Diana Nyad arrives in Key West, Fla., after swimming 110 miles from Cuba. (Andy Newman / Florida Keys…)
In the end, emerging from the ocean wearing a blue cap and goggles — and having swum about 110 miles in 52 hours and 54 minutes — Diana Nyad still had enough strength to walk ashore Monday.
Failing four times over the years, on her fifth and final attempt this weekend, Nyad, 64, officially became the first swimmer to go the distance from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage.
Upon reaching shore at Smathers Beach in Key West, Fla., Nyad, a Los Angeles resident who has trained at the Rose Bowl Aquatics Center, had three things to tell the crowd of cheering onlookers who had watched her achieve a lifelong dream.
PHOTOS: Diana Nyad's Cuba-to-Florida swim
"One is, we should never ever give up," said a slightly dazed Nyad, whose slurred remarks were received with a roar by the crowd. "Two is, you're never too old to chase your dreams.
"Three is, it looks like a solitary sport, but it's a team," Nyad concluded and then was placed on a stretcher, where she immediately began receiving fluids before being taken to a hospital for examination.
News of Nyad's triumph moved quickly on Labor Day Monday, earning her widespread praise as well as a congratulations from President Obama over Twitter in crossing a strait that has long bedeviled others.
The crossing has long been forbidding for Cuban immigrants attempting to reach the U.S. by boat, let alone for endurance swimmers punished by jellyfish stings, sunburns, blisters and hallucinations.
In 1997, Australian Susie Maroney, then 22, used a shark cage to complete the journey and fainted on live television after reaching the beach in Florida. She had hallucinated about monkeys during the swim.
Another Australian, Penny Palfrey, then 49, made it 76 miles north of Havana last year before calling it quits. She was then hospitalized to receive IV drips and pain pills to deal with dehydration, jellyfish stings and a blistered tongue.
Nyad, beating back worries over possibly having caught a cold, left Hemingway Marina in Havana on Saturday morning with a small flotilla of support staff, which included kayakers and shark divers to protect her from jellyfish and sea trash that might hinder her swim.
By Monday morning, on an official website that tracked the swim, Nyad's staff reported that her tongue and lips had become swollen and that her doctors were "concerned about her airways."
Despite being in a tropical latitude, the waters had also gotten so cold at night that Nyad had not stopped to eat in the hopes that continuing to swim would keep up her body temperature. A mask worn to prevent jellyfish stings had caused cuts in her mouth.
"The jellyfish mask just about undid me," Nyad told CNN after the swim, adding that she won the mental struggle to continue by imagining that she was using her left hand to push Cuba backward and her right hand to bring Florida closer.
Nyad joins a number of athletes who have continued to push the age barrier upward by remaining competitive in physically demanding sports.
"She is an inspiration to everyone who has goals, even ones that seem far beyond human reach," said Maria Ekizian, 47, who completes two-mile swims in the ocean on many weekends and sometimes trains at the same pool as Nyad in Pasadena. "Just think how much more swimming I get to do by her age."
The achievement has not come easily. In recent years Nyad has been a fixture at the Rose Bowl Aquatics Center in the narrow 50-meter gutter lane closest to the wall, where swimmers can churn along in solitude.
"She trains nonstop, like a beast. She's amazing," said Chad Durieux, a 30-year-old coach at the center, who said he would come in for a swim in the morning and come back in the evening and find her still swimming. "I think the motivation, what's driving her, is finishing what she started 40 years ago."
In a 2011 online chat with the Los Angeles Times and its readers, Nyad said that in her first attempt to go from Cuba to Florida in 1978, she lost 29 pounds in less than two days of swimming before she had to stop. The weight loss was inevitable, she said, because swimming uses up more calories than she's able to take in during the act.
That raises the question of why someone would attempt such a punishing feat in the first place, let alone again and again.
"I am stunned, at age 61, at how fast it all flies by," Nyad said in the 2011 chat, explaining her motivation to keep going. "My mom just died. We blink and another decade passes. I don't want to reach the end of my life and regret not having given my days everything in me to make them worthwhile."
That sense of fulfillment was apparent two miles from the end of the swim Monday morning, where Nyad, in sight of her goal for the first time in her life, stopped to address her support crew.
"This is a lifelong dream of mine and I'm very very glad to be with you," she said, according to an update on her website. "Some on the team are the most intimate friends of my life and some of you I've just met. But I'll tell you something, you're a special group. You pulled through; you are pros and have a great heart. So let's get going so we can have a whopping party."
Times staff writers James Rainey and Adolfo Flores contributed to this report.