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Veteran U.S. swimmer starts Cuba-Florida trek

Sep 23, 2011, 4:24 p.m.
U.S. long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad, (C), poses for pictures with her team in Havana September 23, 2011. REUTERS/Desmond Boylan

By Jeff Franks

HAVANA (Reuters) - U.S. long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad jumped feet first into Cuba's azure waters on Friday in her latest attempt to become the first person to swim from the communist island to Florida without a shark cage.

Nyad, 62, tried to make the 103-mile (166-km) crossing of the Florida Straits last month but was thwarted by asthma, shoulder pain and heavy seas.

"How many times do you get to do something of this big an adventure? How many times do you get to feel this alive, this awake and alive?" the muscular Nyad said to a small gathering of onlookers as she stood on a rock jetty at Havana's Hemingway Marina.

"It's not going to be easy," she said while greasing up parts of her body to prevent chafing. "I know I'm going to feel cold, I know I'm going to run into all kinds of jellyfish, I know the nights are going to be long."

Then, with a shout of "onwards" and another of "courage, she jumped in, clad in a black bathing suit and blue swimming cap.

The skies were partly cloudy and the sea mostly calm as she began methodically stroking her way to Florida on what was expected to be a 60-hour journey.

Her specially equipped boat, from which she will get water and food but that she cannot touch during the swim, accompanied her as did other watercraft including a kayak and jet ski.

She said in a news conference earlier in the day that forecasts called for calm seas through the weekend, giving her a small window of opportunity before seasonal changes in winds and water temperature would make the swim too difficult.

Nyad is pointing toward the Florida Keys, but because of the Gulf Stream, which runs east through the straits, she did not yet know where she would land.

In August, Nyad swam for 29 hours and about 50 miles before abandoning the attempt. She said she had asthma for 11 hours of the swim, which drained her strength.

She said in the news conference she learned from the failed swim that she has the strength to make it to Florida.

HOPES TO INSPIRE

"I knew getting almost half across like a dying floundering fish ... to go that far, I thought, 'If I had my body healthy, I can do this. I know I can do it and I don't want to train another year,'" said the broad-shouldered, darkly tanned swimmer.

Nyad first tried the crossing in 1978 when, at the age of 28, she was at the peak of her career as a marathon swimmer. But heavy seas forced her to give up before reaching Florida.

She retired from swimming years ago, but said she wanted to try again now to inspire people her age to do thing they did not think they could do.

Her problems in the August attempt had nothing to do with her age, she insisted.

"At the age of 62, I honestly believe I'm in the best shape of my whole life," she said.

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