Political obstacles may still hinder travel between Cuba and the United States, but sharks, jellyfish and 100 miles of choppy waters couldn’t stop Diana Nyad (former host of KCRW’s The Score) from making history by swimming from Havana to Key West without the assistance of a cage.
DnA’s Caroline Chamberlain happened to be in Key West at the time of Nyad’s arrival, and she spoke with excited locals about the endurance swimmer’s achievement.
Local historian Tom Hambright has witnessed all of her attempts and said he was, “happy to see her do it, it’s always a plus for us elderlies to see somebody accomplish something. She said three things when she arrived in that one interview and one of them was that ‘you’re never too old,’ and that resonated with me.” But he conceded that after all these years of witnessing her attempts, he had his doubts: “I really didn’t think she would make it this time because she had failed last year, and her age was catching up with her.” He added that there are, “a lot of variables you can’t predict when you leave over there… you never quite know which way the current’s gonna go, or what it’s gonna do, so I didn’t have much faith that she would ever make it.”
Add to currents and age: sharks, electrical storms and jellyfish. But it turns out that this time, a jellyfish-proof mask helped Nyad along the way (in 1979 she made a record-breaking 100-mile swim between Bimini Island and Florida.)
Hambright also spoke about how in the past, others completed the trip using waterskis. The first attempt was actually by a “Cuban national that waterskied from Cuba to Key West.” He also noted that in the 1970’s, the Mayor of Key West Charles “Sonny” McCoy also water skied the distance in 1978. Since then others who have completed the journey have parasailed and used cages. Many other swimmers have attempted, but most gave up after a very short distance.
Hambright also pointed out that the trip was not always politically feasible when tensions were high between the United States and Cuba at the height of the Cold War. He said,” I don’t think in the early 60’s when things were really tense that it would have been possible to do that.”
I also spoke with Lyzette Macaskill who is the manager of Key West Bed and Breakfast, where I’ve been staying during my trip. The Bed and Breakfast occupies a Victorian style house in the National Historic Register built in 1898, featuring artwork by local Key West artists. Lyzette, who has worked here for 17 years, was actually there when Diana touched ground at Smathers Beach and had been tracking her movements on the Facebook page “Island Jane” since Thursday. She described the scene: “by the time we got there there had to have been at least 2,000 people on the beach already. I’m not big into crowds, so I just hung back I just stood in the water to the far right side and you could see all of the boats that were accompanying her from coming across from Cuba, and you could actually see her. You could make out who she was from her swimming.”
She continued, “then we just kind of waited and she kept on swimming further away, so everybody kept on walking along the beach with her, and they just started chanting her name.”
When asked what Nyad’s feat meant for her personally, Lyzette replied, “for me it’s just a symbol of never, ever giving up… All things are possible, so for me it was just she never gave up, she kept going and going. But it means that you can find other dreams and pursue them and you definitely can achieve them, and for me it was emotional.”
And on Tuesday night, while enjoying a fish sandwich and key lime pie at Caroline’s Cafe on Duval Street, I was lucky enough to witness Nyad’s victory parade along the famous commercial street, where hundreds of excited locals and tourists alike ran into the streets to congratulate and celebrate Diana’s long-awaited triumph.