By Michael Haskins
KEY WEST, Florida | Mon Sep 2, 2013 3:10pm EDT
(Reuters) – American 64-year-old long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad on Monday became the first person to swim across the Florida Straits from Cuba without a shark cage, succeeding on her fifth attempt at the feat.
Nyad came ashore about 53 hours after she set off from Havana, completing the estimated 110-mile (177-km) journey and setting a record for the longest ocean swim without a shark cage or flippers, according to her crew.
She was met by crowds in Key West who surrounded her, snapping photos, when she staggered ashore as they were enjoying sunny beach weather on the annual Labor Day holiday.
Helpers were waiting to give her medical treatment and immediately placed her on a stretcher and hydrated her with an IV, before she was taken to a hospital. Her face looked sunburned except around the eyes, where she had been covered by goggles, and her lips were swollen.
It was her fifth attempt in 35 years to make the crossing.
About 2 miles before she reached Key West, Nyad paused briefly to thank her support team, treading water as she addressed the vessels bobbing in the sea around her, according to blog updates on her website (www.diananyad.com).
“This is a lifelong dream of mine and I’m very, very glad to be with you,” she said. “So let’s get going so we can have a whopping party.”
The marathon swimmer had said this was her final attempt, this time using a protective silicone mask to better protect her from potentially deadly box jellyfish that forced her to end one of two attempted crossings last year.
Her doctors aboard a support vessel said earlier on Monday that Nyad’s tongue and lips were swollen, causing her speech to be slurred and raising concern about her breathing, her blog reported. Nyad was also “very cold” and had canceled scheduled feeding stops overnight “in the hopes that swimming would keep her warm.”
Nyad said at the outset that the custom-made mask slowed her and made it more difficult to breathe. Officials initially estimated it could take up to three days to complete the swim, but Nyad benefited from a favorable current, her crew members said.
The treacherous Florida Straits has been conquered only once, by Australian Susie Maroney, who used a protective cage at age 22 during a 1997 swim. The cage glided on ocean currents and enabled Maroney to make the journey in just 25 hours.
Australian endurance swimmer Chloe McCardel abandoned her quest in June to make the crossing after she was severely stung by a jellyfish 11 hours into her attempt.
Nyad’s fifth attempt to make the crossing comes 35 years after she made her first go at it aged 28 in 1978, when she gave up after covering 76 miles in 42 hours, with the aid that time of a shark cage.
Nyad departed on Saturday morning accompanied by five support boats that also provide her with food and water.
Nyad put on a jellyfish-protection suit on Sunday, the but did not immediately use her protective mask, her website said. Instead, the exposed parts of her face were slathered with a special protective cream dubbed “Sting Stopper,” it said.
At one point on Sunday, Nyad floated on her back kicking and led a crew of 35 people keeping her on course through the strong Gulf Stream current in singing “Happy Birthday” to a crew member.
Nyad made the swim stopping every 40 minutes to eat, taking several bites of scrambled eggs and pasta, the blog said.
Her long-distance accomplishments include swimming around the island of Manhattan in 1975 and a swim from the Bahamas to Florida in 1979.
(Writing by David Adams and Kevin Gray; Additional reporting by Marc Frank in Havana; Editing by Marguerita Choy and Cynthia Osterman)