By Michael Haskins
KEY WEST, Florida (Reuters) - American 64-year-old long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad became the first person to swim across the Florida Straits from Cuba without a shark cage on Monday, succeeding on her fifth attempt at the feat.
Her face sunburned and lips swollen, with barely enough energy to speak, Nyad waded ashore at Key West, Florida, after a 53-hour swim and told onlookers: "We should never, ever give up ... You never are too old to chase your dreams."
In an inspiration to baby boomers everywhere, Nyad completed the estimated 110-mile (177-km) journey after departing from Havana on Saturday morning. She set 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, as they enjoyed sunny beach weather on the Labor Day holiday.
Helpers immediately placed Nyad on a stretcher and hydrated her with an IV before she was taken to a hospital.
Nyad had been trying to achieve the crossing for 35 years, describing it on her website as her "Xtreme Dream," and seemed determined to prove The Beatles were right that there is plenty to live for "when I'm 64."
"With all the experience I have in this ocean, I never knew I would suffer the way I did," Nyad told CNN in an interview.
The first day was especially difficult because of winds and "even people with iron will quit when it's really tough," said Nyad, her lips swollen from exposure and from the mouthpiece of a prosthetic mask used to protect her from deadly box jellyfish.
She said she told herself, "Forget about surface up ... With your left hand push Cuba back and push Florida toward you."
Dave Magmone, whose boat was used to prepare Nyad's meals, said: "She has a mental and physical strength like no one I have ever known. She is an example for all people, regardless of their age."
Older women and men have been inspired in recent years by a wave of older athletes breaking records and snagging headlines.
Last year, then Colorado Rockies player Jamie Moyer, now 50, became the oldest pitcher in Major League Baseball history to win a game. Canadian Ed Whitlock, now 82, shattered records when he ran the 2012 Toronto Marathon in 3 hours 30 minutes. Dana Torres in 2008 at age 41 became the oldest American female swimmer to win an Olympic medal.
Nyad's team said her attempt benefited from several key factors, including calm seas, the surprising lack of jellyfish and favourable currents in the powerful Gulf Stream that flows eastwards through the Florida Straits.
Ron Bartlett, her navigator, said the crew encountered only one minor squall and one box jellyfish sighting.
The marathon swimmer had said this would be her final attempt, this time equipped with the mask as well as a body suit to better protect her from box jellyfish that forced her to end one of two attempted crossings last year.
A team of ocean kayakers and divers accompanied Nyad on her journey, dragging an electronic device in the water that emitted a current to repel sharks.
Nyad has spent much of her life in the water. She described in a 2011 YouTube documentary how her father told her when she was a young girl that she was destined to swim, noting her last name is derived from the Greek word for water nymphs or female swimmers.
Born in New York, the multilingual Nyad was raised in south Florida by a French mother and Greek-Egyptian stepfather. She swam six hours a day as a 12-year-old.
She retired after successfully completing a swim from Bimini in the Bahamas to Florida in 1979, ending a long-distance career that set several records including one in 1975 for circling Manhattan in less than eight hours.
She went on to a career in sports journalism and fitness, and has expressed a lifelong fascination with Cuba.
The Florida Straits had been conquered twice previously, both times with the aid of a protective cage. The last time, in 1997, the cage glided on ocean currents and enabled Australian Susie Maroney, 22, to make the journey in just 25 hours.
Nyad made her first attempt at the crossing aged 28 in 1978, when she gave up after covering 76 miles (122 km) in 42 hours with the aid of a shark cage.
With Key West in her sights on Monday, Nyad halted briefly about 2 miles (3 km) offshore to thank her support team.
"This is a lifelong dream of mine and I'm very, very glad to be with you," she said, according to her website. "So let's get going so we can have a whopping party."
(Additional reporting by Marc Frank in Havana and Barbara Goldberg in New York; Writing by David Adams; Editing by Marguerita Choy, Cynthia Osterman and Mohammad Zargham)