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08.10.11

Diana Nyad’s Broken Dream

Pain, bad weather and strong currents thwart the legendary athlete’s second attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida. Elaine Lafferty chronicles the swimmer’s battle against the elements.

It is no casual business witnessing the end of anyone’s lifelong dream, especially when the dream is one as grand and romantic as that of Diana Nyad, who on Tuesday ended her second attempt to swim across the treacherous Florida Straits.

Nyad, 61, a legendary distance swimmer who has conquered the planet’s greatest bodies of water, tried in 1978 to swim from Cuba to Florida. Back then, winds and current defeated her after 41 hours. To traverse this particular body of water that separates two distinct worlds has remained the dream of her life.

Sunday night at 7:45 pm, after two years of training, eight weeks of waiting in the Florida heat, and an athlete’s version of shuttle diplomacy between the U.S. State Department and Cuba, which included a hand-written note from Hillary Clinton, Nyad jumped into the waters off Hemingway Marina in Havana to begin a projected 60-hour, 103-mile swim to Key West.

Everything seemed perfect, by design, planning and luck. All permits were in place. The sea was like glass, windless and waveless, the condition called “the Doldrums” that had been predicted for this week by Jennifer and Dane Clark, two expert meteorologists on Nyad’s team.  Five support boats were in place, including Voyager and Mirage, two contraptions that look more like spaceships than seagoing vessels but are perfect for spiriting divers in and out of the ocean quickly and with ease.

The shark-team divers, led by Australian expert Luke Tipple, were back in place after a skirmish several weeks ago when several of them resigned in protest over a New York Times story that suggested sharks might be harmed during the swim. (In a nod to the shark-conservation community, as its called, Nyad promised them she would end the swim—dead or alive—before any shark was harmed.)

The navigator, David Marchant, a larger-than-life figure, had plotted a course to Florida that Nyad and her team trusted. The handlers—four people trained in the delivery of nutrition, and hydration through a plastic tube on a strict rotation, had been put through their practice paces. The boat captains, as well as the inflatable captains who would be shuttling around the crew for two-hour work and sleep shifts, were ready.

Leading the whole team was Bonnie Stoll, one of Nyad’s best friends and co-owner of their fitness company BravaBody. She is efficient and can bark orders with the best of them. This expedition, as Nyad called it, actually had the feeling of a family enterprise; Nyad’s younger sister was one of the handlers, and her nephew, Tim Wheeler, and his film crew were a constant presence, working on their documentary. Stoll’s agile niece, Jesse Morris, was a handler and all-around helper.

There was no medical “team” to speak of, but Dr. Michael Broder, an obstetrician/gynecologist and assistant professor at UCLA, was the onsite doctor and adviser.

Finally, there was Candace Lyle Hogan, the only member of the 40-plus crew on the five boats, aside from Stoll and Dr. Brody, to have complete access on demand to Nyad and the Voyager boat, at any hour, day or night. Candace, 63, is more than Nyad’s institutional memory. She was with her on most of the major swims of the 1970s, is a friend, adviser, and sparring partner. Perhaps most important to a soul as complex as Diana Nyad, she is a healer.

I’m not a quitter. But I have nothing left in my tank.

Just after 10 p.m. it becomes apparent that the Doldrums are gone. There are swells, lightning, rain. The boat is rocking gently but moving forward, keeping pace with Diana at 2 mph. Diana’s strokes remain constant at the level she has trained for, 53 or 54 a minute. At midnight some of us fall asleep, but the sea feels troubling. Somehow, I figure, if there’s a problem out there I’ll know it.

It’s morning and we are a little more than 20 nautical miles from Cuba. Diana has been swimming for about 13 hours.

Suddenly crew chief Heidi Horner heads downstairs on the Bellisimo, and wakes up Candace Hogan. “Diana needs to see you. She is okay. But she wants to see you. Right now.”

From that moment on, there were only two questions for many of us on the expedition; how bad is it and can she get through it?

For most of the next 16 hours, through day and into night, the answers were “very bad” and “yes.” When Diana called for Candace, she told her that something had happened to her right shoulder, her “good shoulder” about three hours into the swim. There was a “ping.” And she has been in agony, a “10 on a scale of 1 to 10.”

Candace talks with Diana and they do what can only be called a healing meditation. The pain is now an “8.” Diana resumes swimming.

Hours later things are about to get worse. Diana is allergic to several kinds of pain medication and anti-inflammatory drugs. She only takes Tylenol. At some point during the morning, she is given a Tylenol, but she notices it looks different from U.S.-made Tylenol. Within hours, she suffers an asthma attack, something that never happened to her before during any swim, including years of training swims. She knows she is in trouble. But she keeps swimming.

On the weather front, nothing is good. There are 1- to 3-foot swells, chop, and white caps. The transfer inflatable boats are struggling to tie up to the escort boats.

But she keeps swimming.

And then there is the current, along with the winds. It is blowing the Voyager—powered by two 50-hp Honda outboards and loaded with people including cameras crews—off course, to the east. The boat captains all have their opinions, but none will challenge the authority of the navigator. All anyone knows is that by following the escort boat, Diana is moving nearly 15 miles off course. There will have to be a correction at some point.

At 12:45 am, Diana, taking too many breaks, doing the breaststroke which she admits she doesn’t even know how to do, calls in her team as she floats in the water. “Let’s get real,” she says to them. “How many hours left?” About 30, they tell her.

“I’m not a quitter,” Nyad tells Bonnie. “You know that. But I have nothing left in my tank.” It was sad, for those of us witnessing a moment of struggle. But it was also hopeful, as Diana well knows, to imagine her other and next shore.