STOCK ISLAND, Fla. — With 10 TV cameras rolling, and several digital recorders turned on, endurance swimmer Diana Nyad began her celebratory news conference in true Diana Nyad form, exclaiming loudly: “We (expletive) did it.”
The zombie who emerged from the Atlantic Ocean and staggered onto Smathers Beach in Key West on Monday afternoon — after an epic 110.7-mile, nearly 53-hour swim across the treacherous Florida Straits from Cuba — was long gone.
Less than 24 hours later, with her 35-year dream finally fulfilled and a new long-distance world record to her likely credit, Nyad was back to her energetic self, looking like she was ready to jump back in the water and do it again.
She held court for more than an hour at a marina restaurant, all while standing on her feet and animatedly working the room like the entertainer that she is. She heaped praise on team members, one by one. She sang a Neil Young song. She philosophized about the seemingly impossible quest, her gender, her age of 64, the previous failures and the cost (about $1 million for the last four attempts).
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She even admitted, to the chagrin of her friend, trainer and business partner Bonnie Stoll, that she rooted for fellow endurance swimmer Chloe McCardell to fail in her attempt earlier this year and thought some local people in Key West were traitors for working with McCardell and on Penny Palfrey’s attempt in 2012.
“You know, it’s not my ocean. I don’t own it, and many people have tried,” Nyad said.
And while Nyad said she has the utmost respect for McCardell and Palfrey, who are two of the few people who truly understand the mental toughness and physical prowess of the swim, “We’re competitors.” And this Havana to Key West route is “the Mount Everest of oceans. It’s epic. You want to be the first.”
When Stoll tried to get Nyad to soften her stance, Nyad added that she thought it was a shame that McCardell’s attempt ended from severe jellyfish stings. Nobody knows better than Nyad, who had to end two of her previous attempts because of those sea creatures, how painful the stings are.
“I didn’t want her to be stung, or really hurt or die,” Nyad said.
But for Nyad, this Havana to Key West swim was her dream, one that she first tried in 1978 when she thought she was in the prime of her life — at age 28.
Now, at 64, she said that she realizes she got it all wrong. The “dead center prime” of her life is right now.
“I don’t wake up every day feeling like a woman,” she said. “I don’t feel like a gay woman. I don’t feel like I’m 64. I just wake up and bound out and grasp the next day.”
She plans to live every minute of the rest of her life with the same focus and energy and passion that she put into the past four years as she pursued her dream, beginning with an epic party that she says should last as long as the swim — 53 hours. The city of Key West is holding a parade in her honor Tuesday night. She will ride in a Conch Train.
Next month, she plans to swim 48 hours straight in an Olympic pool that is going to be put in Herald Square in New York City as an effort to raise money for Hurricane Sandy victims.
“That’s going to be a breeze,” Nyad said.
A breeze, that is, in comparison to the swim she just finished in open water, with swells of 3 to 5 feet, a storm with winds up to 23 knots, relentless sun, saltwater and the potential for encountering those dreaded jellyfish and even sharks.
Only in a Nyad interview would the famed Taj Mahal, fitness fanatic Jack LaLanne and theoretical physicist and author Stephen Hawking be mentioned when talking about the swim.
But Nyad said that on the first night, in which she spent 13 hours in a specially designed silicon mask to keep the jellyfish from stinging her face and lips, she took in so much saltwater that it made her sick, oxygen deprived and delusional.
She thought she saw the Taj Mahal and was going to be disqualified from going after the open-water record because she was walking on land.
She broke Palfrey’s long-distance swimming record of 67.26 miles, set in 2011 during a swim from Grand Cayman to Little Cayman.
Nyad also said that while Susie Maroney was the first person publicly acknowledged as completing the Cuba to Key West swim, in 1997, it was done with the great aid of a shark cage.
She explained that the shark cage, which she used in her first attempt in 1978, does much more than protect a swimmer from sharks. It creates a type of draft (she called it “vectors of curling currents”) that helps a person swim much faster. “This is how Jack LaLanne moved the Queen Mary with his teeth,” she said.
And while the swim was going well, Nyad sang from a list of 85 songs ingrained in her brain. She demonstrated one Neil Young tune, imitating his falsetto voice directly into the cameras. “I love you baby and I want some more. Ooooh. Ooooh.”
Nyad also was thinking about the latest Stephen Hawking books she read: “Did the universe really exist in the size of a penny at one time and it just couldn’t take it anymore and blew out and this is what we’re left with?” Nyad said. “That’s fun. That’s fun stuff. But when you are suffering in crisis, you’re not doing that anymore.”
That’s where Stoll played a huge role — knowing just the right thing to say at the right time to pick up the spirits of Nyad, who at times was crying.
At the start of the second night, Stoll told Nyad three pieces of good news. One, the navigator John Bartlett said the Gulf Stream is going in the perfect direction, north.
Second, her jellyfish guru had swept the area and there were no signs of jellyfish so she wouldn’t have to wear the protective mask.
And third, that Nyad would not have to put the mask on Monday night, because Nyad would be finished in the daylight Monday.
That was as close as anyone got to telling Nyad how far she had gone or how far she had to go. Nyad’s cardinal rule is not to tell her that information.
Stoll’s words helped propel Nyad through the night and when morning came, the entire flotilla of five boats with 35 crew members knew success was in sight. By the two-mile mark, Nyad said she could finally see the shoreline.
After stopping to thank her crew, she began the final push for shore. It had been quite a journey, which including endless hours of behind-the-scenes planning and logistics. It had cost about $1 million for the past four attempts, some of the money coming from corporations, but a lot was small donations from supporters around the world. Volunteers also spent endless hours to help her make her dream come true.
But before it was over, her crew had one more important job. They formed a protective ring around her so the swarming mob of well-wishers would not hug her before she officially reached land.
Even though Nyad looked in a daze as she came ashore, she said she was able to take in the great moment of her life. She said the thousands on the beach got it. That it was not simply about an athlete doing something incredibly hard and grueling.
“It was people who were recognizing what we all go through in our lives,” Nyad said. “We all have dreams. And we all get disappointed. We all have heartache and we suffer and work to get through it. It’s just the human condition. … So I stand here today so proud. I’m so proud of my team and I’m so proud of myself.”