwhelming currents that pushed her toward the Gulf of Mexico.

Then she stopped swimming. For 31 years, Nyad immersed herself in a career as a journalist and author. She also started a fitness company with a friend. With her 60th birthday, however, her mind turned back to that Cuba-to-Florida swim as part of a general stock-taking of her life. There was much to mull upon, including the sexual abuse she says she experienced as a high school student. The extreme dream was born from such inner turbulence. Standing at an emotional crossroads, Nyad felt that her dream could be “the remedy to all this malaise,” and “something that would require utter conviction and unwavering passion, something that would make me be my best self in every aspect of my life, every minute of every day because the dream was so big I couldn’t get there without that kind of behavior and that kind of conviction.”

For Nyad, conviction has never been in short supply. Her second attempt, at age 60, was thwarted by an asthma attack while in the water. Her third and fourth attempts were thwarted by stings from highly venomous box jellyfish. Notwithstanding, she entered the water again on Aug. 31 for her fifth bid.

(MORE: 64-Year-Old Swimmer Breaks World Record for Distance Swim)

This time, Nyad was equipped to withstand the physical challenges — with a jellyfish suit to protect her against the worst of the stings during the night hours when the jellyfish are most active, and a barrier ointment to protect her face.

That left her mind, which Nyad says she had been training with everything from Stephen Hawking’s The Grand Design to her own mental workouts. Since her early endurance swimming days, she has relied on counting (first in English, then in German, Spanish, and finally French), and then singing, as a way of powering  through the alternating stress and boredom of a waterborne marathon. During one attempt, Nyad admitted to the TEDMED audience, “I had a playlist in my head — not through headphones, in my head — of 65 songs. I couldn’t wait to get into the dark in the middle of the night because that’s when Neil Young comes out.”

We’re presuming the song was Heart of Gold.