Long distance DREAMER
SUN PHOTO/DEE BRADY
World-class swimmer Diana Nyad, shown here
training Saturday on Anna Maria Island,
will attempt to swim from Cuba to Key West.
ANNA MARIA – When Diana Nyad attempts to swim 103 miles from Havana to Key West later this month, her practice sessions off Anna Maria Island will be helping to propel her to a very personal goal.
Nyad, who turns 61 this month, trained off Anna Maria in Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico for a few hours last weekend, working toward a swim that has never left her mind, even after 31 years without swimming a single stroke.
Nyad made history in 1979, accomplishing the longest continuous swim in history – 102.5 miles – from Bimini to Florida.
But that feat was not enough to drive out the memory of the previous year’s defeat – a Cuba-to-Florida marathon in 1978 that ended after 41 hours and 49 minutes of heavy weather, jellyfish stings, and recurring vomiting in a shark cage that hindered her progress when three of its four engines died.
For more than three decades, the woman who had broken the 50-year-old record for swimming around Manhattan Island gave up on her dream, seemingly never to swim again.
Then she turned 60.
The milestone transformed her swimmer’s burnout into a consuming fire, a need to make the most of the rest of her life, and to inspire other 60-somethings who have given up on their dreams to dive back into life.
Once she got wet, it all came back to her, the metronomic activity, turning her head, counting her strokes and the descent into an alpha state, where hallucinations sometimes arise; she thought she saw lizards in the bottom of the shark cage in 1978.
In that state, thoughts become as deep as the ocean below.
“You’re lucid,” she said, “but you drift off into deep philosophical places. ‘What is the meaning of life?’ ‘Is there a God?’ ‘What am I doing with my life?’ ”
For one thing, she’s breaking age barriers and political taboos.
Relatively few Americans visit Cuba under U.S.-imposed travel restrictions. Still waiting for permission from the U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Nyad said that Sen. Hillary Clinton has intervened to get her clearance to travel to the island.
As Capitol Hill observers speculate that the Obama administration is on the verge of easing travel restrictions to Cuba, Nyad, a Florida native, said she chose the island because of the “magical history between Cuba and the U.S.”
But this swim is personal, not political.
“I didn’t make it all those years ago,” Nyad said. “It’s looming out there as something in my past.”
Her training since January has been mostly 15- to 20-hour swims, the author and businesswoman said.
By July 11, she had made a triumphant comeback, a 24-hour swim through the Gulf Stream’s open water off Key West.
The swim from Havana to Key West could take up to two and a half days, more than twice as long, she said.
She’s hoping to do it before her birthday later this month, but more importantly, before the weather gets rougher in September. Calm seas and calm winds are priceless in long-distance swimming, as is warm water.
Even the Jacuzzi-warm Gulf that visitors complain about in August “is much colder than body temperature,” Nyad said, pointing out the need to keep adding hot water to a warm bath to maintain a comfort zone. “Unlike cycling, you can’t put a jacket on. You’re naked out there.”
Naked, except for a special swimsuit designed especially for Nyad with stitching on the outside to minimize seams from cutting into the skin, causing bleeding and attracting sharks. This time, there will be no shark cage.
Burning 2,000 calories an hour, more than most people eat in a day, she will stop frequently and eat peanut butter, honey and hard boiled eggs - all while floating in the water without touching the boat - just to keep from shivering. She’ll drink water spiked with electrolytes to prevent dehydration, another nemesis.
Accompanying her in boats and kayaks will be a team of about 30 people, including experts on navigation, weather, sharks and nutrition.
One of the boat captains will be Sun sales assistant and Anna Maria resident Dee Brady on her custom-made Voyager I, built by Coral Island Yachts. Nyad’s search for a suitable boat led to the yacht maker, who recommended the Voyager I, which Nyad approved last weekend after a test cruise.
Later this week, the team plans to meet in Key West to prepare for the event. Nyad also was scheduled to appear on the Tonight Show on Monday, Aug. 9.
But after 32 years, the swimmer who once abandoned the sea is finally closing in on her dream.
Still, she said, her voice trailing off, “It’s a long, long way.”