Better training and greater ambition have prodded athletes around the world to attempt longer, more daring open-water swims than Matthew Webb ever imagined when he conquered the English Channel in 1875.
But lately, such victories have come at a painful price: crippling injuries caused by the sting of proliferating sea jellies. (See a photo gallery of jellyfish.)
In recent years, swimmers who navigate a Long Island Sound crossing each August have emerged in Bridgeport, Connecticut, with painful, itchy welts from plate-sized lion's mane jellies that bob at the surface.
One man who swam across Catalina Channel in Southern California last year said he repeatedly endured the electric zap of tiny jellies as their tentacles wrapped around his goggles.
Life or Death
While some jellies are harmless, others can be lethal. Though tiny, the venomous Irukandji jellyfish can cause severe cramps, vomiting, and spikes in blood pressure. The box jellyfish is also called the sea wasp for good reason. Australian swimmer Chloe McCardel was hospitalized for days in June after several box jellies wrapped around her limbs, seared her back, and floated into her mouth, scuttling her attempt to cross the Florida Straits. Pulled onto the boat by her support crew, she said her legs felt paralyzed.
Diana Nyad knows what that's like. She endured a near-fatal reaction to box jelly stings during her Cuba-to-Florida attempt last year. For her successful attempt this year, the 64-year-old donned a specially made silicone mask and stinger suit and allowed crew members to seal the seams with duct tape as she floated alongside her boat at night.
In a conference call Tuesday with more than a dozen marathon swimmers as well as reporters, Nyad said the paralyzing reaction she experienced last year left her with no choice this time.
"All of us know what pain is,'' she told the swimmers. "But this animal is different. With this swim it is the only way. I don't mean to fly in the face of your rules, but as far as I'm concerned, for my own safety, a literal life-and-death measure, this is the way we did it."
Not a First?
Yet several of the sport's most elite members wonder if that's missing the point. They say that wearing a long-sleeved suit and having any physical contact with other people (other than inadvertent brushes) are improper forms of assistance that conflict with the widely accepted rules of open-water marathon swimming.
These swimmers insist that Nyad's swim was "aided," so it's no different from Susie Maroney's 1997 crossing of the Florida Straits in a shark cage—and therefore is not a first.
"She used equipment beyond what's traditionally accepted, and it gave her aid; it aided her swim. The equipment wasn't self-sufficient. She needed people to help her get it on and off,'' said David Barra, a marathon swimmer from High Falls, New York, who has crossed the English and Catalina channels.
Breaking the Rules?
The rules of open-water marathon swimming date back to its founding father, Matthew Webb, a sea captain who was the first man to swim the English Channel in 1875. "I think one of the beauties of the sport is that the rules are largely unchanged since [then],'' said Evan Morrison, a founder of marathonswimming.org, a website with more than 700 members.
Today, the two English Channel swimming associations—and scores of other official swimming bodies—ban any action or device that aids a swimmer's buoyancy, speed, heat retention, or endurance. People swim the English Channel in neoprene wetsuits all the time, but their swims aren't recognized as official crossings.
One of the main no-nos is human contact, because that can aid buoyancy or allow the swimmer to rest. By letting her crew help her don and seal the stinger suit, Nyad got a chance to rest, Morrison said.
The point of channel swimming is to get from shore to shore. "You don't get to rest,'' said Morrison, a San Francisco resident. "If you feel the need to use devices to make exceptions to the rules, why do you feel the need to do that? The answer is unpleasant: to make it easier. If you're trying to make it easier, you're missing the point. The point is it's hard."
"If Diana is claiming a record that has meaning to her sport, she needs to play by the rules of that sport,'' Morrison said.
Swimming is a sport of tradition—one that has seen few advances. There are exceptions: Athletes wearing Lycra swimsuits are faster than the earliest endurance athletes who had only soggy wool garments. On-boat technology such as GPS has improved course selections and finish times. Swimmers who compete in the Rottnest Channel Swim in Australia can wear rash guards to ward off sunburn.
As the warming of the world's oceans fuels the proliferation of jellyfish, perhaps the widespread use of special suits to ward off stings won't be far off. But the sport's purists remain loath to allow innovations beyond the cap, grease, and goggles used by generations, saying it will destroy the integrity of the sport.
If Nyad is right that the crew-applied stinger suit was the only way to freestyle the Cuba-to-Keys passage, Barra said, then perhaps such crossings shouldn't be tackled. "If the only way to climb this mountain is to take down the top thousand feet, it's not the same,'' he said. "Maybe some mountains shouldn't be climbed."