American to swim across the shark-infested Straits of Florida


Undeterred by the prospect of hungry sharks, hurricane-season storms, and the dysfunctional state of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba, a 61-year-old woman was paddling through calm seas today as she attempted to become the first person to swim unaided across the Straits of Florida.

Diana Nyad left Havana on Sunday night, covering 13 miles by the time the sun rose over the Caribbean. By late morning, local time, the endurance swimmer’s crew reported that she was 20 miles north of Cuba, putting her on track to complete the 103-mile journey to Key West within its planned three-day timeframe.

The pioneering swim, which has been years in the planning, marks an effort to both foster greater understanding between the US and its Cold War adversary, and to prove that advancing years aren’t necessarily a barrier to physical achievement.

Nyad, who was one of the world’s foremost distance swimmers in the 1970s, told reporters that she was a “much better athlete” today than in her competitive heyday, when she set an open water record by swimming 100 miles from The Bahamas to Florida.

“I’m standing here in the prime of my life,” she said. “I think this is the prime, when one reaches this age. You still have a body that’s strong, but now you have a better mind; a mind at peace with the joy of the world, a mind that’s full of courage, and not afraid.”

She is being accompanied by a support team of 45 people, spread across five yachts and four kayaks. Among them are several trained shark divers who will take turns swimming nearby with electronic devices which are – hopefully – going to repel the marine predators.

An Australian swimmer, Susie Maroney, became the first person to cross the Straits, in 1997. But she was surrounded by a shark cage. Nyad, for her part, says that she doesn’t want to “have that asterisk next to my name” in the record books.

Before jumping into a calm sea at around 8pm on Sunday, she played a fanfare on a trumpet. Over the roughly 72 hours of her trip, she will stop every 45 minutes to take on water and every 90 minutes to eat, while treading water. Rules for ocean swimming prevent her touching any boat or members of the support crew, and from wearing a wetsuit.

Nyad last attempted the crossing in 1978, but was forced to abandon it roughly half way across due to high winds. She later retired, but returned to distance swimming after reaching the age of 60. Problems securing a visa to visit Cuba, which still doesn’t have diplomatic relations with her native US, meant that an effort to schedule the record-breaking swim last summer was abandoned.

“I never thought I’d come back to this sport,” she told reporters. “It’s a gruelling sport. It’s for the young. I retired when I should have, when I was young, but a couple of years ago in turning 60, I decided that I didn’t want to feel old yet, so I went back to it, and here I am.”

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