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Dan Levin
August 28, 1978
Diana Nyad failed to swim from Cuba to Key West when adverse winds, whipping up huge swells, forced her out of the water
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August 28, 1978

An Ill Wind That Blew No Good

Diana Nyad failed to swim from Cuba to Key West when adverse winds, whipping up huge swells, forced her out of the water

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The dream was dying hard for Diana Nyad last week. Her Cuba- Key West swim was all but over, and now, with the dawning of the third, impossible day, and with her mind a blur from too little sleep and too much pain, she saw her friends' tears and heard their words, but she understood neither. "Everything went wrong," head trainer Margie Carroll sobbed to her. "You swam for 42 hours, but the wind pushed us too far west, and I'm so sorry, Diana, but I'm telling you now that you're not going to make it."

"But couldn't I keep going?" Nyad pleaded, shivering despite the 85� temperature of the Gulf Stream. Her words were barely intelligible; her tongue and lips were swollen from the salt water. "If I swam for 40 more hours, couldn't I make it then?"

"It can't be done, Diana," said Rich du Moulin, her co-navigator. "The wind is too strong against you, the waves are too high, and three of the four engines on the shark cage are dead. No swimmer could make it now, not even you." He spoke softly, as if to a child.

"But I can't quit. Isn't there some other place to swim for, some island maybe?"

"There is no other place, Diana. Key West is still the closest point, and it's 60 miles away."

She bobbed weakly in the 20' x 40' shark cage, a look of resignation growing in her puffy features, and finally she was saying over and over, "I wanted to make it so much.... I tried so hard.... I've never done anything so hard in my whole life." Her friends reached down to embrace her, and one said, "We're so proud of you, Diana." They lifted her gently from the water, her hands dangling down, bleached bone white and deeply furrowed. Applause broke out, and someone remarked, "She's the only thing in this project that worked." The phrase hung in the air.

"My own private Olympics," Nyad had called the swim, and she trained for a year, as if she were a one-woman Olympic team. Her plan was to start from Cuba in mid-July, when the winds usually are light and the waves in the Florida Straits smaller. But there were some procedural problems with the Cuban government and the swim was delayed. So it wasn't until Sunday, August 13, that she stood on Ortegosa Beach, about 50 land miles west of Havana, 130 sea miles southwest of Key West, her destination. Her trainers and support crew scurried about, yet Nyad looked incredibly alone. She stared at the choppy shallows and at the windblown mangroves, and she seemed to hesitate. But finally, vacantly, she said, "I guess I'll see you all in about 2� days." Then she waded in to her waist and began a quarter-mile swim to the self-propelled shark cage, named "Cleopatra," which had cost a queenly $42,000 to build and which was now waiting offshore. It was 2:07 p.m.

She would swim north to the Gulf Stream, cut diagonally across it as it swept her eastward, and emerge from it on its other side, just offshore from Key West. It seemed that simple. But a northeast wind was blowing to 15 knots and more. It gusted across the open front of the cage, sending three-foot waves smacking into Nyad's face. They caromed off the inside of the pontoons on the cage, knocking her from side to side. Her navigators altered course slightly to the west, placing the cage more nearly parallel to the waves, waiting impatiently for the wind to die. But the bulky shark cage, which was powered by four 75-hp. outboards, was now moving at less than two knots, and it caught the wind like a sail. Although she could not know it, Nyad was heading more and more to the west, causing one frustrated crew member to wonder about a Cuba- Mexico swim.

The wind, which was supposed to die at dusk, blew into the night, and Nyad screamed as poisonous jellyfish washed against her arms. Her trainers bathed the stings with ammonia, but she was losing strength—from pain, from vomiting up her hourly feedings, from battling the waves. She shivered when she momentarily stopped swimming. She began to swim breaststroke and backstroke, slowing to only a mile an hour. "My God," she called out, "if it's this bad after only 12 hours..." At 2 a.m. her trainers fed her chicken soup, but she threw it up. The waves rose to four feet and Nyad said, "This is the worst night of my life."

At 4 a.m. her trainers played Simon and Garfunkel on a tape deck, the music blaring into the night, and Nyad said to an astonished trainer, " ' Joe DiMaggio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.' That means there are no more heroes, right?"

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