Diana Nyad’s Amazing Comeback

The fifth time was the charm for 64 yr-old distance swimmer Diana Nyad!

Nyad staggered out of the water in Key West, FL yesterday afternoon, becoming the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without the help of a shark cage. Nyad did the 103 mile trip by swimming for nearly 53 hours.

Dehydrated and with a swollen face and slurred speech, Nyad still stopped to address the many fans lining the beach:

I have three messages. One is, we should never, ever give up. Two is, you’re never too old to chase your dream. Three is, it looks like a solitary sport, but it is a team.

Nyad’s first attempt to make the crossing took place in 1978 at the age of 28. She swam inside a shark tank for nearly 42 hours., Team doctors after swimming 76 miles due to strong Westerly winds and 8-foot swells that were slamming her against the cage and pushing her off-course towards Texas.

In 2010, at the age of 60, she began to train again for the Cuba to Florida swim. She was scheduled to make the swim in August/September 2010 and again in July 2011 but bad weather forced her to cancel.

In August 2011, she was able to get into the water to begin her trek. Despite strong currents, winds that pushed her miles off course and a shoulder injury that caused her pain, she pushed onward. Only when she experienced asthma symptoms which made it difficult for her to breathe did she give up – 29 hours after getting into the water.

portugese man of warBut she was back in the water in September 2011 but had to stop before completing it because of box jellyfish and Portuguese man-of-war stings. Physicians told her that additional stings could be fatal.

Nyad’s fourth attempt in September 2012 ended about half-way through the distance. Once again, she received multiple jelly-fish stings and bad lightning storm put her wildly off course.

The current swim began on Saturday in Havana.  Her team of 35 members performed several functions. Meteorologists and oceanographers monitor weather and current/tidal conditions. A medical team monitored her condition and gave her food and water. Nyad is not allowed to hold on to the support boat at any time.

To keep Nyad swimming in a straight line, her specially designed, slow-moving catamaran support boat deployed a 10 feet (3m) streamer: a long pole keeps the streamer several yards away from the boat, and the streamer is designed to remain about 5 feet underwater, so that Nyad can swim above it, much like following a lane line in a swimming pool. At night, the white streamer will be replaced by a string of red LED lights.

Paddlers in kayaks follow closely to Nyad. The specially designed kayaks are equipped with a device called a Protective Oceanic Device. It can generate a faint electrical field around her to keep sharks at bay.

stinger-suits-women-men-kidsAdditional jellyfish precautions were also taken and included a silicone mask, a full bodysuit, gloves and booties. Although she acknowledge that these might slow her down , she believed that they would ultimately allow her to finish the swim.

Despite these precautions, the swim did have a few difficulties:

  • On the second night, she became cold and physicians decided to let her keep swimming instead of feeding her in the hope that the swimming would warm her.
  • The custom-made face mask became painful to wear, irritating the inside of her mouth. She did not wear the mask on the second night, instead using a special “sting stopper” cream.
  • She had problems with vomiting because she had swallowed so much sea water. She reportedly sang lullabies to herself to help her relax. She received IV fluids to correct her dehydration when she got to shore.

What an amazing accomplishment! When asked if she had a “mantra” she used to get through the swim, she said,

Just find a way…


Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

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