On Monday, US swimmer Diana Nyad made history when she completed a 110-mile, 53-hour-long swim from Cuba to Key West. She was the first person to do so successfully without a shark cage around her. It was her fifth and final attempt at this adventure. The last time she tried, she had to stop due to lightning and from being stung so many times by jellyfish.
There is a lot about this feat that is remarkable. Nyad is 64. The length she covered was over 3500 lengths in an Olympic-sized pool. Another way to imagine how difficult swimming is as a physical activity, consider the distances that an ironman triathlete covers: 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile run. 2.4 miles of swimming is the length of an ironman swim. Nyad swam that 45 times over. More than distance, Nyad fought the current, swam through waters infested with jellyfish, and parts of her swim took place under the dark of night. What Nyad accomplished with her 64-year-old body is remarkable by any standard.
And yet to celebrate her accomplishment without talking about the other people who make the perilous, possibly fatal journey from Cuba to Florida is to gloss over an on-going humanitarian and political struggle. It is embodied in the Cuban refugees who attempt (sometimes unsuccessfully) to make it onto US shores. Under the US’ “wet-foot dry-foot” policy, Cuban refugees who make it all the way to shore can remain in the country while those intercepted in the water are sent back to Cuba.
Christian Ucles, an immigrant from Honduras who lived undocumented in the U.S. for 8 years before gaining citizenship and whose mother suffered greatly during her trip into the US over the Mexico-US border, explained it to me this way: “I don’t want to take away anything from Diana’s amazing feat. She is a testament to the human desire to push yourself harder, faster, stronger.” But, Ucles said, “How many mothers, how many fathers, have sacrificed their lives, to give their children the opportunity at a better life? I’m privileged in the sense that I didn’t have to make that trip with my mother. But I know many others like me who did come here with their parents, many seeing their parents die before their eyes, and others who saw their children die before their eyes.”
Hundreds of thousands of Cuban refugees have fled Cuba, taking to the same waters in which Nyad swam. After Ucles contacted me, I went back to re-read about Nyad’s journey. I was first struck by the level of help she had. Her crew consisted of 35 people, some of whom were tasked simply with watching out for sharks on her behalf while others would sometimes swim out in front of her to clear away jellyfish. They helped feed her and guide her. One of the world’s leading experts on jellyfish was with her crew.
Yesterday morning, Nyad told the Today Show about how sick she got from swallowing lots of salt water and how the exhaustion of the effort caused her to hallucinate. But then she explained what it meant to see the shores of Key West. “It’s amazing how the emotional can lift the physical,” she said. “I remember the feeling only too well right here in Key West the last few years not making it, and I felt pretty beat up and sore and down and tired. To see that beach and see those people and to come in with my intrepid crew, it just takes all the physical pain away.”
What must that moment be like for those who have gone through their own terrible trials in and on the waters between Cuba and the US but who, when they see the shores here, see not the accomplishment of a personal goal but the dream of a new life?
Nyad has inspired many. As Ucles said, “Her accomplishment is a great not only for her, but for female athletes, for the human spirit, and shouldn’t be taken from her. However, swimming that area, just makes me think of all the people who’ve given the ultimate sacrifice.” Hopefully she and her feat will remind us of the many who have risked and lost their lives in the same waters.