The Cuba Swim: From Dream to Reality

photo Christi Barli

August 22, 2012 – Key West, Florida

The disappointment of exiting the ocean yesterday, after 42 hours of once again attempting to swim from Cuba to Florida, weighs heavily on my heart.

The first go was 1978, as a prime-time athlete, age 28. Unpredicted fierce winds whipped up and blew us west.

Perhaps ironically, that time spent in water was 41 hours, 49 minutes. This time it was 51 hours 5 minutes.

photo Christi Barli

But yet again, alas, with two attempts last year in between, the Xtreme Dream was not to be. It’s a wild, wooly confluence of Mother Nature forces, these waters that stretch between Havana and Key West.

Enormous tropical squalls flare from seemingly nowhere, bringing in 35mph winds and fierce lightning bolts. Both Saturday and Sunday nights, we were engaged in what the official observer of our swim deemed “life threatening emergency.”

Large sharks parked under me for the entire second night. Our six shark divers spent every hour in the water, looking at pairs of eyes in every direction. Luke Tipple, one of today’s leading shark experts and shark conservationists, an Aussie who usually speaks with a soft and quiet voice, commanded me aggressively to swim very, very close to the boat.

The powerful Gulf Stream literally pulled our five large vessels completely off their compass points and we struggled for several early morning hours to right our course.

But beyond even those crises, it was the jellyfish — again — that brought us to our knees.

Last year, stung badly by the potentially deadly Box Jellies, the most venomous creature in all the oceans, I swore I just couldn’t give up, give in, without coming back with a solution to somehow making it through them.

photo Christi Barli

I contacted the world’s leading authority on the Box, Dr. Angel Yanagihara of the Universty of Hawaii. Angel spent six months researching and developing a front of defenses to protect me. She developed a cream to spread across my hands and lips and nostrils, a sting stopper that would at least mitigate the effects. She helped the swim tech company FINIS fabricate a skin suit for me that wouldn’t cause too much drag but would not allow the tentacles to penetrate.

Our Xtreme Dream Team came into this year’s expedition as a world-class operation. As I look back today, there isn’t one minor aspect of our preparation that I would change. Our shark divers, our ops team chief Mark Sollinger, our navigator John Bartlett, our drivers keeping vigilant, our kayak shark team, our med team out of University of Miami, our social media team working around the clock to deliver the story, my personal handlers, headed by Bonnie Stoll, the individual any of you want in your corner as you face trying times.

Angel and her jellyfish protocols… All of it, all of it, was top-notch.

As I swam through the two fairly peaceful days, the azure of the Gulf Stream of oil canvas beauty, stroking happily with Beatles songs streaming in my head, I was so very proud to see the team, each of their groups falling in military precision into their positions. As shifts would change, kayaks would stream in and out next to me, boat drivers would take new positions at the wheel, shark divers would take their positions on the top deck, handlers would nestle into their station down near me. We were making progress.

The Box Jellies came out the first night. Nine stings. Just about every square inch of my body was covered with protective materials (even gloves and booties, which slow me down), but Bonnie and Angel quickly innovated even further. Bonnie cut lengths of duct tape for my ankles and wrists and another swatch to cover my nostrils. Angel prepared hot salves and tried to coat the stung areas to at least lessen the dire effects. And yet my lips, the only exposed area left, were repeatedly hit by the small wisps of these tentacles, no wider than a strand of human hair. The pain was searing. Then came the systemic effects. Chills all over. Tremors. Angel’s treatments kept the very worst, pulmonary distress, from happening. Bonnie’s duct tape coverage and my FINIS suit also reduced the effects. Nevertheless, I am going to admit to you right here and now that these animals are too much for me.

So what do I do now? Does my inner voice tell me that I have failed because I didn’t reach the other shore? I can recite a very long and impressive list of things I’ve learned, magnificent people I’ve collaborated with, strong qualities I’ve developed within myself over the course of pursuing this dream the past three years. Matter of fact, once rested, I’m going to explore that list, even if just for my own edification, to fully appreciate what going after this intensely ambitious dream brought me, and everybody involved. And many people tuning in from afar.

photo Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau/

When we came to shore yesterday, every single crew member, 53 of them, came to me to say the mission changed their lives. We lived large out there. We lived large getting ready for it. No stone unturned. We were our best selves every waking minute of every day for three years. You just can’t look back at a period of unwavering commitment like this one with any regrets.

Many people who write me, friends and strangers alike, use the phrase “watching how you live your life has inspired me.” I myself need to remember this. There is no doubt that I would have been jubilant to touch that Florida shore, to have made history, to at long last lived out the vision I’ve had in my brain for so very long. Yet I’ve been living a grand life, driven by this very quest.

