Diana Nyad completes record swim from Cuba to Key West

By Mary Loftus | Emory Magazine | Sept. 18, 2013

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Good luck and favorable currents buoyed 64-four-year-old Diana Nyad (Emory College, 1971) this time around, as she became the first person confirmed to swim from Cuba to Florida without the protection of a shark cage.  

Nyad began her fifth attempt at the 110-mile swim on Labor Day weekend, leaving from Havana the morning of Saturday, Aug. 31, and finishing on Monday afternoon, walking ashore in Key West to cheering crowds and media crews. "I have three messages," she told those gathered on the beach. "One is we should never, ever give up. Two is you never are too old to chase your dreams. Three is it looks like a solitary sport, but it’s a team."

A long-distance swimmer, motivational speaker, and author, Nyad was dismissed from Emory as a sophomore after attempting to parachute out of her fourth-floor dorm window. Nyad finished college at Lake Forest, where she graduated in 1973.

As a distance swimmer, she has set numerous records, most notably for the fastest swim around Manhattan (seven hours, 57 minutes) in 1975 and for the longest-ever nonstop swim without a wetsuit in 1979. "What interests me about marathon swimming is that it tests the human spirit," she wrote in her 1978 book Other Shores."It is a sport of extremes." 

In setting her latest record—a personal quest for more than three decades—Nyad spent close to 53 hours in the ocean on her two-day, two-night swim. Previous attempts had been thwarted by an asthma attack, storms, strong countercurrents, and jellyfish stings. On this swim, Nyad wore a special suit to protect her as well as a gel to create a barrier against the venom.  

Because of her time, which was faster than even Nyad expected, questions have been raised about her getting assistance, but she and her team insist that the swim was "squeaky clean," and that strong currents worked in her favor this time. Sharks and jellyfish were largely absent as well. 

Congratulations have poured in to her Twitter feed and Facebook wall, including a tweet from President Obama: "Congratulations to Diana Nyad. Never give up on your dreams."