A 64-YEAR-OLD woman last night became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without the help of a shark cage.
Diana Nyad, an endurance swimmer, arrived on the Key West shore 53 hours after she began her swim in Havana on Saturday.
More than a thousand onlookers gathered at the water’s edge to cheer her on as she swam her final few metres.
Once on the beach, Ms Nyad was quickly put on a stretcher and given fluids via an intravenous drip.
It was her fifth attempt to complete the 110-mile swim. She had tried three times in 2011 and once in 2012. Her first attempt dated back to 1978.
Her last bid was cut short amid boat trouble, storms, strong currents and jellyfish stings that left her face badly swollen.
Speaking to her 35-member team as she approached the US shoreline, she said: “This is a lifelong dream of mine, and I’m very very glad to be with you.”
Ms Nyad told supporters a silicone mask she wore to protect her face from jellyfish stings caused bruises inside her mouth, making it difficult for her to talk.
Doctors travelling with Ms Nyad were worried about her slurred speech and her breathing, but wrote on her website that they chose not to stop her attempt, believing she would be able to make it to land.
Her epic journey began on Saturday morning, when she jumped from the seawall of the Hemingway Marina into the warm waters off Havana.
Speaking before entering the water, she said: “I admit there’s an ego rush. If I – three days from now, four days from now – am still somehow bringing the arms up and I see the shore … I am going to have a feeling that no-one yet on this planet has ever had.”
She wore a full bodysuit, gloves, booties and a mask at night, when jellyfish rise to the surface.
Before the swim, she said the kit would slow her down, but she believed it would be effective and enable her to complete her dream.
The support team accompanying her had equipment that generated a faint electrical field around her, which was designed to keep sharks at bay. A boat also dragged a line in the water to help to keep her on course.
Australian Susie Maroney successfully swam the Strait in 1997 with a shark cage, which, besides protection from the predators, has a drafting effect that pulls a swimmer along.
In 2012, Penny Palfrey, an Australian, swam 79 miles towards Florida without a cage, before strong currents forced her to abandon the attempt.
In June this year, another Australian, Chloe McCardel, made it to 11 hours and 14 miles before jellyfish stings ended her attempt to accomplish the same dream.
Ms Nyad first came to international attention in 1975 when she swam the 28 miles around the island of Manhattan in just under eight hours. In 1979, she swam the 102 miles from North Bimini, Bahamas, to Florida in 27 and a half hours.
The endurance swimmer has also written three books and tours the world as a motivational speaker.