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Friday, August 24, 2012
Updated: August 25, 11:40 AM ET
Stinging disappointment for Diana Nyad

By Melissa Isaacson

Diana Nyad
Diana Nyad begins her fourth attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida, which she was forced to abandon after 42 hours.

Diana Nyad awoke Thursday morning in a fog, which was decidedly better than how she began the week, but immediately she began to cry.

"It's almost like if your dog died and you just came home after you had to put him down and you're in this otherworldly state because you can't believe this is happening, and then you look over and see one of his toys," said the legendary endurance swimmer, whose fourth attempt to swim 103 miles from Cuba to Florida ended prematurely Tuesday, the day before she turned 63. "When I woke up this morning, the first thing I saw was a pile of bathing suits I had trained in."

Nyad began crying again.

"It's hard for me," she said. "I so identified with this goal. I wanted it so badly and I can't imagine doing it any better, any differently. If it weren't for the dang jellyfish ... even with 35-mile-per-hour winds and the sharks ... the unpredictable Gulf Stream that turned 70-foot boats around backward. One little pair of lips in that vast ocean and they still find you. It was debilitating, and I hate to say it, but they've taken the joy out of this area of the ocean for me."

Diana Nyad
Nyad can somehow deal with sharks, dehydration, hypothermia and fatigue, but the severe pain and debilitating effects from jellyfish stings are too much.

Her lips and hands were the only parts of Nyad's body exposed to the box jellyfish, the most venomous and potentially fatal of its kind, which stung her nine times. It made the approaching sharks, severe sunburn, danger of hypothermia and strain from swimming 42 hours in the open saltwater of the Straits of Florida seem almost easy by comparison.

"You don't even have to be stung repeatedly," Nyad said. "I've been stung by all of them, and they hurt. But the box jellyfish is not just searing, unbearable pain, and then in the lip area where you're so sensitive. It's not only that. It's that then you go into systemic debilitation. You start in with chills and fever, then go into tremors, and then your lungs are compromised and you start with asthma."

Only because of the medical staff, which was part of her 50-member crew and which Nyad compared to an ICU unit, did she avoid going into a full asthma attack.

"That usually kills you," she said. "I could keep swimming. But your body has to be working. You're already going to suffer if you never got stung by a jellyfish, just from the sheer exertion, but when this thing hits you, how superhuman can you be with chills and fever? To me, that's not sport anymore, honestly. That's not what I signed up for. I signed up for all the rest of it and I'm capable of all the rest of it, but not that."

Bonnie Stoll, Nyad's head handler as well as her closest friend and supporter for 35 years, said this swim was different than two attempts last year "because I personally feel complete and proud. I don't feel disappointment, not at all.

"It wasn't necessarily the destination we were looking for, but in my eyes, this was the destination that was supposed to be because it worked on every cylinder with every person involved."

Stoll realizes that might be hard for outsiders to grasp and said that's part of the "mourning process," a period during which she expects people to greet her friend with a "Hey, sorry you didn't make it.'"

"And that's going to break my heart because she didn't make what they thought was supposed to happen," Stoll said. "But she did make it."

Stoll called Nyad "an anomaly," someone without the switch that determines whether or not she is going to fight. "She doesn't think of the options," Stoll said.

The 'Xtreme Dream'

Nyad's latest quest, which she calls the "Xtreme Dream," began two years ago when she started open-water training off the Caribbean island of Saint Maarten. And yet, it really began a lifetime ago when, as a young woman just out of Lake Forest College in Illinois, she became the greatest women's endurance swimmer by posting world-record times in circling Manhattan Island and swimming 102.5 miles from the Bahamas to Florida.

An author, sportswriter and broadcaster, owner of a fitness business, and a public speaker, Nyad eventually hit on the goal of swimming from Cuba to Florida. She first attempted the swim in a shark cage in 1978, then tried twice last year without a cage.

"I could've picked an easier place and slam-dunked it," she admitted. "Let's say I wanted to be the first person to swim four times around Manhattan without stopping. At this age, that would have meant something. Cuba, to me, wasn't that it was so difficult. I wish it weren't so difficult. It was just the place."

Nyad said she first fell in love with the "mystique of Cuba" as a 9-year-old growing up in Fort Lauderdale, and later as a reporter covering the country.

