By Michael Haskins
KEY WEST, Florida (Reuters) - An asthma attack, a painful shoulder and battering wind and waves forced 61-year-old swimmer Diana Nyad to abandon early on Tuesday her bid to become the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage.
The American, who tried and failed the 103-mile swim more than three decades ago when she was 28, gave up after enduring nearly 30 hours of a crossing expected to last 60, exhausted by her body's limits and the force of the elements.
"I thought this was my time. We set out, thinking the conditions were favorable. They were not. The winds were stronger and the waves were bigger than what I'd expected," she told Reuters after her escort boat Bellisimo brought her to the Key West Yacht Club on Stock Island.
Nyad, a veteran long-distance swimmer, had started out strongly, stroking rhythmically through calm seas after she dived off from the Marina Hemingway on the western outskirts of Cuba's capital Havana at 7:45 p.m. EDT on Sunday.
But, she said in an interview with CNN, she suffered an unexpected bout of asthma that left her gasping for oxygen.
An "excruciating pain" also developed in her right shoulder and these physical handicaps combined with contrary winds and seas that pushed her floundering off course.
"Last night at midnight, I was trembling, the 11 hours of asthma had taken so much from my body ... I just knew that it wasn't mind over matter any more, I was absolutely spent," Nyad, wearing a white bathrobe, told CNN at Stock Island.
She said that toward the end she was "limping" and "slapping around" in the water and even resorted to breast stroke instead of her usual crawl. Her doctor joined her in the water at one point to try to give her relief with an inhaler.
CNN, which had a producer on one of the boats accompanying Nyad, said she was vomiting when she was brought aboard an escort boat at 12:45 a.m. EDT (0445 GMT) on Tuesday.
'YOU DON'T BEAT MOTHER NATURE'
Nyad, who later recovered to breakfast on scrambled eggs on her way to Key West, was disappointed but had no regrets about her motives for attempting the swim. She turns 62 this month.
She had said her main aim in attempting the Cuba to Florida swim again, without a shark cage, was to help people her age and older realize they can still achieve many things.
"I was the best person I could be ... that's the message. I dug down, I dug deep ... Whatever you're doing, do your job well," Nyad, who has the muscled body and the steely resolve of a marathon swimmer, told CNN.
Raised in southern Florida, she first tried the crossing from Cuba in 1978, but failed in the face of winds and heavy waves.
The same swim was completed successfully in May 1997 by Australian Susan Maroney, who was 22 at the time. But Maroney used a shark cage.
Nyad's flotilla of escort vessels included specially equipped kayaks transmitting an anti-shark shield in the form of an electronic signal that is annoying to the sleek ocean predators that stalk the waters of the Florida Straits.
When she was years younger, Nyad put herself into the record books by swimming around Manhattan in 1975 in less than eight hours and by completing a 102.5 mile swim from Bimini in the Bahamas to Florida in 1979.
Despite her having to abandon her bid, her fans tweeted their admiration on Tuesday. "That was Diana's whole point. Rethink old. Sorry she (had) to abandon but my admiration doesn't waiver. Go Diana," said one.
Asked whether she would attempt the swim again, Nyad told CNN: "You don't beat Mother Nature ... I think I'm going to have to go to my grave without swimming from Cuba to Florida."
(Additional reporting by Vicki Allen in Washington; writing by Pascal Fletcher; editing by Mohammad Zargham)