It’s not every day you get to greet one of the world’s greatest athletes.
But that was the case for me just over a year ago while I stood on Smathers Beach in Key West, Fla.
It was the afternoon of Aug. 21, 2012, and I was looking out into the Atlantic Ocean for Diana Nyad, who earlier in the day had been pulled from the ocean after suffering from severe jellyfish stings as she attempted to swim from Havana, Cuba, to Key West.
The beach was full of people waiting to greet Nyad, and a set of concrete steps leading from the Atlanic to the beach were flanked by both the Cuban and American flags.
Nyad didn’t complete the 110-mile swim that day, but wanted to swim into Key West to greet all the workers and volunteers who had supported her during the swim — including Key Westers who had come to know Nyad as a friend while training in the Southernmost city for three months prior.
As we looked out into the sea, we first saw a large boat in the distance. From that large boat came smaller watercraft that carried members of Nyad’s crew ashore in groups of about six.
Then, to the left of a platform off the back of the boat, we saw what was at first a small object moving in the water. We were told by Nyad personnel on shore that it was the swimmer.
For about a half hour I was among hundreds of people who stood on that beach, but because of the trusty press card I carry in my wallet, I got a prime view.
It took a while, but that small object on the horizon eventually became identifiable as moving arms and a head bobbing systematically from the ocean. She then came ashore with both her arms in the air as if she was signaling that she was a champion.
And to me, she was.
It’s hard to imagine what kind of conditioning she went through just to get ready.
She was in the water for 41 hours and 45 minutes. She was averaging 50 strokes a minute. I can’t image what an incredible grind that must have been.
Then came the jellyfish stings, making her lips swell, despite wearing special protection. She was also attracting sharks. Then came stormy weather, which created tough seas. I know, because I was there.
I hadn’t thought about that day in a long time, until I read that Nyad, at age 64, was attempting her fifth — and last — attempt at swimming from Havana to Key West. I was naturally attracted to the news and kept a watchful eye on her progress the entire weekend.
I always intended to a write a story about that day, but never quite found a hook that tied Nyad’s swim to Mille Lacs County.
But I dusted off that old notebook Monday night and looked over the notes I took as Nyad addressed the media for a minute or two that afternoon a year ago.
One of the things that caught my attention was that Nyad conceded that day that the swim would be her last. As she stood before us with visible welts from jellyfish stings, she said, “With those things, the swim just isn’t fun.”
“Could I say there is no disappointment? No, I’m disappointed,” Nyad said.
“This is my dream, my passion,” she continued. “I didn’t get my own moment in history.”
But that changed on Monday.
Nyad got to experience the elation that had evaded her for more than 30 years. This time there was no disappointment.
And when Nyad got out of the water Monday, on the very spot where I listened intently a year ago with camera and notebook in hand, she left us with messages I think are really important.
“I have three messages,” Nyad told reporters. “One is, we should never, ever give up. Two is, you’re never too old to chase your dream. Three is, it looks like a solitary sport, but it is a team.”
Jeff Hage is the editor of the Princeton Union-Eagle and Mille Lacs County Times. Reach him by email at [email protected]