Nyad's spirit, not stunt, drew us in

Sport Science: Nyad's Amazing Feat (1:43)

ESPN Sport Science examines the extreme endurance it took for Diana Nyad to swim 110 miles from Havana to Key West, Fla. (1:43)

After meticulously charting Diana Nyad's progress for the two days and nights she was in the ocean, and after years of keeping people informed during the weeks and years that she prepared for her other attempts to swim from Cuba to Key West, the home page of the swimmer's web site had only a solitary little word balloon stuck over a map of her latest journey by Tuesday morning. But it felicitously summarized everything that had just happened.

"She freaking made it."

Normally, four little words wouldn't do justice to something as epic and emotional as what Nyad had just done. But in this case, you had to laugh. Because in addition to sounding as if those words might've come out of Nyad's own mouth at the "whopping" after-party she had promised everyone, they were four words that perfectly conveyed the awe, the jubilation, the sometimes-torture and soaring disbelief of actually seeing Nyad swim, then crawl, then stagger to her feet Monday and unsteadily walk the final few yards onto dry land at Smathers Beach in Key West shortly before 2 p.m. ET -- or 52 hours, 54 minutes and 110 miles after she jumped into the water in Havana and started swimming.

Ten days after her 64th birthday, Nyad had finally, incredibly put a capstone on a personal quest she first tried at age 29 and had been 35 years in the making. On her fifth and promised final attempt, she became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without the aid of a shark cage to protect her, or draft off of as she swam.

And yet, the main reason hundreds of people had hurried to the spot where Nyad finished, to cheer and blast conch shell salutes at her, wasn't because Nyad set another esoteric record in an endurance swimming career she started four decades ago. Nor was it the reason thousands more were following her from afar, or two television networks -- one of them CNN -- carried her arrival live. Even President Barack Obama took time to send her a congratulatory message on Twitter about the beauty of never giving up.

The pull was Nyad's spiritual quest. It was the validation and personal closure she reached, at long last.

What she was trying to conquer wasn't just the distance between Florida and Cuba to set another world record. She was also out to solve some angst and answer some questions that surfaced when her mother passed away in 2010, as Nyad was approaching 61. Nyad said the combination of the two profound events pushed her toward a reckoning of her own life: What hadn't she done? What regrets couldn't she abide? What limits did she refuse to accept?

As Nyad explained it to me in 2010, before her first renewed attempt at the swim she first tried in 1978: "I thought, 'Soon I'm going to blink and be my mother's age.' And I was thinking, 'What have I done with my life?' I don't mean just in accomplishments, but who have I become?' "

Revisiting her Cuba-to-Florida swim suited Nyad's need to take some new inventory of herself physically and mentally. She said she started to think how people get to her age and talk with regret about never writing the novel they intended or mastering something else that they always said they would. She said she rejected "this idea that 60 is a time to coast in life" or ask less of yourself. She told herself, "No. I refuse to become irrelevant."

Nyad wanted to probe how a person in their 60s -- or whatever age -- can feel more alive or more competent and engaged than ever.

"And it's interesting," Nyad said then. "People ask me, 'How are you different now versus when you were 30?' and I think they mean physically ... But the mental edge is what's different. I just feel calmer. I used to have more self-doubts. I remember back in my 20s, when I was coming up to a big thing, I'd say, 'Gosh, can I really do this? I'm just not sure.'

"This time, I feel like, 'What could possibly stop me?' "

Hearing herself say that, Nyad laughed.

Of course, choosing a 110-mile ocean swim through dangerous, shark-infested waters to explore personal questions was "insane," she added with another laugh. At the outset four years ago, she even acknowledged the swim "is probably nearly impossible. But I do want people to look at it and say, 'You know what? I thought my best days were behind me, but I'm not old!' "

On Monday, Nyad made that wish -- and countless other outcomes -- come true by completing the swim.

While there's been a lot of understandable focus on the enormous will it took for her to finish it, Nyad's swim was also a brilliant logistical triumph -- a feat of incredible planning and tweaking and re-engineering. On top of all of that, it was also a remarkable act of love by the people around her who helped her pull it off. Their devotion was a testament to her purity of heart and purpose.

A lot of people tried to talk Nyad out of continuing the attempts to swim a second, third, then fourth and fifth time. They agreed with her it was nigh impossible. She often accurately compared organizing each attempt to putting together an expedition to climb Mount Everest.

Her will has never been a question. But she also needed a plan that could somehow help her avoid or endure the nausea, hypothermia, dehydration, asthma attacks and hallucinations that might come; potentially deadly shark attacks and the box jellyfish stings that crisscrossed her body before and sabotaged last year's attempt; the storms and white-capping swells that reached 9 feet on her 1978 attempt; the ever-shifting Gulf Stream currents that dragged her far off course before.

One of the innovations added for this year's swim was a protective but cutting silicone mask and mouth retainer that saved her from being stung on her tongue, as she had been before. Problem was, it also made it more difficult for her to breathe. All through the first night this past weekend, Nyad said she just told herself, "Find a way."

Though she tried and failed, tried and failed, tried and failed before, look what happened over the years: For her 2010 attempt, Nyad had a crew of 24. For this last try, the group around her had grown to 35. If Nyad could not be convinced to abandon the quest, then her friends damn well weren't going to abandon her, either. No matter what.

As it turned out, they weren't the only people Nyad pulled in, and pulled along during her adventure. Speaking Monday night to her longtime friend Sanjay Gupta, CNN's chief medical reporter, after she had a few hours to recover, Nyad suggested she knew why the swim captivated more and more people.

"You know what's so great about it, Sanjay? It's all authentic," Nyad said. "You had a dream 35 years ago. It doesn't come to fruition. You move on with life, but it's still somewhere back here. And your mom just died. And, I don't know, you're just looking for something.

"And the dream comes waking out of your imagination."

She also was asked what she was thinking during all of those lonely hours she was swimming and as her suffering kept growing. Nyad said she just kept repeating to herself, "With your left hand, push Cuba back. With your other hand, pull Florida closer."

Few people could imagine putting themselves through what Nyad did. If she takes a victory lap the rest of her life, few would blame her.

But rather than drift away from her the way most of us did in the two, then three, then four other times she didn't finish the trip, maybe the overarching takeaway for the rest of us is this: We'd be smart to listen more closely to those rare extremists who insist on traveling so far out toward the limit of human possibility as Nyad does.

Then we should actively do something ourselves: Believe what they can show us. Listen closely to -- not doubt -- what they report back to us.

"We should never, ever give up," Nyad said shortly after walking onshore Monday. "You're never too old to chase your dreams."