Diana Nyad shows the true meaning of endurance

Diana Nyad is now high priestess of the Land of Try-Try Again. A stubborn sort with a bit of a wild streak, she once jumped from a fourth-floor dorm room in college, but that wouldn't be the craziest stunt she'd ever pull.

It turned out to be this swim she completed Monday, Cuba to the Florida Keys, through the muck and mayhem of the Gulf Stream, the river within the sea.

Ever sipped this stuff? Warm as soup. Full of bilge musk and whale belch.

PHOTOS: Diana Nyad's Cuba-to-Florida swim

Step out of the briny Caribbean in late summer and you'll be salty as a stadium pretzel. They could sell you at Fenway.

That's the devil's whiskey that Nyad navigated this week, finally completing the swim she'd tried four times earlier, when she was far younger and more petulant but a little less wise.

Fifty-three hours, 110 miles, sick most of the time. Singing Neil Young songs to herself to keep the crazy away. Yet hallucinating about seeing the Taj Mahal.

Costs a lot of money to become the first person to swim these straits without a shark cage, and then what've you got?

Well, one of the most inspiring stories of the year, right up there with Bill Iffrig, the 78-year-old runner who jumped to his feet after the explosion and finished the Boston Marathon.

Diana Nyad, Los Angeles resident since '92 and Rose Bowl Aquatics Center swim rat, did at 64 what she couldn't at 28, which should've been her prime but she couldn't, wouldn't think that way.

In general, athletes worry too much about age and not enough about nutrition and heart. Then there are those who refuse to count the years: Satchel Paige. Nolan Ryan.

This week there is Nyad, a Florida state swim champ before taking on the longer distances later after college.

Her endurance victories soon mounted. Swam around Manhattan Island. Swam from Bimini to Florida, then attempted -- ad infinitum -- this Cuba trek. Her personal Everest.

"When I first told the five closest people in my life about this four years ago, I told them it's possible no one's going to sponsor it and no one's going to care," she said by phone Wednesday. "I said, 'I don't care, as long as the five of you are on the beach when I finish.'"

Well, turns out there were plenty of sponsors and scores of fans on that beach, and even more around the world.

"They're looking at me as a baby boomer, saying life is not over at this age by any means," she said later on TV. "So I'm more of a, shall we say, human spirit story than I am a sports story."

Nyad said the cost of this epic swim came in under $100,000 and has dropped each time, thanks to an increase in volunteers and online donations.

Back in '78, when she first tried this, "People thought I was insane," she said Wednesday. Now, after Monday's finish, she is a baby boomer rock star.

She has also gone from being one of the pioneers of endurance races to being, like the Chicago Cubs, an emblem for never giving up. The only difference: She actually, finally won.

What changed this time? Why could she accomplish at 64 what she couldn't at 28?

"The resolve has to be there," she said. "You can't even jump off the rocks in Havana without that."

She's also quick to credit her crew of 35 and a jellyfish shield, developed by L.A. prosthetic expert Stefan Knauss. "I never would've come back to do the swim without the mask."

Mother Nature kicked in too, with mostly favorable conditions. Sure, there were lightning storms and 35-mph squalls in the middle of the night.

Debilitating sea sickness. Dehydration. The mask worked, but also caused her to swallow more seawater than most mammals should.

"I was very sick," she says.

But stroke by stroke, turning her head 50 to 55 times a minute, the L.A.-based journalist and motivational speaker kept on, following the underwater streamers her team had devised to keep her on course.

Stroke by stroke, till Sunday night, when she thought she spotted the sun coming up.

"That's not the sunrise," trainer Bonnie Stoll told her. "That's the lights of Key West."

Which meant only 15 hours to go. Only 15 hours — a distance that would crush most great swimmers.

But not the High Priestess of the Land of Try-Try Again.

Not Nyad, whose record swim began with 12-hour stints, starting at 6 a.m., in a Pasadena pool.


Twitter: @erskinetimes

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