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Sharks, current, jellyfish no match for Diana Nyad

Swimmer, 64, first to finish Cuba trek

American Diana Nyad walked to dry sand Monday after becoming the first person to swim from Cuba to Key West, Fla., without a shark cage.

ANDREW INNERARITY/REUTERS

American Diana Nyad walked to dry sand Monday after becoming the first person to swim from Cuba to Key West, Fla., without a shark cage.

MIAMI — Her speech slurred and her face red and swollen, Diana Nyad conquered the treacherous Florida Straits on Monday and completed a 53-hour, 110-mile swim from Cuba to Key West.

Nyad, 64, became the only person to have succeeded in swimming from Cuba to Key West without a shark cage. With her final stroke into Smathers Beach in Key West, Nyad proved that perseverance and big dreams can transcend age and injury.

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This was Nyad’s fifth attempt in 35 years to swim without fins or a wet suit on the daunting journey laden with so many encumbrances, including swarms of jellyfish. Until Monday, the obstacles seemed impossible to overcome.

Her official time was 52 hours, 54 minutes, 18.6 seconds, according to her website.

“I have three messages,” Nyad, her face scorched and puffy from so many hours in the saltwater, said as she leaned on a friend. “One is we should never, ever give up. Two is you never are too old to chase your dreams. Three is it looks like a solitary sport but it takes a team.”

After two nights and two days of being buffeted by ocean waves, she walked on to Smathers Beach on Monday at 1:20 p.m. to the cheers of onlookers and her 35-member support team, which had kept a close watch on Nyad from five boats that trailed her during the swim.

Millions more exhilarated in her age-defying feat from afar, on Twitter and Facebook, viewing it with inspiration and pride.

One of the first to send a message on Twitter was President Obama: “Congratulations to Diana Nyad. Never give up on your dreams.”

Nyad was placed on a stretcher on the beach and received an IV before she was taken by ambulance to a hospital. But her doctor later declared her essentially healthy and expected her to recover quickly from dehydration, swelling, and sunburn, the Associated Press reported.

The ocean between Florida and Cuba is a notoriously fierce opponent, brimming with sharks, jellyfish, squalls, and an uncompromising Gulf Stream current.

Last year, Nyad was defeated by all three. She was forced back on to the boat after storms knocked her off track, sharks menaced her, and she was badly stung by box jellyfish. In 2011, her shoulder injured, she suffered her first asthma attack in the water and began to vomit, which forced her to stop.

Each time Nyad vowed it would be her last. But she could not help herself. The swim across the straits was her personal quest.

But this year, sharks steered clear, the swift current carried her along, and storms took the Labor Day weekend off. Even the box jellyfish cooperated, although she was well prepared for their challenge. She wore a jelly protection suit and a mask to protect her face from their poison.

Her body was coated with “sting stopper” gel to serve as a barrier from the venom. When she encountered box jellyfish near Key West, Nyad’s divers swam ahead of her this year to disperse them.

The support team accompanying her had equipment that generated a faint electrical field around her, designed to keep sharks at bay. A boat also dragged a line in the water to help keep her on course.

“I think that Mother Nature said: ‘You know what? Let her go,’” said Bonnie Stoll, one of her closest friends. “Diana also did her homework.”

To stay focused, Nyad did what she always does: She hummed her favorite songs in her head. Her strokes were calibrated to the cadence of the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride” and “Paperback Writer,” to name two.

Doctors traveling with Nyad had been worried about her slurred speech and her breathing but didn’t intervene, according to Nyad’s website.

‘‘She was incredible to watch the whole way through,’’ said one of her doctors, Derek Covington, who spoke with the AP afterward. Covington said Nyad was resting and being checked out at a hospital as a precaution.

Although she had some swelling of the lips, tongue, and the airway near the mouth, Nyad wouldn’t need a long recovery, the doctor said.

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