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When she staggered ashore onto U.S. soil Monday afternoon, it was the culmination of a magnificent obsession. After five attempts and 35 years, distance swimmer Diana Nyad finally realized her dream of an open water swim across the Florida Straits from Cuba to Key West. Marco Islander Darlene Meadows was right beside her during the arduous crossing, paddling a kayak as part of the support team that accompanied Nyad, warding off sharks and keeping her on course and motivated.
Ironically, said Meadows, perhaps the scariest moment came as Nyad waded onto the beach and faced the throng there to greet her.
“When she got to shore, people were rushing in, closing around. I thought I would pass out, or that the crowd would kill her” crushing her with kindness. Meadows formed part of the human chain holding spectators back to give some space to the woman who at age 64 had just swum for over two complete days.
Nyad emerged from the water “dazed and sunburned,” reported the New York Times, slurring her words, dehydrated and disoriented from her ordeal. But she rallied to speak to those around the world who were following her and cheering her on.
“I have three messages. One is we should never, ever give up. Two is you never are too old to chase your dreams. Three is it looks like a solitary sport, but it takes a team.”
Being part of that team, said Darlene Meadows, was “the experience of a lifetime.” Reached by phone as she and fellow team member Mike Devlin of Naples drove back from the Keys on Wednesday afternoon, Meadows was still on a high following the six-day odyssey.
“She made world history. Diana is so amazing,” she said. “I was right beside her. I invented a new paddle stroke,” to be sure she never hit Nyad while paddling along through the Gulfstream, she said.
“If we touched her, it was over,” said Meadows, referring to the arcane rules that govern record-breaking attempts such as Nyad’s. “She never could rest, never hang onto the boat for a moment.”
Meadows, who leads paddlers as a kayak instructor and guide through her business, Paradise Naturalist, as well as selling “vacation ownership,” or what laypeople call timeshare units, for Club Regency, she got the paid staff position with Nyad’s Extreme Dream Team after filling out an application and submitting her credentials. But clearly, what motivated her was being part of something bigger than herself, or any individual.
“This woman is larger than life,” she said of Nyad. “She’s not crazy, she’s motivated. Crazy is everybody going to work day after day hating their job, and not living their dream.” Even if Nyad failed, as she had in four previous attempts starting at age 28, said Meadows, the goal was worthy.
The only previous Cuba/Key West swim included use of a mobile shark cage, which not only kept sharks away, but pulled the swimmer along with a ‘drafting’ effect. Part of the kayakers’ job during Nyad’s swim, along with carrying a system of transmitters that broadcast an electrical signal to ward off sharks, was to talk to Nyad and help keep her energy level up.
“I told her ‘you’re making a difference,’ showing people and especially girls it’s not crazy to follow your dreams,” said Meadows. “Probably the worst time was after the first night, when Diana said ‘I don’t know how I can go another night.’” Both Nyad and Meadows suffered from seasickness during the trip. One unexpected difficulty for Meadows was paddling at a swimmer’s pace, just 1.5 miles per hour, instead of the usual pace of three to five mph she is used to maintaining.
Nyad wore a wetsuit to prevent jellyfish stings, which had put an end to previous Cuba to Key West attempts, as well as special salve, and a mask which unfortunately cut her face and made speech almost impossible.
When not taking her three-hour shift in the kayak, Meadows was aboard the 42-ft. catamaran Kinship, one of four larger support vessels for the journey. One of the most amazing parts of the trip, she said, was the chance to visit Cuba, for many decades closed to American visitors. Like Nyad, she hopes the connection made by the swim will help to increase exchanges and perhaps lead to an improvement in relations between the two countries.
“I’ve wanted to go to Cuba for years. The way we were received was remarkable,” she said. One highlight was dinner at Floridita’s, where the daiquiri was invented, and sampling their signature concoction. At Marina Hemingway near Havana, where the swim began, Meadows saw a burgee from the Marco Island Yacht Club, she said, an unexpected touch of home.
“The commodore said ‘we want to know when she hits that shore. Whistles will sound all over Cuba,” said Meadows.
After the successful completion, Nyad went on to television appearances including with David Letterman and “World News Tonight,” and received congratulations from President Obama. Meadows was happy to be heading home, still feeling the glow of the trip.