How to swim 110.4 miles

Emily Shur for ESPN

When she's sung "Me and Bobby McGee" a thousand times, Diana Nyad knows it's been 9 hours and 45 minutes.

Matt McCue: You first attempted the 110.4-mile expedition from Cuba to Florida in 1978. In September you completed it on your fifth try in 52 hours, 54 minutes and 18.6 seconds. What makes this particular stretch of water so difficult?
Diana Nyad: If you and I looked at charts of all of the nautical surfaces on Earth and tried to pick out a 100-mile crossing to swim shore to shore, you couldn't find a more treacherous, unpredictable body of water than from Cuba to Florida. There can be 18- to 20-foot waves -- and then add to it the ocean floor, which can get as deep as 5,700 feet. Everyone said the conditions were perfect this year, but while it was nice when we left Cuba and dead calm when we arrived in Florida, the other 50 hours were a rolling sea. People on the boat were getting seasick; I was taking in a lot of water.

McCue: What rules did you devise for this swim, in terms of defining what was deemed acceptable support from your team versus what might compromise the "unassisted" portion of the swim?
Nyad: The clear rules of marathon swimming, anywhere you go, have slight amendments for safety, like a jellyfish suit and mask [which I used]. But the classic rules that are never amended state that you can't hold on to the boat or anything that would give you flotation, forward movement or aid. Once you get out of the water and onto the boat, it's called a stage swim. It's legal, but no longer a nonstop swim. You can't use fins. You can't be enclosed in a shark cage or any large kind of netting because any sort of structure like that lessens the impact of the waves. I don't blame people for using cages in different parts of the world -- I have used them before -- but I didn't want this swim to have that asterisk next to it.

McCue: Some critics have questioned if the swim was truly unassisted, citing things like the instance of your team helping you to apply tape over the booties of your jellyfish suit. How do you respond?
Nyad: To me, that is outrageously petty. No one held me up or pushed me forward. To put on the jellyfish suit, I needed to have tape put around my ankles and wrists. I am no Cirque du Soleil performer, and there is no way that I could hold one of my ankles above water while applying pieces of duct tape to it. But we were very careful about this application, and we practiced it dozens of times before the swim to ensure than no one would hold me up. I was treading water and, on my own, balanced my ankle above the water while someone from my crew applied strips of duct tape to the area between my long suit and the bootie. We did it fair and square and squeaky clean. I swam across that thing and no one can ever take it away from us.

McCue: You had two independent observers, Roger McVeigh and Janet Hinkle, acting as officials to make sure you swam unassisted, but they were people that you'd met during your training in Key West. Were they the best choices?
Nyad: Steven Munatones [chief administrator of the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame] was scheduled all summer to go. When we got the call to swim, we told Steve we were leaving from Cuba at 6 a.m. the next day. He was going to Japan, and he felt sick about that. He told us to get four people on our crew to keep a careful log. I told him they were from my crew and that didn't seem right, and he said it's done in the sport all time. I thought we went the extra route to get people who were not part of our original crew. Yes, I had met Roger and Janet in Key West, but they were not part of my crew and never paid. They agreed to be absolute hawks and observed everything that went on. We offered CNN, who is our partner, and ABC, who has been with us all these years and The Washington Post and The New York Times [the chance to ride on a boat] and they all said that they admired me for trying, but that they had been out there before with me and just didn't believe it could be done. Are 44 crew members really going to observe something and then decide to wink and say, "Let's let her sleep on the boat for 10 hours and we'll never tell anybody?"

McCue: About those 44 crew members in your aquatic caravan: How much did it cost to put on the swim?
Nyad: The second time I attempted it, in August 2011, it was around $400,000 for chartering boats, crew and fuel. The third attempt, in September 2011, was around $300,000 because people started donating their services. The fourth time, in 2012, it was around $200,000. This time it only cost about $100,000 because many more people wanted to be part of it and gave us reduced rates on their boats, fuel and provision fees. In total, not counting 1978, it cost about one million bucks. People say it was shameful that I spent $1 million on my dream. But hopefully that $1 million was worth the inspiration it brought. The people I saw on that beach in Key West were crying. I am more proud that I didn't give up than I am of making it.

