It took a few strokes of good luck for 64-year-old Diana Nyad to become, on her fifth attempt, the first person to swim the 110 miles from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage. When she staggered onto Key West's Smathers Beach at 1:53 p.m. on Sept. 2, 52 hours, 54 minutes and 18.6 seconds after jumping into the sea in Havana, Nyad could thank a mercurial current that, for a 5½-hour stretch, helped whisk her along at nearly 4 mph; her 35-person crew, who helped keep sharks and potentially lethal box jellyfish at bay; and the weather, which produced nauseating four-foot swells much of the way but no lightning. Unlike Nyad's past attempts—in 1978, 2011 (twice) and '12—which had been foiled by unfavorable weather, asthma, strong currents in the wrong direction and excruciating jellyfish stings, this time Mother Nature threw nothing at her that she couldn't handle.
This is an article from the Oct. 14, 2013 issue
But the biggest factor in Nyad's favor was her capacity to power through misery. A custom silicone mask that protected even her lips from jellyfish tentacles was both her saving grace—"I wouldn't have even attempted this swim without that mask," says Nyad—and the bane of her first night. She wore the mask for 13 hours in rough seas while jellies were nearby, but its design caused her to swallow a lot of water, which made her vomit. "I didn't know how torturous and difficult that was going to be," says Nyad, who also abided hallucinations caused by sleep deprivation.
In crucial ways the 64-year-old Nyad was better equipped to fulfill what she calls her "big dream" now than when she was at 28. "I was definitely faster as a kid, but everything else—emotional maturity, perspective on life, ability to handle pain, ability to handle disappointment—are far superior now," she says. "I've learned you don't lift up at the 36th hour and go, Ohmygod, I feel great! There'll never be a problem. You don't know what's going to happen in the 37th hour. You put your head down until someone tells you, There's the shore. That's the only time you know you're going to make it."
Now that she has completed her quest, Nyad is done with marathon swimming, at least in the ocean. She agreed to swim for 48 hours in a temporary pool set up in Manhattan's Herald Square from Oct. 8 to 10 to raise money for Hurricane Sandy victims. At least the waves will be minimal, and there'll be no jellies for miles.
For most of the 33 years between her first and second attempts at a Cuba-Florida crossing, Nyad didn't swim much, preferring sports like boogie boarding and cycling. But over the last four years of training for what would turn out to be four more attempts, Nyad swam every other day and spent 2½ hours of every off day doing yoga, core strengthening and push-ups and chin-ups.
In December she'd swim six hours a day in a pool near her home in L.A.; in January she'd relocate to St. Maarten, working up to 22-hour ocean swims by May. The former Olympic hopeful isn't sure she could sprint now if she tried. "I've gotten so used to swimming in this survival rhythm that I can keep up for two or three days nonstop," she says. "If I were to race 100 meters, I'd probably have to swim at the exact same pace I swim for 53 hours."