From Cuba To Florida: Diana Nyad's Final Attempt At A Record-Breaking Swim When the distance swimmer turned 60, she vowed to complete her life's biggest challenge: a 110-mile swim from Havana to Key West. It was her fifth attempt at the feat — and, ultimately, a triumph.
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From Cuba To Florida: Diana Nyad's Final Attempt At A Record-Breaking Swim

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From Cuba To Florida: Diana Nyad's Final Attempt At A Record-Breaking Swim

From Cuba To Florida: Diana Nyad's Final Attempt At A Record-Breaking Swim

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KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, HOST:

When long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad turned 60, she was determined to complete her life's biggest challenge.

DIANA NYAD: You know, in the context of your phrase my big break - when I turned 60, there was a true, existential anxiety about how much time is left. My mom had just died; she was 82. And at age 60, I thought uh-uh, I'm not going gently into that good night. I am going to fire up and live this thing as large as I can live it until I can't live it that large anymore.

BATES: She would make a record-breaking swim - Cuba to Florida, over 110 miles away. These were not uncharted waters. Nyad had tried and failed this swim four times before.

NYAD: You can't find a stretch of ocean more rife with mother nature on steroids, for a swimmer, as you can across the Straits of Florida between Havana and Key West.

BATES: There's the aggressive oceanic whitetip shark and the infamous box jellyfish. Its venom is considered one of the deadliest in the world. Nyad's been stung before; that's what ended her fourth attempt, captured in the documentary "The Other Shore."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE OTHER SHORE")

NYAD: Oh, yep, fire, fire.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, yeah, she's got it all over her.

BATES: Even after that, Nyad went back. In 2013, she tried again. She had a specially designed suit and mask to protect from jellyfish. Guided along by her team of boats with her best friend Bonnie Stoll on board, their new motto was find a way.

NYAD: Standing on the rocks, we started at Marina Hemingway, which is a famous location in Havana. And we're screaming to each other onward, find a way. It's a surreal feeling. Like, you know, I think it's worse when you know what's out there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NYAD: Those first few hours are a matter of settling in. It's a real extreme state of sensory deprivation. I'm really just out in my own world.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NYAD: I see the yellow brick road right below me, and it's not Dorothy and the Tin Man. It's the Seven Dwarves. They're marching along. They're going right where you're going. So just follow them for a while.

So I, you know - I can't tell you how helpful they were. For three or four hours, I'm watching the little men, and I'm thinking well, now what was that guy's name again? Sleepy - I can't remember. Anyway, you do go into full-fledged hallucinations, but much more at night.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NYAD: The nights were treacherous - absolutely inky black out there. The wind whipped up that night. I started taking in large walls of seawater. I started vomiting into the mass and kicking hard to keep my face above water. I was sick, and I lost a lot of nutrition and hydration during the night. So that whole next day, Bonnie and her gang would have me over the side of the boat constantly - instead of every 90 minutes, every hour. Eat a little bit of banana, just anything to recuperate from the night before and get ready for the next night.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NYAD: The second night at the 38, 40 hour mark, I was having trouble gripping onto reality. And I was having trouble swimming. I just - I was stopping and I was shivering. I forgot what we were doing. I was really out of it. And Bonnie decided I needed it, and she called me over toward the boat and she said put your goggles up on your forehead. Get up above the surface. Look that way. What do you see?

And I said the sun's coming up. And I'm going to get warmed up by the sun's rays. Oh, I can't wait.

And she said no, it's better than the sun. Those are the lights of Key West.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NYAD: The swim took 53 hours. I've taken on those life lessons, that big break of just wanting the journey to be an elevated experience, no matter the success. Those people on the beach that day, they were crying. There were several thousand people. What they saw was a human being who had a dream and refused to give up on it. That's how simple the story is.

BATES: Diana Nyad. Her memoir, "Find A Way," comes out this fall. You don't have to swim from Cuba to Florida to have a big break. Send us your story - mybigbreak@npr.org.

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