As the water became too shallow to swim, long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad picked herself up and walked the last few yards onto Smathers Beach and into history.
On her fifth attempt, and 35 years after she first tried, Nyad fulfilled her seemingly crazy dream and became the first person to swim across the treacherous Florida Straits – from Havana, Cuba, to Key West – without the wave-breaking aid of a protective shark cage.
She was welcomed by nearly 2,000 people on land and at sea on boats, kayaks and paddleboards. They waved rainbow and American flags. One man blew a Conch shell.
Police and her crew tried in vain to hold back the swarming crowd that broke past barricades as she finished the 110-mile journey that began Saturday morning from Hemingway Marina in Cuba and ended just before 2 p.m. Monday: exactly 52 hours, 54 minutes and 18.6 seconds, according to her team.
Nyad looked like a zombie, her sunburned face staring straight ahead as she waddled the last few steps. Her lips were swollen and her mouth bruised by the face gear she wore to protect her from venomous jellyfish. With the record official, trainer and good friend Bonnie Stoll hugged her, saying: “You did it.”
Yes, she did. At age 64.
“I think she is a little crazy, but you have to be to accomplish this,” said her friend, Lois Ann Porter, one of three people who supervised Nyad’s nutrition during the swim.
Usually a great talker, Nyad said only a few words after arriving on the beach. The crowd hushed briefly to hear her:
“I’ve got three messages: One is, we should never, ever give up,” she said in a voice hampered by the swelling of her throat and lips.
“Two is, you never are too old to chase your dreams.”
She paused. The crowd shouted: “That’s right!” and “Amen, sister!”
Nyad continued: “Three is, it looks like it’s a solitary sport, but it’s a team.”
She had a flotilla of five boats with a support crew of 35.
As paramedics finally parted the crowd, Nyad stared into the distance and gripped Stoll.
She was helped onto a stretcher and taken to a shady area, where paramedics gave her cold water and fluids through an IV. She asked a paramedic what he could do for the pain inside her mouth.
After several more minutes, she was taken to the Lower Keys Medical Center on nearby Stock Island for dehydration. For the first time, she managed a smile. She raised her hand and made a peace sign, then waved to the crowd, who shouted: “Way to go, Diana,” “Amazing” and “Unbelievable.”
Across the world, people on social media congratulated Nyad. President Barack Obama and Florida Gov. Rick Scott took to Twitter to acknowledge her achievement.
“Never give up on your dreams,” Obama tweeted.
This time, Nyad left Havana more prepared than ever for the sudden storms, sharks, eddies, the strong Gulf Stream and especially those dreaded box jellyfish, which had twice caused her to quit.
And this time, she had luck on her side. Navigator John Bartlett said the weather and the Gulf Stream cooperated. She had been making great time, average 2.2 miles per hour when the Gulf Stream helped boost her along.
With the exception of a short squall that rolled in Sunday night, the weather was clear. And the Gulf Stream made a turn north that helped her toward Key West and did not throw her far off course toward the Bahamas.
And the jellyfish that had terrorized her during the last two attempts were mostly unseen during this journey. But as a precaution at dusk and through the night, she wore a protective suit that stopped the venomous stings.
The first night she also wore a specially designed prosthetic face mask that covered her lips, but it caused sores on the inside of her mouth, causing her to swallow more sea water.
That, in turn, caused her to vomit a lot, said Dr. Derek Covington, one of two physicians from the University of Miami that watched over Nyad during the long swim. Their biggest concern was dehydration caused by salt water, sun and exertion.
The sores also prevented Nyad from eating solid food the second and third days, Porter said. So she was fed liquid nutrition, including blended chicken and dumplings.
The second night, she used a protection cream, dubbed “Sting Stopper,” created by jellyfish expert Angel Yanagihara and the University of Hawaii.
Divers also were in the water with Nyad to scout for jellyfish.
When squalls brought winds of 23 knots and forced the flotilla to leave her side, she cried.
Other times, she appeared to run out of energy, and treaded water.
But Bartlett said they implemented their storm plan perfectly, which included divers with compasses keeping her on course for about 3 to 4 miles while the storm passed.
For Nyad, the journey began 35 years ago in 1978, when she first tried with a shark cage but came up short. She gave up swimming for decades, but conquering the Florida Straits continued to eat away at her. So in her 60s, she plunged back into the water and trained to regain her old form.
With a good marketing team that helped raise the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to support such an endeavor, she made her second attempt in 2011. It was hampered by shoulder pain and an asthma attack. Months later, jellyfish stings ended a third attempt. Last year, she tried for a fourth time. The jellyfish got her again.
She said after each attempt it would be her last, only for her to try again.
“She believed in herself when others tried to convince her to stop,” Porter said.
It’s a quest that Australian Chloe McCardel called the “hardest swim in the world today” before she attempted it earlier this summer. McCardel, 28, made it only 11 hours in her only try before suffering a “debilitating severe jellyfish sting” that forced her to stop.