It was four weeks ago that Diana Nyad began her third attempt to achieve a dangerous, record-breaking, gorgeous dream: a marathon open-water swim from Cuba to the shores of Florida.
I was one of 30 people on that expedition. We were aboard three escort boats that left Key West on Sept. 22 around 2 p.m. for the 15-hour trip to Havana. Diana and her chief handler, Bonnie Stoll, had flown over the day before. Our crew spent the day exploring Havana before Diana entered the sea just after 6 p.m. And what a glorious start! Calm waters with a perfect temperature of 88 degrees. The stroke that Diana the swimmer is famous for -- rhythmic and symmetrical, with the unlikely sound of a human moving purposefully and gently across an ocean -- was on full display as the sun set.
And then, just barely two hours later ... a different sound. Guttural screams that shattered a dark night. Diana was being stung by box jellyfish, the most venomous creatures in the ocean. Honestly, you can't imagine it, and I am going to fail miserably here at describing it fully. It wasn't the screams themselves -- that's horror movie stuff we are all pretty numbed to. It was the calling out, the counting, over and over: "One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight! Oh, God! One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight! Help me! One-two-three-four ..." Diana was trying to focus, to get through the pain, and later she said she'd reached the ceiling of what she could endure. Even more terrifying, though, was the jolting realization that this woman was being paralyzed in the middle of the ocean, struggling to move, to breathe and to live.
If she hadn't sustained those potentially life-threatening stings, I believe Diana would have made it, and I'm not someone known for sunny optimism. She swam 92 miles over 41 hours. She wasn't even tired when she ended it, but Diana made the tough decision to stop when the doctors told her she might die if she sustained another sting.
Though it's been almost a month since Diana ended the swim, here's the truth: I don't think any of us who were on that expedition are really over it. We are back to our regular lives and our jobs. But chores are being neglected, deadlines missed. We are distracted. In our minds, we are still in Cuba. We are focused on making sure that supplies are on the boats. We are recalculating the navigation plans, watching the currents. We are sleeping in shifts. And we are still dreaming about what it's going to feel like when we touch the Florida coast after 60 or 70 hours at sea.
I've known Diana for almost 20 years, quite casually. We both worked in Los Angeles as journalists, she often as a sports journalist, me as anything but. She is one extremely fun and funny person, and may well be the best storyteller I've ever met. We're friends. (Up to a point, that is: If a chirpy Diana calls you on Saturday morning and says, "Hey, want to go for a bike ride?" know that she means something like 25 miles. I think I once hung up on her.)
Diana is an athlete, but she's a weird one. She doesn't keep score. She rarely ever mentioned scores in her sports journalism. She is into something way bigger.
Diana has always been all about spiritual connection, about living life fully in the present, about being truly alive. It's been her message in everything she's done. That's why she chose this swim -- between two countries who don't speak with each other, in one of the toughest straits in the world. It's why she has inspired millions of people -- yes, 1.8 million people followed her on Twitter that Sunday -- with her call to take risks, have courage, persevere and follow your heart.
She's the real deal. People know it. Governments know it. (Never mind swimming 92 miles. Any idea how challenging it is to get both the United States and Cuban governments to say, "Hey, sure!" to a flotilla of three boats with 30 Americans and one woman in the water, on short notice?)
This dream of hers is epic. Her competence and toughness strike a universal cord.
So everyone wants to know, will Diana Nyad try again? Should she try again? Diana hasn't answered this question yet, but I say yes. If she can be better-protected against deadly box jelly stings, she'll be able to do it. I wouldn't say that if I felt this was some unattainable fantasy. But I saw, up close and personal, how close she came. So, yes! And I'll be there if she does.
Find out more about Diana at DianaNyad.com.