Some time in June or July, when the weather permits, Nyad will attempt a 103-mile swim from Cuba to Key West through the shark-infested waters of the Florida Straits. This will be no mere party stunt to show off her physique — think of Helen Mirren with brawn. Nyad intends to challenge the limits of the mind and calendar by finishing a job she started 32 years ago, when she was the greatest endurance swimmer in the world.
“I have no idea what age I am,” she says. “I don’t feel different in any way. People say, ‘Maybe you should take more recovery time between swims because of your age.’ I’m like, Oh. My age. I forgot.”
It’s an undertaking of untold hazards that is projected to require 60 hours of continuous swimming. In addition to sharks there will be risks from man o’ war jellyfish as well as hypothermia, dehydration and cardio-arrhythmia. But the real danger is the unknown.
Nyad completed a 24-hour marathon swim in training last summer, but all she really has for data about the effects of such an attempt are her memories of her last one, when she was 29 years old.
“She is off the map,” says her physician, Michael Broder. “There are people who do endurance for this long, but not in the water and not isolated like this. She’s out there. You can’t provide her with things that you could provide a land athlete with.”
Back in the 1970s, a rash of daredevil adventurers awed the public with feats of dangerous cartography, mapping the limits of personal fear and pain. In August 1974, Philippe Petit walked a wire between the World Trade Center towers. A month later, the motorcycle jumper Evel Knievel attempted to fly across the Snake River Canyon. In ’75, it was Nyad who won fame with a treacherous record-setting swim around the island of Manhattan in 7 hours 57 minutes. Four years later she set a world record for distance when she completed a 102-mile journey over open water from Bimini in the Bahamas to Florida.
But Nyad never completed her most ambitious swim: In August 1978, her attempt to cross from Cuba to Florida was stopped by ill winds and eight-foot swells. A boatload of press chronicled her desperate lashings for 49 hours and 41 minutes before she was hauled shivering and protesting from the water.
“Can’t I keep going?” she mumbled, according to Sports Illustrated, which published the most detailed and authoritative account of her effort. Her tongue was so badly swollen by seawater her words were barely decipherable. To continue was impossible — the conditions had pushed her so far off course that she was headed for Brownsville, Tex.