KEY WEST, Fla. — Defeated before in bids to swim from Cuba to Florida, Diana Nyad would cry and rage through swollen lips and welts at the jellyfish tentacles that had repeatedly lashed her and derailed her plans to become the first swimmer to make the 110-mile crossing without a shark cage.
Her lips were swollen Monday, as in the past, when she emerged from the waters off Key West, but the 64-year-old American endurance swimmer managed a tight smile for supporters and said one word: “Seawater.” And this time, she was victorious.
“She freaking made it,” her website trumped, along with the words “Party time.”
The stinging sea life that had plagued her four previous attempts to swim the Florida Straits — and the attempts of other swimmers trying to complete the same stretch — failed to appear until the final hours of her journey. That left Nyad free to concentrate on defeating the elements and persevere through about 53 hours in the water.
Dazed and sunburned, the athlete waded ashore finally free of the protective silicone mask that had bruised her mouth and a fully-body “jellyfish suit” that she conceded were necessary for the swim she began Saturday — even if they weighed down her crawl strokes.
She was free, too, of the nagging demons that drove her to attempt the treacherous crossing five times. She tried three times in 2011 and 2012. Her first attempt was in 1978.
President Barack Obama was among a flurry of public officials and celebrities who tweeted congratulations. The president’s tweet echoed the sentiment Nyad has repeated many times when faced with defeat: “Never give up on your dreams.”
Nyad’s speech Monday was slurred as she neared her destination and after she made it to the beach, but she planned to address reporters today in Key West.
Her doctor, Derek Covington of the University of Miami and Jackson Memorial Hospital, said the swimmer was healthy and would not need a long time to recover from dehydration, sunburn and the swelling in and around her mouth.
“She was incredible to watch the whole way through,” he said.
Nyad leaped from the seawall of the Hemingway Marina into the warm waters off Havana on Saturday morning to begin swimming. She paused occasionally for nourishment, but never left the water until she reached the white sand beaches of the Keys.
The support team accompanying her had equipment that generated a faint electrical field around her, designed to keep sharks at bay. A boat also dragged a line in the water to help keep her on course as she kept up the strokes, hour after hour. Along the way, her team said it spotted thunderstorms on the horizon and even reported on her blog that cruise ships made way for Nyad.