The age-old discussion of journey-versus-destination is most apt here. As my great writer friend Jane Anderson says it best: The journey is the destination.

Those Box Jellies aren’t going away in this area. They are proliferating. I can’t swim breaststroke with a bee bonnet around my head. I’d never make it. I need to have at least my mouth free. For all the other obstacles, I would go after it again. It’s not in my nature to admit that no matter how much will you summon, no matter how much courage you express, no matter how much intelligent and complex planning you do, no matter the excruciating long hours of training, no matter the dedicated and expert individuals you choose to help you, sometimes you just don’t arrive at your destination. And somehow you still have to find the pride and the joy in your journey.

That’s the road I’m walking today. Feeling that pride, that joy.

As I was swimming these hours Saturday into Monday, I was thinking about the Olympic athletes. So many epic moments. But the one that moved me most was Nathan Adrian’s interview after he won the 50-meter freestyle. He wasn’t favored. Not even for any color medal. But he said he stood on the blocks, looked down his lane and thought to himself: “I hear a lot about the pedigrees of Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte and Mark Spitz. I’m not in their league. But for the next 50 seconds, this is MY TIME and I’m going to seize it.” And so he did.

photo Christi Barli

So I was thinking, stroke by sometimes painful stroke, “This is MY TIME. I’m seizing it.”

I didn’t make it all the way. But I surely did seize the time. I couldn’t have done any of it a fingernail better.

And, to broaden out the concept of MY TIME, can’t we easily say that life is so damn precious, our short span on the Earth is for each of us Our Time.

photo Christi Barli

Seize your days. All of them. Be bold. Don’t give in to fear. To paraphrase my favorite quote, by Mary Oliver: “So, what are you going to do with this one, wild and precious life of yours?”

–Diana Nyad

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Thank You, Diana Nyad, Courageous Swimmer and Devoted Ocean Advocate

We’re sharing the following post written by Frances Beinecke, current President of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Frances Beinecke

Tuesday August 21, 2012

Monday evening, dolphins frolicked alongside world class swimmer Diana Nyad as she plowed through open ocean waters on her fourth attempt to swim from Cuba to the Florida Keys. In the midst of this grueling swimming marathon, Diana sent a message of thanks to NRDC for our support for her swim and our work to keep ocean waters healthy. And she also wanted to know from NRDC: “Did you send the dolphins, too?”

Unfortunately, Diana had to end her amazing journey on Tuesday—one day shy of her 63rd birthday—as a result of an intense storm. For more than 40 hours she had braved the elements: stung by box jellyfish nine times on Monday night, surrounded by sharks (as her team worked to keep them away), and hit by not one, but two storms. Even after being pulled from the water, she wanted to keep going.

Hers is a true story of endurance. Hers is also a love story of the ocean. Diana has said she sees herself as having a close relationship with the ocean; she becomes one with it during her swims.

While most of us will never attempt to swim as far or as long as Diana did this week, many share her love of the ocean. We love spending summer vacations at the beach. We enjoy swimming and fishing, surfing and snorkeling. And we rely on the oceans to give us food, jobs, and energy.

We demand a lot from our oceans, but luckily we now have a good tool for preserving them: the new National Ocean Policy. Like the Clean Air Act for our air and the Clean Water Act for our water, this policy finally provides a comprehensive approach for managing our seas. It helps our oceans recover from the challenges of disappearing fish, polluted beachwater, climate change, and acidification. And it gives our oceans a better shot at a healthy future—one that I hope will inspire and support the dreams of the next generation of Diana Nyad’s.

As I read about Diana’s swim through the ocean wilderness, I’m reminded of the strength and beauty of the human spirit and the power of the ocean life that lies just out of sight under the waves. On behalf of all of us here at NRDC who work to protect our ocean life and to make a difference in our world, congratulations, Diana, on an amazing swim and thank you for your ongoing efforts to keep our oceans healthy and strong.

Frances Beinecke, President of NRDC, New York City

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On Her Own Two Feet

photo Andy Newman / Florida Keys News Bureau /

This afternoon, Diana walked ashore to the cheer of her supporters at the White Street Pier in Key West. At the age of 63, Diana Nyad swam longer and farther toward Florida from Cuba than she did when she was 28.

photo Andy Newman / Florida Keys News Bureau /

photo Andy Newman / Florida Keys News Bureau /

photo Andy Newman / Florida Keys News Bureau /

photo Andy Newman / Florida Keys News Bureau /

Perspectives from the Water’s Edge

photo Christi Barli

Diana Nyad has lived her dreams: she has traveled around the world; engaged with world leaders; and reported on Olympic athletes and world champions.

But she has always had one more unfulfilled dream: an extreme dream of unprecedented proportions.