McCue: What was your feeding plan for the swim?
Nyad: [The professor of exercise and sports science of the Sports Science Institute of South Africa in Cape Town], Dr. Timothy Noakes, recommended that I go beyond eating the typical endurance goos and gels. He said that whatever I ate in normal life is what I should eat on the swim. So if I eat plain butter pasta at home, then I should have several ounces of plain butter pasta. Or a peanut butter-banana-honey-ginseng sandwich -- have something in your stomach that will take down all of these compressed foods.

McCue: At what point did the swim start to take its toll?
Nyad: My first night from 7 p.m. to 8 a.m. was very rough. It was a given that the swim would hurt from a muscle endurance perspective, but, for me, the physical breakdown always comes from the stomach, not the shoulders. I put on my jellyfish mask to protect me from the box jellyfish, but when I breathed through it, I couldn't open my mouth in a malleable way, so I took in salt water and started throwing up. I was in a world of hurt from that, throwing my guts up. The friction caused on the inside of my mouth, the lacerations on the underside of my tongue, was painful.

McCue: Can you explain how the water temperature impacted you?
Nyad: Before the swim, I put on 15 pounds so I would have enough padding to keep me warm as I lost weight along the way. The water was 12 degrees colder than my body temperature, but on this swim, I would never say I was in a real state of hypothermia. When I came to the boat for feedings, which lasted three to seven minutes, I was usually chilled by the end of the rest stop and had to start swimming again.

McCue: You sang songs in your head during the swim. What was on your soundtrack?
Nyad: People think I'm going to be singing "Hallelujah," but one of my favorites is Neil Young's "The Needle and the Damage Done." I like his eerie voice, and it takes me to a surreal world when it's already surreal out there. I count the songs, it's very metronomic, so I know that when I sing like Janis Joplin's "Me and Bobby McGee" 1,000 times, it's been 9 hours and 45 minutes.

McCue: After the calorie-crushing swim, what did you splurge on for dinner?
Nyad: It's not like that. I was so darn sick I didn't eat for six days afterward. I was drinking protein shakes and milkshakes. The inside of my mouth was so cut up I could barely talk. I tried to take in a morsel of food less than the size of a pea, and I couldn't get it down. Even before that, with my 18- to 20-hour training swims, it's not like I was ever thinking I can't wait to have a Reuben. I was feeling ill and not missing food. When I trained for this swim, I did hundreds of 12-hour swims. About two hours after I finished them, if I felt like eating a meal, I knew I was in good shape. If I couldn't and still couldn't by the next morning, I knew I wasn't there yet.

McCue: You're not only an endurance swimmer, you also wrote the biography "Boss of Me: The Keyshawn Johnson Story." How did that happen?
Nyad: A small publisher in Mississippi was really interested in stories about athletes who came from dire straits. Keyshawn Johnson lived in a car with his mother in Los Angeles. That's not a folk story. He lived and slept in the backseat when he was 11 or 12. He could have easily thrown away his life, but he wanted to be a great athlete. It was his second season [with the Jets]. and in some ways he was cocky as a player, but he was extremely giving as a person. I went to his apartment out in Long Island, and he heated up TV dinners for us and we sat around for five hours shooting the breeze. I thought he was intelligent, humble and a nice guy to be around.

McCue: As a writer, how would you describe this journey? Woman vs. herself? Or woman vs. nature and the sea?
Nyad: For me, there were all kinds of motivations, of being in my 60s and still wanting to feel alive and powerful and relevant at this age. There is something about wanting to be an example to my fellow baby boomers. We're the rock 'n' roll generation, and we're not going to go gently into that good night. I'll admit there was ego to it. I wanted to be the first, not so much a woman, but the first at this age when lots of powerful young male and female swimmers have tried this since 1950.

McCue: I'd argue that your swim was only the second-most impressive feat of your life. In college, you parachuted out of your Emory University dorm room, lived to tell about it and subsequently got kicked out of the premed program. Care to explain?
Nyad: I was young and foolish and probably desperate for attention. It was my first year away from home. Now, knowing more about the physics of aerodynamics, I've learned you have to go higher than the fourth floor for the chute to open. I was expelled from the university, which I'm not proud of.

McCue: If you had never gotten kicked out of medical school, you might have become a doctor and never attempted the Cuba-to-Florida swim.
Nyad: I think it's good for the world of medicine as well, frankly.

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