HAVANA — Veteran long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad will take on time and Mother Nature when she jumps into the Florida Straits on Sunday to begin what would be a world record swim from Cuba to Florida.
The 61-year-old American tried the grueling 103-mile journey in 1978 when she was 28, but failed in the face of winds and eight-foot waves that weather forecasters say should not be a factor this time.
Nyad was scheduled to leave from Havana on Sunday evening, when the sea was expected to be smooth and windless, with hopes of getting to Key West in about 60 hours.
The swim has been done before, by Australian Susan Maroney in May 1997, but Nyad's claim to a world record will be that unlike Maroney, she is doing it without a shark cage in the strait's warm, shark-infested waters.
Maroney was only 22, but Nyad said her comparatively advanced age is one of the reasons she will try the swim.
"I retired when I should have, when I was young, and a couple of years ago, turning 60, I didn't want to feel old yet. I started thinking 'what if I went back, what if I went back to the elusive dream of Cuba," she said at a news conference at Marina Hemingway, where she will begin her record attempt.
She hopes the swim will help people her age and older realize they still can accomplish many things.
"I want to be there to say we have many, many years of vitality and strength and service left in us," she said.
Nyad also wants her effort to help U.S. relations with Cuba. As someone who was raised in South Florida, she has had a lifelong fascination with that topic.
In a show of solidarity, a small fleet of Cuban boats will accompany her briefly at her departure.
"I hope my little swim is going to be a small symbol of the connection that we all know is coming very soon," said Nyad.
WORLD RECORD HOLDER
She retired from swimming and took up sports journalism more than 30 years ago, but still has the muscled body and broad shoulders of a marathon swimmer.
In her heyday, she set several world records, including swimming around Manhattan in 1975 in less than eight hours and a 102.5 mile (165 km) swim from Bimini to Florida in 1979.
Her longest training swim for the Florida Straits crossing was 24 hours.
She will have a small fleet of boats and kayaks and a crew of 45 to keep her on course through the strong Gulf Stream current, provide food and water and keep sharks away.
Nyad will be protected by a surrounding electrical field from a product called Shark Shield and by divers who will watch for sharks and drive them away if they get too close. Most sharks will not approach when they feel the mild current in the water, but there is one species - oceanic white tips - who are not bothered by it, Nyad said.
She said no sharks would be killed to protect her because it is important for the ocean ecology to preserve the great predators.
"We are not going across this ocean to destroy their territory," Nyad said. "This is their world."
© 2016 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.