Nyad’s goal since 1954 was to swim the 103 miles between Cuba and Florida. The 8-year-old dreamed of connecting the two societies through her swim.

She gave it a shot in 1978…only to fall short due to the weather after nearly 42 hours in the Caribbean Sea. But the 28-year-old dynamo hung up her swimsuit without regrets. She never looked back as her charisma, eloquence and talents took her around the world.

Fast forward to 2010 when her mother died and she was suddenly faced her own mortality. As she has always done in the past, she wanted to live life large. She wanted to leave no stone untouched, even or especially in her sixth decade.

The audacity of her attempt caught the public’s imagination. But marine life in the Caribbean Sea has changed from the 1970s to the present. One of the most venomous creatures in the world – the thimble-sized box jellyfish – had grown in a menacing threat to her Xtreme Dream.

Taken down by jellyfish in her second and third attempts in 2011, she was determined to find closure in her Xtreme Dream in 2012.

She trained like never before and organized a crew that ranged from the world’s pre-eminent authority in box jellyfish to a number of medical doctors and local mariners.

photo Christi Barli

Her pursuit of this dream pushed her athletically, organizationally, financially and emotionally. In her pursuit, she inspired many individuals. The Cuba Swim became not just her own personal dream for selfish reasons, but a symbol of living one’s own dreams however small or ambitious.

She knew the fight was not fair: a 5”’- 7” athlete vs. Mother Nature. She knew it would require every last bit of her physical talents and psychological strengths. But there was no need to fear failure for she was living her dream.

She was all-in and full-bore. No risk, no rewards; no pain, no gain; no guts, no glory.

Mother Nature does not deal in human terms; she shows no mercy to those who wish to challenge her majesty.

After Nyad’s press conference in the Hemingway Marina, her support team concluded that a start time at 3 pm on Saturday gave her the best chance of success.

With her Cuban friends standing by her side in Havana, and her American friends waiting for her on the other side in Florida, Nyad dove in the water to prove herself. She was ready to achieve her 54-year dream, even if that meant going blow-for-blow with Mother Nature.

Hours into her swim just passed midnight…Boom! She experienced the merciless pain of a box jellyfish. The encounter felt like a branding iron on her lips.

photo Angel Yanagihara

But she forged on, determined to continue swimming into the pitch darkness of night.

Another hour of swimming…Boom! Another box jellyfish attack with thousands of venomous barbs entering her skin. It was a pain that rivaled any on Earth.

Living her Xtreme Dream was not a romantic journey or a casual hobby. In contrast, Nyad’s Dream required her ability to compartmentalize the pain of marine life while stroking over 103 miles.

photo Christi Barli

In Nyad’s mind, once she dove in, there was no turning back. It was game on.

She understood the pain which was clearly seen on her scarred lips and swollen face. When she could not go any further swimming the faster freestyle, she flipped over on her back and swam backstroke.

Muscle tears, extreme fatigue and venom pulsating through her views were only some of the obstacles that she overcame.

With every stroke, she had no idea if was going to feel the spine-rattling pain of a box jellyfish. Her Xtreme Dream would take her to hell and back.

By midnight, Nyad had gained the upper hand on marine life and was making headway along the optimal course between Cuba and Florida. But a tropical storm rolled in unexpectedly. Her crew had previous little time to prepare and get Nyad out of harm’s way.

photo Christi Barli

Under a constant barrage of lightening, Nyad was immediately spirited away to safety a bit after midnight. Despite her protests to keep swimming, she was taken to one of the largest and most stable of the Xtreme Dream’s flotilla of five boats. The boats were 60 miles from land and were surrounded by menacing skies, heavy rain and a 360-degree view of all-encompassing lightening strikes. While Nyad refused to take off her swim cap and goggles, she and her crew were furiously bobbing up and down in the Caribbean Sea like bubbles in a carbonated drink.

As soon as the weather was clear, Nyad was going to jump back in the water at the same point she was pulled from the water. But her team had drifted smack dab into seriously churned up water. It was impossible to deploy swimmers, kayakers or shark divers in a primordial soup of angry seas.

photo Christi Barli

But as morning was beginning to break, Nyad’s team saw a break in the action and plopped her back into the water. They knew her Xtreme Dream and knew that Nyad still had plenty of fight in her.

By the afternoon, Nyad had some good progress from Cuba although she was stung at least 9 times by the dreaded box jellyfish. But each time, she brushed off the tentacles, applied a smoothing ointment, and kept swimming.

photo Christi Barli

With repeated stings, Nyad would temporarily fall off her average pace. But she absorbed the pain and kept fighting like a heavyweight boxer. Her second wind gave way to a third wind and fourth wind.

Yet Mother Nature was not finished with the Xtreme Dreamer.

