Sunday, September 25, 2011

Diana Nyad: long distance swimmer battles nature in latest swim

On Friday, as the sun began to set outside of Hemingway Marina, near Havana, Cuba, Diana Nyad once began her attempt to swim the 103 miles from Cuba to Key West, Florida - an accomplishment that was thwarted in early August due to a shoulder injury and an asthma attack, apparently brought on by the use of a foreign-made medication to combat the shoulder pain. With water temperatures and calm seas offering ideal conditions, Diana, at age 62, went after a goal that has alluded her for several years.

I was fortunate and privileged to have been on the Xtreme Dream team involved in the August swim as a shark watch diver, having filmed her earlier for a CNN documentary which aired recently. The expense of this kind of undertaking is enormous and so to try again so soon after the August attempt, Diana needed to scale back her operation. To save costs in airfare and accommodations, August lead shark crew member Luke Tipple and myself had to bow out (we had other obligations anyway), and Diana recruited three Florida locals, including Rob MacDonald and Johnny Rose who were with us in August.

With every meeting or conversation I have had with Diana, I was always impressed by her energy and determination. And so in the weeks following the August swim, in the back of my mind I was always thinking that if she got a sufficiently clean bill of health from her doctors regarding her right shoulder which had been such a big issue in the August attempt, she would be thinking seriously about making another go of it if the weather was right. So, Xtreme Dream redux - with Diana once again heading into the unknown of the first night crossing the Florida Straits on her way to Key West.

Challenges Once Again
As has been reported on her website and in several news outlets, it didn't take long for challenges to present themselves - this time in the form of severe sea jelly, or jellyfish, stings. Diana received several stings from a Portuguese Man-of-War which required some quick action from Johnny Rose.

An entry from the Xtreme Dream blog:
"A testament to Diana’s strength was the two hours tonight following her sting by numerous Portuguese man of war. Chief handler Bonnie Stoll said, 'Diana was stung along both arms the side of her body and her face.' Jonathan Rose, a safety diver and EMT, immediately got in the water with Diana to try and free her of the tentacles and stingers. Rose was also stung numerous times. The crew got Diana’s swimsuit changed and put a new suit on with a shirt covering her. After an hour and a half of treading water Diana began to rehydrate and swim her freestyle stroke."

The encounter took its toll on Diana and her ability to maintain her stride in the water. After getting some medical attention, under the watchful eyes of independent observers from the International Swimming Foundation to ensure that all rules for an unaided swim were met. Diana continued on and started to show improvement. Things were looking up.

Next up was some Saturday afternoon unwanted company: an oceanic whitetip shark. Even though Diana was using the electronic shark shields that we had also used in August, an oceanic whitetip can become intensely curious - this was the one species I had the most concern over in August. Fortunately, Rob MacDonald approached the shark and it proved to be less than curious and bid a hasty retreat. As it turned out, it wasn't the big creatures that would prove to be the greatest threat as the hours wore on.

A Difficult Decision
Entering her second night of the swim, Diana once again encountered Portuguese Man-of-War and was badly stung about the face, affecting her eyes even though they are protected by goggles. This time, more extensive medical treatment was required and Diana had to make a tough decision; she chose to come aboard the support vessel, resting on the transom while receiving treatment from two doctors. This would normally signal an end to the entire swim attempt, but there was one more avenue available to her.

From the Xtreme Dream blog:
"According to the independent observer from the International Swim Federation, Diana may continue the swim if she has only been removed from the water for medical treatment. In other words, not simply to rest. The swim then becomes something called a “staged swim,” meaning that it may occur in stages. Diana’s swim will still be record breaking if she decides to continue."

This is why it is so critical to having independent observers watching over a world record attempt such as this swim from Cuba to Florida. The observers can authenticate what was or was not accomplished and can verify changes in strategy that may be dictated by circumstances. With the support vessel not moving forward during her break, Diana eventually resumed her swim from the exact spot where she stopped to receive medical treatment; a record could still be accomplished as a staged swim.

Nature Can Have Its Way
In the waters where Diana is swimming, there are several jellyfish species. Some of the most common are the Portuguese Man-of-War, the Moon Jelly, and the Sea Walnut. The Moon Jelly and Sea Walnut are relatively harmless, but the Portuguese Man-of-War can deliver quite a wallop. During the day, it is relatively easy to recognize with its large, bluish-purple dome that floats on the surface. Trailing underneath are stinging tentacles that can sometimes reach 30 feet in length. And these tentacles can still sting even when broken off from the main body itself.

While warm water temperatures and calm seas are the ideal conditions for a long distance swimmer, they are also ideal conditions for jellyfish reproduction. So it is during these summer months that the numbers can increase exponentially, thereby increasing the chances for an encounter. Worldwide, there have been increasing jellyfish "blooms" with thousands of jellyfish appearing at sea or along coastlines, sometimes washing up on beaches. Scientists have yet to draw definitive conclusions as to why these increases in numbers may be occurring but climate change and loss of natural predators are theories being researched.

Moving into Sunday, Diana persevered, having swam for over 40 hours. But she faced two additional nights before she would reach Florida and there was concern as to the threat of additional jellyfish encounters. Reluctantly, but giving wise consideration to her personal health and the counsel of her physicians, Diana concluded the swim at 11:00am, completing 82 nautical miles (over 92 statute miles) and once again proving herself to be a champion athlete and an inspiration to so many, young and old.

Diana, it's my birthday today and I'm only a couple of years behind you. You're a terrific reminder of what all of us can accomplish in our daily lives when we set our minds to it. You also demonstrate to us the wisdom of knowing when to change strategies so that drive is not mistaken for obsession.

". . . for each of us,
isn’t life about determining your own finish line? This journey has always been about reaching your own other shore no matter what it is, and that dream continues.” - Diana Nyad, Sunday, 9/25/11

Now, as you so often say, "Onward!"

Read about Diana's swim at her website.
Quotes sourced from her
Swim photos courtesy of

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