"I just can't believe that poor country, which has one [stationary] bicycle on the island, can still produce Olympic champions and great baseball players," she said.

But while her interest in the swim may have been sparked by her curiosity about Cuba, it is clear that the challenge was, in fact, behind the intrigue.

"I'm not a mountain climber, but I have a few friends who have summited the big Alpine peaks," she said. "People have walked across most of the great deserts, they've walked across Antarctica. But this is a wild and wooly territory right here that no swimmer could ever cross. And I like to think big."

The fact that Nyad was doing national television interviews on her 63rd birthday, just one day after being lifted from the water in grave distress after swimming for nearly 42 hours, should not surprise anyone. She got back off the boat, and with her body scalding from the saltwater assaulting her already burned and stinging flesh, she swam the last yards to the Florida shore.

"The core members of the crew were around me," Nyad recalled, "and I told them, 'You know what, I'm just so sick of that feeling of driving back into the dock, that defeated feeling, because I don't want to look at this as a defeat. There are too many people who follow me who have all kinds of [serious] disappointments. ... If something doesn't end well, does it mean that entire journey wasn't worthwhile and glorious? I want to grasp onto this and I don't want to fake it, I want to feel it.'

"So we all decided that instead of just coming into shore and people saying poor me, what if I showed that I'm proud of having a strong, 63-year-old body and take a few more strokes? Even though that's not the way I wanted to come into the beach, that's me, that's a winner who swims in. It was the right thing to do and I'm glad we did it, if only symbolic."

End of journey

In the end, a lightning storm on the second night made the entire journey too dangerous to continue. Nyad had already swum 42 hours, and though the trip was supposed to take 60, it was estimated that it would take 42 more to get to shore.

"That, and I was going to have to swim for two more nights with the jellyfish," said Nyad, who by that time, with her lips, tongue and face badly swollen, was forced to flip over and do the backstroke to keep the jellyfish tentacles off her face.

Elaine Lafferty, a friend of Nyad's and a crew member on her previous two attempts to swim from Cuba to Florida, remembers vividly the first time she saw Nyad stung by box jellyfish.

"I will never forget the scream in the dark: 'I'm on fire, I'm on fire, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.' Then the second night, when she was stung again, she almost died and had to be taken out of the water, and she was not moving and not breathing longer than was comfortable," Lafferty recalled. "On the third night, the doctor told her, 'If you're stung again, I can't promise you that you'll live through it.'"

It is why, Lafferty said, she opted not to go on this swim. Though she did not tell Nyad, she simply believed it was not an attainable goal.

"I did not realize how gruesome it really was until I went on the swims," she said. "It really is medieval for everyone -- for the handlers, the boat captains, for everyone on that crew. ... Watching this person endure the jellyfish stings, the asthma, the dehydration, the sharks circling. To watch a human being go through such physical pain and discomfort, it's harrowing."

While Stoll and Nyad's other friends joke that like Chicago Cubs fans, Nyad may be back for the challenge every summer, Stoll agrees that without any fail-safe protection, the swim has become impossible.

"Not because of the distance, the mental fortitude or the physical fortitude, because she has both, but because of what humans have done to the ecosystem," she said. "Jellyfish kill because they have no predators, so they're more and more prolific in the seas. And it's not going to get better."

As for Nyad, the pain is quite literally still raw and the spirit in her voice alternates with that of sorrow.

Ultimately, she views her journey as "an education, a wild and intense adventure and a great way to live life," and who is to argue? But the reality is also never far away.

"There's no getting lucky," Nyad said when asked if she might be more fortunate in avoiding the treacherous jellyfish on a future attempt. "I've proven that they're out there. Like a minefield. It would be unintelligent. There's a difference between being brave -- 'Don't tell me no, I can do anything,' an attitude I appreciate -- and stupidity, saying, 'Maybe next time, they're not out there.' They're out there.

"I hate to sit back and watch someone else develop the right kind of suit, but with my good brain and my entire team's, right now I can't think of a way to swim efficiently. I can put a beekeeper's hat around my head, do the breaststroke and keep my head above water all the way across, that I can picture. But I have to swim freestyle as hard as I can and breathing properly to make it across. Until all those things come together, I just can't figure it out."