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Diana Nyad won't let her dream flounder

BILL DWYRE

Her second attempt at swimming from Cuba to Florida comes up short, but at 61, she's still not ready to quit.

August 17, 2011|Bill Dwyre
  • Diana Nyad is overcome with emotion when addressing the media following her second failed attempt to swim from Cuba to the Florida Keys.
Diana Nyad is overcome with emotion when addressing the media following… (Rob O'Neal / Associated…)

It has been a little more than a week since Diana Nyad allowed herself to be pulled out of the rugged waters somewhere between Cuba and Key West, Fla.

And the resolve has returned.

"The fairy tale didn't end well," she says, "but I still have control over the fairy tale."

For those just catching up on this story, Nyad is the world-renowned endurance swimmer from Los Angeles who made her second attempt last week at swimming the approximately 103-mile open-water route. She tried it 33 years ago and was turned back by high seas. She planned to do it last year and was turned back by a combination of government red tape at both ends of the route and bad weather.

It had been done once before, by a swimmer protected by a shark cage. Nyad went at it this time without a shark cage, but with four divers, led by shark-diving expert Luke Tipple, on constant watch.

"There were always at least two of them in the water, on the lookout for fins," she says. "And there was somebody watching from above on a boat. They assured me they would distract any sharks, that they would poke them away, or leave them other food to eat. Still, you always kind of worry that one will come up from the deep and eat you."

It turns out that sharks were not the problem. In the end, Nyad's dream was gobbled up by a sore shoulder, which led to the need for some medicine, which may have led to a lengthy asthma attack.

The effort was expected to take 60 hours, and for about the first third of it, all went swimmingly.

"Seventeen hours into the swim," Nyad says, "my right shoulder started hurting. That was strange because it's not my bad shoulder. So I decided to take some Tylenol. But I had left mine back on shore. All I wanted was some regular, over-the-counter Tylenol. Well, somebody in my support crew found something that was supposed to be the same, although the label was different. It was checked out, I took it and 15 minutes later, I could feel bronchial constriction.

"Before long, I was like a floundering fish."

Nyad isn't certain the medicine was bad. She says she never had an asthma attack in the water, despite spending a large portion of her life in it, training and racing. She says she could have endured the sore shoulder for the remaining 30 hours or so of the swim. And she also says that, after nearly 11 hours of swimming in a state of what she calls an "asthmatic seizure" — pushing herself for a dozen strokes and then rolling onto her back to gasp for air — she could go no more.

When it ended and she left the water and sat in her team boat after 29 hours in the water, she remembers her emotion clearly.

"It was a crushing disappointment," she says. "I spent 48 hours in deep, deep sorrow. I pictured so many things that could happen, but I never pictured 12 hours of asthma."

She also knows that, in the immediate aftermath, both on the boat and when she met the media in Florida, she would not try this again, that this had been her last, and best, effort.

That was taken then as admirable common sense. The story line wasn't just that a woman was trying to swim from Cuba to Florida, without a shark cage. This woman was 61 years old, and will turn 62 Monday.

Wednesday morning, after an appearance on the "Today" show in New York, Nyad was back to her norm, which is to travel and work as a sports consultant and also an occasional commentator on KCRW in Los Angeles. She has no aches and pain, "not one iota of soreness."

Now, she also has some second thoughts about her never-again stance on the Cuba-to-Florida swim.

"What I said right afterward is not necessarily true," she says. "You've got me a week later. Right after, it would be like talking to a boxer on the canvas, still on his back and looking up at the bright lights.

"Now, I do not feel at peace the way this ended."

She also says, "I feel proud of what I did. … I would have tried anything to get there. I would have crawled or dog-paddled to the shore, if I needed to. If I had seen the lights of the Florida shoreline, I would have found a way to get there.

"I showed what a human being can do, but I didn't complete what a swimmer can."

Nyad says she appreciates the kind reaction by most in the aftermath, that most see her effort, at her age, as a huge accomplishment, not a 50-mile shortfall. However, she also sees the outcome as most athletes would — a finish line that wasn't crossed.

"It's hard to look at this again, at the practicality of it, all the gathering of crew and other people involved," she says. "This is like an Everest expedition. The logistics are very complicated. It's hard on me and hard on others.

"But I'm just not happy with the ending."

bill.dwyre@latimes.com.

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