On Labor Day 2013, Diana Nyad walked weakly but determinedly ashore onto Key West’s Smathers Beach — becoming the first person EVER to swim across the Florida Straits from Cuba to the Florida Keys without a shark cage.
“Never, ever give up,” said the then-64-year-old Diana, her face swollen and salt-encrusted from the nearly 111-mile swim that she had attempted four times before her Labor Day triumph. “You’re never too old to chase your dreams.”
Diana first attempted the Florida Straits crossing in 1978 when she was 28 years old, swimming with a shark cage. After more than 41 hours of fighting strong currents and huge waves, driven far off course in a physically and mentally debilitating battle, she was lifted into a support boat.
In 2010, after being inspired by her 60th birthday, she tried again. But by the time she had the necessary Cuban government paperwork, her weather window had expired.
In 2011, Diana twice attempted the swim, estimated to take approximately 60 hours, with heartbreaking results both times. She was foiled by shoulder pain and a devastating in-water asthma attack in August 2011, and severe jellyfish stings in September.
During a 2012 attempt, she suffered multiple painful and debilitating stings from box jellyfish despite wearing a protective full-body suit each night.
At that point, many people said swimming the grueling distance just wasn’t possible — particularly for a woman in her 60s. But that didn’t stop Diana Nyad.
“All my life I believed in dreaming big — I guess it doesn’t satisfy me to have small dreams,” she said with magnificent understatement.
Just before Labor Day 2013, she tried it again. Buoyed by lessons learned during her previous attempts, supported by a team whose dedication was nearly as strong as her own, she began swimming in Havana at 8:59 a.m. Aug. 31.
“I have had this Cuba swim under my skin since I was a child,” Diana admitted. “It’s the Mount Everest of oceans. It’s epic. And so you want to be the first.”
At night in the water, she donned the full-body suit, gloves and a specially crafted silicone face mask to protect her from jellyfish. She was accompanied by kayakers with electronic shark repelling devices.
And finally, after swimming continuously for 52 hours and 54 minutes, fighting bouts of nausea and exhaustion, Diana Nyad made it to the welcoming shore of Key West.
Nearly 2,000 people greeted her with cheers and applause as she reached the beach, hugged her best friend and business partner Bonnie Stoll, and lay down on a stretcher so medics could check her physical condition.
“I wanted this swim, this endeavor, not to just be the athletic record,” she said the next day, her face radiating peace and gratitude. “I wanted it to be a lesson to my life that says, ‘Be fully engaged. Be awake and alert and alive every minute of every waking day’.”
On Labor Day 2014, Diana and her team were back in Key West for the unveiling of a bronze plaque recognizing her achievement. It will be installed by the City of Key West on the promenade wall in front of Smathers Beach, close to the spot where she came ashore.
As well as honoring Diana for her amazing physical feat, the plaque honors the mental strength and perseverance that kept her focused on achieving her goal — and will forever be an example for those seeking to fulfill their dreams.