On this day in 2013, 64-year-old Diana Nyad becomes the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without the use of a shark cage for protection. Nyad completed the 110-mile swim from Havana to Key West, through the jellyfish-and shark-infested waters of the Straits of Florida, in approximately 53 hours.
Born on August 22, 1949, in New York City, and raised in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Nyad was a champion swimmer in high school. In 1975, two years after graduating from Lake Forest College in Illinois, she made headlines by swimming the 28 miles around the island of Manhattan in a little less than 8 hours. In 1978, she attempted her first swim from Havana to Key West; however, dangerous swells and strong currents that pushed her off course forced her out of the water after about 42 hours. The following year, she set a record for swimming the 102 miles from North Bimini, Bahamas, to Juno Beach, Florida, a feat she accomplished in 27.5 hours. Afterward, she retired from endurance swimming and worked as a journalist and motivational speaker.
After three decades away from marathon swimming, Nyad decided to make another try at swimming from Cuba to Florida. She attempted the journey in August 2011, but had to end it after about 28 hours in the water, due to an extended asthma attack. Her third attempt, the following month, had to be aborted after about 41 hours due to venomous jellyfish stings. Nyad made a fourth bid in August 2012, but once again was forced to stop before reaching Key West due to storms and jellyfish stings.
Nyad began her fifth attempt at Cuba to Florida on the morning of August 31, 2013. Keeping on course by following a line dragged in the water by a support boat, she hummed her favorite songs in her head to help concentrate. For part of the journey, she wore a bodysuit, gloves, booties and a special mask to protect her from jellyfish. However, the mask caused her to take in a lot of salt water, which made her vomit throughout much of the swim. Nonetheless, on September 2, after nearly 53 hours in the open water, the 64-year-old successfully made it to Key West, where she staggered ashore onto Smathers Beach and was greeted by a crowd of supporters.
A month after her historic achievement, Nyad completed a 48-hour swim in an outdoor pool set up in midtown Manhattan. The event was a fundraiser for victims of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy.