September 07, 2013 10:49 AM

A Key West, Fla., commercial spear fisherman with ties to Indiana played an important role in endurance swimmer Diana Nyad’s record-setting swim from Cuba to Florida last weekend.

Niko Gazzale, 24, served as the shark team leader, and along with four other swimmers was often in the water protecting Nyad from sharks and jellyfish, and encouraging her to press on.

Nyad became the first person to swim the 110 miles from Havana to Key West without a shark cage and made the trip in about 53 hours.

Gazzale is the grandson of the late Pete and Betty Harvey, who lived in Indiana. His mother, Cyndi (Harvey) Mahnke, is an Indiana native now living in Rome. Gazzale has uncles, aunts and cousins living in Indiana, and he visits Indiana frequently, too, he said.

“Every time she’d stop (to eat and drink while treading water), we’d jump in the water and do a perimeter sweep” about 30 feet from her, checking for sharks and pushing jellyfish away, Gazzale said. The shark team swimmers also kept motivating Nyad, “letting her know she was doing an awesome job.”

Gazzale said the team did not see any sharks, but he would have preferred them to jellyfish.

“We free-dive a lot (without air tanks). We swim with them all the time down here,” he said Wednesday from Key West.

He’s never been hurt by a shark but he has endured multiple painful stings from jellyfish, which can actually cause cardiac arrest in human victims, he said.

The moon phase last weekend was keeping the jellyfish deeper in the water, and the Gulf Stream was also working in Nyad’s favor, he said.

“She inspired me a lot. … She’s an amazing lady,” Gazzale said of the 64-year-old Nyad. “Age is a number. That’s all it is.”

Gazzale celebrated his 24th birthday Tuesday and Nyad joined in — “She was partying like a rock star,” he said — after spending only an hour in a hospital after she came out of the ocean Monday afternoon.

“She’s a great lady, an inspiration to many women,” he said.

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