Sixty-four-year-old Diana Nyad splashed ashore on Smathers Beach in Key West on Monday to become the first person ever to swim between Cuba and Florida unassisted by a shark cage. She accomplished the feat in just 52 hours, 54 minutes, and 18 seconds.
Looking dazed and sunburnt after her grueling weekend-long swim, she thanked her supporters, and tweeted a hope that her success would remind others to "never, ever give up" on pursuing their dreams.
What set Nyad's swim apart from other swims across the shark-infested Florida Strait was the fact that she did not swim inside a shark cage—a floating box with bars that not only protects swimmers from sharks but is said to offer a kind of towing effect that helps a swimmer through the rough seas. Instead, to keep sharks at bay, her support boat emitted a faint electronic force field.
To protect herself from the countless stinging jellyfish that surface at night and which torpedoed her earlier recent attempts at the swim in 2011 and 2012, she wore a special silicone face mask, along with a full bodysuit, booties, and goggles.
This was her fifth—and as she put it, final—attempt to swim the Florida Strait, the first one dating back to 1978 when she was a young woman barely out of her twenties. Now a grandmother, she has completed what is arguably one of the greatest swims of all time. Here are a few others:
May 3, 1810: The English poet Lord Byron and a Royal Navy marine named William Ekenhead swim across the Hellespont, the narrow strait that separates Europe and the part of Asia that is now Turkey. Although the point at which the two men crossed was only a mile or so wide, the powerful currents that surge through the narrows forced them to swim nearly four miles before they eventually waded ashore. Precisely why Lieutenant Ekenhead made the swim has gone unrecorded (because it was there?), but the romantic Lord Byron is said to have done it to honor Leander, the mythological Greek who swam these treacherous waters each night to meet up with his lover, Hero, on the far shore.
August 25, 1875: A 27-year-old Shropshire lad named Matthew Webb waded into the chilly waters off Dover, England, and, to the strains of "Rule Britannia" played by a brass band, began swimming to France. Twenty-one hours and forty-five minutes later he waded ashore near Calais, having become the first person known to have swum the English Channel unaided. It was his second attempt at crossing the Channel. The first, two weeks earlier, had to be abandoned due to rough weather. Webb's time, achingly slow by the standards of today's Channel swimmers, is better than it sounds. Adverse tides off France's Cap Gris Nez delayed his arrival for nearly five hours. After his famous crossing, he became a celebrity and a professional endurance swimmer. Looking for other challenges—and $12,000 in prize money—he was killed attempting to swim the Whirlpool Rapids below Niagara Falls on July 24, 1883.
August 6, 1926: Gertrude Ederle, a 20-year-old American swimming sensation, not only became the first woman to swim the English Channel, but also set the record for the fastest time by either sex, clocking in at 14 hours and 39 minutes when she swam from Cap Gris Nez in France to Kingsdown on the coast of Kent in England. On arrival, the exhausted "Queen of the Waves," as the press dubbed her, was pestered by an overzealous British immigration official who demanded to see her passport. Ederle's record time, nearly two hours faster than the fastest of the five men known to have swum the Channel before her, stood for nearly a quarter of a century. These days the record for swimming the English Channel stands at 6 hours and 55 minutes for men, set in 2012 by Australian Trent Grimsey, while the fastest woman, Czech swimmer Yvetta Hlavacova, did the crossing in 7 hours and 25 minutes in 2006.
August 7, 1987: After twice setting records for crossing the English Channel (1972 and 1973), swimming the treacherous waters of the Cook Strait between New Zealand's north and south islands (1975), and crossing the Straits of Magellan in Chile in 1976, Boston-born swimmer Lynne Cox helped thaw the Cold War by becoming the first person to swim across the Bering Strait, the frigid passage of water between Alaska and what was then the Soviet Union. Braving waters that were only barely above freezing—roughly 4°C (39°F)—Cox swam the 2.3 miles between Little Diomede Island in Alaska and Big Diomede in the USSR in 2 hours and 6 minutes. In doing so, she became the first person to cross the US-USSR border in 48 years.
June 1, 1998: Australian marathon swimmer Susie Maroney completed what was then the world's longest open ocean swim, crossing the 123 miles of rough seas that lies between Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and Cuba in 38 hours and 33 minutes. The previous year, at the age of 22, Maroney became the first person ever to swim between Florida and Cuba, although in that swim, as in the Mexico-Cuba effort, she swam inside a shark cage towed behind her support boat. She received a lot of criticism in some quarters for that, as the presence of the cage in the water was claimed to have made her swim "easier." One strong supporter, though, was fellow marathon swimmer Diana Nyad, who had used a shark cage herself on her first attempt at the crossing in 1978. Nyad praised the successful swim, and expressed admiration for the young Australian's feat.