Diana Nyad said she battled "hell on earth" conditions while swimming Saturday night from Cuba to Florida before finally realizing her 30-year dream of completing the record-breaking swim.
"I stand here today so proud. I'm proud of my team and I'm very proud of myself, I am," Nyad said Tuesday, beaming as she spoke to her teammates and reporters.
Nyad, 64, broke into frequent cheers and laughter as she talked about her journey from Marina Hemingway in Cuba to Smathers Beach in Key West, Fla., a 53-hour and 110-mile exploit that made her the first person in history to swim that route without a shark cage.
"All that trepidation I was feeling just rose up and now we were going again."
But there were dark moments, too, she said.
"Every breath in the waves, I started swallowing tremendous volumes of seawater, and then I was vomiting constantly, and couldn't replace the food or proteins or electrolytes," Nyad said, recalling the treacherous swim Saturday night through jellyfish-infested waters between Cuba and Florida. "I was in a bad place. That night was hell on earth."
Nyad suffered lacerations and swelling in her mouth from the salt water and from a custom-made silicone mask meant to protect her from jellyfish stings, which had thwarted one of her previous attempts at the grueling effort. The mask kept her safe from jellyfish, but gave her sores and made it difficult to breathe, she said.
Following a treacherous 13 hours in the mask during Saturday night, Nyad's team approached her Sunday morning with good news: They were a full day ahead of schedule, with wind pushing them north toward Florida, and no jellyfish in the area due to tidal conditions.
"All that trepidation I was feeling just rose up and now we were going again, now we were going," she said.
Nyad described how she used mental games to pass the long, solitary hours underwater by counting in foreign languages, singing songs to herself ("There was a lot of Janis Joplin," she said), and thinking about books she'd read. She plodded along at a steady pace, 51 strokes a minute and 1.8 miles per hour, for a total of 52 hours, 54 minutes and 18.6 seconds, she and her team said at the press conference.
"I was in a state of delusion. I was seeing the Taj Mahal."
Still, the solitude and physical exertion got to her at times.
"I was in a state of delusion," Nyad said about one point in the swim. "I was seeing the Taj Mahal, and thought I was going to get up and walk to the Taj Mahal."
Nyad said she first saw Key West from two miles off the shore, and realized how close she was. As she swam toward the beach, thousands of people gathered to cheer her to victory.
"When I saw those people on shore yesterday, and saw their faces, it wasn't the recognition of somebody who just accomplished something very large in the world. It was people who were recognizing what we go through in our lives, that we all have dreams and get disappointed, that we all have heartache and suffer and get through it. It's just the human condition," Nyad said.
The swim was Nyad's fifth attempt at completing the distance from Cuba to Florida, a feat that she first attempted at age 28 in 1978, after a career of marathon swimming. When she failed then, Nyad stopped swimming for 30 years, only to revive the dream at age 60 after her mother died, she said.
Since then, Nyad has attempted the swim four times: once in 2011, twice in 2012, and this attempt, which ended in success.
The latest four tries and months of training in between cost Nyad some $1 million, she said, most of which was raised through donations or corporate sponsorships. The money helped pay for boats, fuel, training, experts and the custom-made silicone mask.
When she arrived in Key West, Nyad was treated by EMTs and taken to a local hospital for a full evaluation. Doctors iced her cheeks and mouth, gave her a steroidal cream to help with the lacerations from the salt water and silicone mask, and checked her blood levels before releasing her three hours later, she said.
Nyad now plans to celebrate, starting with a parade in Key West, Tuesday night.
When asked for details about her celebration plans, Nyad quipped, "I'm an endurance person. We're starting at 7 o'clock and going to try to match the 53 hours."
Nyad said her team will take care of verifying her swim to make her record official, but she is not that interested in the process.
"It doesn't mean a thing to me anymore," she said. "People's individual reactions mean everything."
As for the future, Nyad said she will keep swimming. She plans to have a 48-hour swim marathon in New York City in October to raise money for Superstorm Sandy victims.