On second thought

Nyad remains unsinkable

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / August 21, 2011

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Diana Nyad came up short on her recent attempt to swim from Cuba to Key West, which is 103 miles of fairly treacherous waters, considering the force of the current and the hard-to-predict appetite of the neighborhood sharks.

Reports immediately following her truncated journey did not provide the milepost along the Florida straits where Nyad finally called it quits. But the spot doesn’t really matter, nor does the fact that the journey dead-ended.

At age 61, Nyad is content to say she gave it her best and that she hopes her attempt will inspire others, especially older athletes, to take on challenges that stretch the body’s will and the mind’s imagination.

“Such is life, I suppose,’’ Nyad stated in a release. “We suffer heartache, every single one of us. But if you can be proud of every imaginable effort you made, if you can assess the will you demonstrated as Herculean, you are living a rich, successful life.

“I am profoundly disappointed. I didn’t make it to Florida. But as a human being, I did not fail. I am standing tall.’’

In the end, it was the combination of a severe asthma attack, an aching, debilitating shoulder, and a perpetually east-pulling current that forced Nyad to surrender at 12:45 a.m. Aug. 9.

For most athletes her age, or even those a quarter or half a lifetime younger, any of those three factors would have been enough to bring out the white flag.

Nyad, reported by Wikipedia to have been tossed out of Emory University in the late ’60s for attempting to jump out of a fourth-floor window with a parachute, needed all three of those reality checks to stop her.

“It was a fairy tale,’’ she told The New York Times after calling it quits 29 hours into her journey, “but the fairy tale didn’t come true. My body was at the absolute very end.’’

Good athletes know when it’s over. When you are a team of one like Nyad, there is no hiding among a crowd of shoulder pads or in the dugout. When the ocean has the upper hand and the body is drained, there is no game clock, with time ticking away toward a timeout, a respite, a life jacket. Even the brutal one-man show that is boxing has that forgiving minute between rounds.

“Highly unprecedented circumstances took me over . . . and eventually took me down,’’ Nyad said in her release. “At 1:30 Monday afternoon, 17 hours in, I was seized by an extreme asthma attack.

“For the next 11 hours, I was desperate for oxygen. A measly 30 strokes drained me so that I had to roll on my back and gasp for air. Two to three minutes later, not fully out of distress, another 30 strokes. And so it went for 11 hours.’’

Her account left out the part about frequent vomiting during the final hours. News reports from Florida were more graphic about her bouts of seasickness.

Nyad, who will turn 62 tomorrow, isn’t planning to try that stretch of watery toll road again. She is twice wise now, even if not once successful. Her first attempt came in 1978 when she went the more conventional route, protected by a shark cage, and lasted nearly 42 hours before seeking safe harbor.

Unless she has a change of heart, her career record for the Cuba-to-Florida marathon swim will read “0 for 2, 70 hours logged,’’ and perhaps have one very significant asterisk: “*a 103-mile stretch of deep blue sea can be too much for even the best of ’em.’’

“Sometimes the will is so strong,’’ Nyad said. “That’s the whole point of this sport in general, that the mind is stronger than the body.’’

In her 1978 attempt, Nyad fared somewhat better physically, though her body took a beating in the shark cage. As in this recent attempt, the current also played havoc with her intended course.

Mother Nature has a way of getting in the way of dreams, something untold hundreds of Cuban refugees have learned in that same Gulf Stream, when sport wasn’t their reason for being out there and their failed attempts weren’t comforted by warm embraces and encouraging words.

In 1979, Nyad completed a 102.5-mile swim from the Bahamas (Bimini) to Florida (Jupiter), and did it without a shark cage. Not that I could ever dream of making such a swim, but really, no cage? The Great Blondin at least carried a balancing pole with him in 1859 with his death-defying tiptoe on tightrope across Niagara Falls. Going without the shark cage, if not a death wish, seems to be a deep-rooted urge to live life at the top - as human chum.

For her recent attempt to cross the straits, Nyad had team members rowing along in sea kayaks. Not only did they try to prop her up with encouragement, they carried electrical devices that sent impulses into the water to establish a protective shark fence around Nyad. The Great Blondin would have liked that.

Born in New York City, and a 1973 grad of Lake Forest, where she was Phi Beta Kappa, Nyad made her first notable long swim a 7-hour, 57-minute loop of Manhattan in 1975. Gray Line Tours has had slower passages.

Nyad isn’t setting records anymore, or even necessarily able to finish what she starts. But guile and gumption and dream making aren’t always measured by a finish line. For the many of us who ponder how to get active again, how to exercise, how to compete, and how to dream, Nyad’s crooked trek across the straits ought be more about what we don’t start than what she didn’t finish.

Kevin Paul Dupont’s “On Second Thought’’ appears on Page 2 of the Sunday Globe Sports section. He can be reached at