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