KEY WEST - Finally, spit from the ocean, exhausted and sunburned, came the 64-year-old swimmer. Diana Nyad took a first unsteady step onto the beach Monday afternoon after nearly 53 hours of swimming and lightly raised a fist.
"You did it!" said her friend, Bonnie Stoll, embracing her.
"Wooo-hoooo!" cheered 1,000 curious locals and tourists.
Her face too swollen to smile, her mind blurred from pain and no sleep, Nyad then did something anyone could appreciate after this first Cuba-to-Key West swim without a shark cage, after throwing up food for two days, after fighting five-foot waves the first night, a squall the second and jellyfish the last stretch.
She collapsed in Stoll's arms.
"I'm dazed,'' she said.
And so this strange, 112-mile fight between swimmer and sea ended just as it should, as it must after four previous attempts and 35 years. Mother Nature and Father Time demanded everything Nyad had.
Nyad, who grew up in Fort Lauderdale, was helped to the shade of a palm tree on Smathers Beach by friends who aided this swim of the Florida Straits. She then stopped amid the sun-baked crowd before lying on a medical stretcher.
"I've got three messages,'' Nyad said, her puffy tongue making the words slur slightly. "One is, we should never ever give up. Two is, you're never too old to chase your dream.
"Three, swimming might seem like a solitary sport, but it takes a team."
"Woo-hoo!" the crowd cheered.
What made her do this at 64? Not money. She wasn't getting any for this feat. Not fame. After the immediate cheers and the day's headline fade, she'll be gone from view.
So, in some ways, this was sports at its purest, an aging athlete crazy enough to risk death and tough enough complete a dream even her closest friends dismissed.
"I told her, 'If this was humanly possible, Diana Nyad would have done it one of the first four times,' " Stoll said. "I told her people were going to look at her you like you do the crazy cat lady.''
"I'll make it,'' Nyad told her.
To understand the perils, understand her first four attempts. Her first one in 1978 ended after 70 miles because of eight-foot waves. Her three attempts the past three years ended because of the Florida Gulf Stream current or too many poisonous jellyfish attacks.
"Last year, doctors worked on her when jellyfish lashed her face and chest and she was screaming in the water,'' said her navigator, John Bartlett. "I said, 'You're not going to let her go on, are you?' They shrugged and said she wants to."
She swam 20 more miles before stopping.
"My own private Olympics,'' she called this swim.
This was her last attempt. She told everyone that before she shouted, "Courage!" and jumped into the water off Marina Hemingway point in Cuba at 8:59 a.m. Friday.
She swam 2 mph initially. She was met by four- to five-foot waves the first night. She ate pasta every couple hours, then almost immediately threw it back up into the sea. Her lips and tongue swelled from the saltwater. Her body became numb.
She prepared for the dangers. Two kayakers flanked her with a cable in the water to send out an electronic pulse to ward off sharks. A special suit and form-fitted mask protected her from jellyfish, too.
For the first time, there were no sharks or jellyfish for most of this trip. Lucky? Doesn't every success story have some? Even the current, which could push her too far north, was light and even helped her in the second half.
There was trouble. There always is. On the second night, when the squalls came, her support boats had to back off due to turbulence. Two divers jumped in the water with compasses to keep her on track.
So it was with good planning, good technology and a healthy sense of good humor she made the trip.
"Is everybody here?" she said the second morning to those on deck of her lead support boat, Voyager.
Floating on her back, Nyad led everyone in singing "Happy Birthday" to a member of the group. And then she turned over and began kicking again. Fifty strokes a minute. A mile to two an hour.
The lack of a shark cage was telling. Some think the cage wards off more than sharks. It breaks the waves some, makes it easier to swim, they say. So Nyad did without it.
Around midnight on Sunday, after more than 80 miles of swimming, the crew began to get sporadic cellphone service. They were closing in. Five miles out, they ran into the only pack of jellyfish. Some stung. But nothing like previous trips.
A couple of miles out of Key West, when it was clear she would complete the trip, she called the five support boats in close to her.
She thanked the 35 people who helped. She said her odyssey was down to its final strokes.
"And now we're going to have a whopping party!" she said.
It is a magical feat, even if you'd never considered it. Some people climb Mount Everest. Some run the Mojave Desert. Some trek across the Arctic. The official time of Nyad's swim was 52 hours, 54 minutes and 18 seconds.
The unofficial time was 35 years. After she collapsed and then rallied for a speech on the beach Monday, as she made a joke about her swollen lips, one of her support team made a joke to her.
"Now you have to swim back to Cuba,'' he said.
She tried to laugh. "The dream is done,'' she said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun