Diana Nyad: Thwarted Attempt to Swim Florida Straits Still a Success

Nyad's latest attempt to swim the Florida Straits -- 103 miles from Cuba to Key West -- was stopped 30 miles shy of the goal.

By John Cadiz Klemack and Samantha Tata
|  Wednesday, Aug 29, 2012  |  Updated 10:00 AM PDT
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Diana Nyad ended her fourth attempt to swim from Cuba to Key West, but not before braving severe storms, painful jellyfish stings and severe sunburn. Even though she did not make it the whole way, she says her journey was not about the destination, it was about determination and inspiration. John Cadiz Klemack reports for the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on Aug. 28, 2012.

John Cadiz Klemack

Diana Nyad ended her fourth attempt to swim from Cuba to Key West, but not before braving severe storms, painful jellyfish stings and severe sunburn. Even though she did not make it the whole way, she says her journey was not about the destination, it was about determination and inspiration. John Cadiz Klemack reports for the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on Aug. 28, 2012.

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Swollen lips, a blistered face and nasty weather cut Diana Nyad’s open-ocean swim from Cuba to Key West, but she told NBC4 that her historic attempt was still a success.

She was pulled out of the water on Aug. 21, on the eve of her 63rd birthday, 70.1 miles and 52 hours into the swim. It was her fourth attempt in nearly 30 years and her farthest yet of the 103-mile goal.

For Nyad, stopping short of her goal – for which she’s trained decades – did not put a damper on the thrill of her experience. That, she says, is her message and the inspiration she spread along the way is proof of her success.

"I think there are millions of people in my position where they try for something that’s important to them. Maybe they want to publish that novel that they believe is going to be the big best seller. And there are people that are disappointed in the final moment," she said.

"But does that mean that the whole trip…wasn’t an experience and wasn’t worthwhile? No."

What's Next for Diana Nyad?: Part 1 | Part 2

The Florida native who now lives in Los Angeles recalled her attempt to swim the Straits of Florida, which was thwarted predominantly by jellyfish.

“I’ve been swimming nicely. I’m going toward Florida,” she said, pantomiming her free-style. “Every fingertip reaches, I’m getting there, we’re getting there, we’re making the necessary miles.

“At night, the jellyfish come up by the hundreds of thousands.”

A jellyfish expert on Nyad’s team used an infrared light to spot the jellies.

“She said it looked like a minefield,” Nyad said. “Every stroke I was taking was just grabbing ‘em, and swimming through them.”

The stings were “debilitating,” Nyad said, giving her “chills, and asthma.”

“I will applaud any swimmer who makes it through there,” Nyad said. “I personally went to the mat for it and I can’t go out there again and subject myself and my crew to it again.”

Nyad first attempted the 103-mile venture in 1978, when she was 28 years old.

This time around, she went out in the water with a team of five boats and 53 handlers, navigators and experts – including those skilled in keeping predators, like sharks and jellyfish, at bay.

During the expedition, which Nyad equated to that of scaling Mt. Everest, she was being fed up to 1,000 calories every 90 minutes and drinking every 45 minutes, usually through a hose from the boat while she treaded water.

The then-62 year old says she was “prepared to suffer.” For the first 15 hours of her swim, Nyad was fighting against strong currents from the north and repeatedly cited jellyfish as her main foe.

Almost three days in, Nyad and her team made the decision to stop nearly 30 miles shy of the goal.

“You feel like it’s close, but it would’ve been another two nights – not one night, but two nights – and we all looked at each other, none of us [wanted to] give up, but we thought, we just won’t survive two more nights,” she said.

Nyad “couldn’t have been more prepared” for the trek, armed with cream to protect against venomous jellyfish stings, specialized swim gear, and several medical and ocean experts.

After logging hundreds of hours in the pool and ocean – up to 16 hours at a time – Nyad says this was her last attempt to swim from Cuba, a goal that carried with it a chance to highlight decades of trade and travel embargoes between Cuba and the U.S.

“A little part of my swim was, no big political statement, but just to say, do you know how close we are? You can actually swim over there,” she said. “You know, let’s stop all this.”

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