An even larger tropical storm headed into the chosen path of Nyad. With kayakers and a weakened Nyad in the water a bit after midnight, safety became an immediate priority.

Rain pelted the ocean surface as swells poured over the deck of the escort boat and winds whipped up whitecaps. Under a thick darkness and howling skies, Nyad and 60 members of her crew had to be evacuated quickly.

photo Christi Barli

Could Nyad have been able to continue? Possibly, but only under extreme danger to herself.

Could Nyad have been able to continue? Possibly, but not without the possibility of putting others in danger.

Nyad did not realize her dream but she will write another chapter in her book.

photo Christi Barli

–Steve Munatones
Editor in Chief Daily News Open Water Swimming

Diana to Arrive on Shore at 2:00pm EDT

Diana Nyad will arrive on shore in Key West today, Tuesday, August 21st at approximately 2:00pm EDT.

She will make a few remarks to the press once she is on the shore.

White Street Pier
White St, Key West, FL 3304

Extreme Dream Becomes Record-breaking Reality

photo Christi Barli

Tuesday 9:20am EDT

Extreme Dream Becomes Record-breaking Reality

Stroking longer and farther than in any of her four attempts to swim from Cuba to Florida, Diana called an end to it early this morning (Tuesday), one day before her 63rd birthday. It took Mother Nature’s biggest force—the weather—to get her out of the water (a second storm cell even larger than the first), but nature’s arsenal for her was out full force throughout her 51-hour endeavor (51 hours, 5 minutes in the water). She was stung by box jellyfish nine times on Monday night alone, with sharks surrounding her as a team of divers labored for hours in the darkness to discourage them away.

Still, Diana was not discouraged as she was lifted onto her escort boat, and was talking of going back in minutes later. We can’t stay out here, her team told her, it’s too dangerous for you and the crew. This was at 12:55 a.m.; a quarter of an hour later, with lightning, thunder, and roiling winds tossing her tiny escort vessel up and down on the waves like a paper cup, she sat on the back of Quest, a larger escort boat, shaking her head angrily. Fully alert and articulate, she asked, “When can I get back in? I want full transparency that I was out. But I have plenty left in me and I want to go on.” However, the storm went on, too. In a long discussion with her core team, she realized that the obstacles against this swim were too great and agreed at dawn to return to Key West by boat, for the sake of the safety of her team and herself.

In 1978, her first attempt, when she was not yet 30 years old, Diana swam almost the same number of hours, but she didn’t get as far toward Florida as she did today. And she didn’t encounter jellyfish 35 years ago.

–Candace Hogan


photo Christi Barli

photo Christi Barli

photo Christi Barli

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742am EDT Diana has been pulled from the water. We’ll have more information when it becomes available.

Pray For Purple: Vanessa Linsley Shares Navigation Strategy

Tuesday 2:00am EDT 58:17 Swim time

Around 1:45am Voyager reported that they were in the midst of another heavy squall that is encompassing all of the straits for a little while. This will be another hold up. Diana is approximately 55 miles off the coast of Key West. Right now, they are waiting out the storm. Everyone is safe. Diana is a little chilly but holding up well. PRAY FOR PURPLE!

Data Imagery via

–Vanessa Linsley in Key West

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A Pod of Dolphins


Monday 6:30pm EST 50:47 Swim time

A Pod Of Dolphins

If there was ever a moment during the Nyad swim when Diana was grateful to the NRDC and all organizations that support pristine waters—and there have been many of those moments during this 2012 expedition—the best one came at 6:30 p.m. today (Monday) when she was visited by dolphins! There were scores of them; around our boat alone one team member counted 50 playing in the wake, while another looked up to see dozens more leaping above the water. We could even hear them breathing all around us. (They sounded like The Nyad swimming.) Dolphins have swum with Diana many times over the years, especially in the 1960s and ’70s when the openwaters of the world, both fresh and ocean, were cleaner than now.

photo Gunnar Schrade

Swim hats off to all those who work for the preservation of where beauty lives—and even visits us!—in the form of these intelligent beings. Laughing with joy at the sight and sound of them, someone on the deck declared, “Diana loves dolphins!”

Is that you Diana? Detail of a Nereis riding a dolphin. ca. 425BCE via Theoi Project

“Diana is one herself,” Gunnar Schrade replied. And thank you, NRDC, from Diana Nyad and all of us, for the support you’ve provided for her expedition of discovery and celebration. (BTW, Diana wanted us to ask you, NRDC, “Did you send the dolphins, too?”)

–Candace Hogan aboard Quest

Help the NRDC protect dolphins and other cetaceans from explosive noise from oil and gas exploration, which threatens whales with hearing loss, injury and death.

Join the Xtreme Dream Team! Any donation, no matter how small, makes you part of the Team.