By Jeff Franks
HAVANA (Reuters) - U.S. long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad jumped feet first into Cuba's azure waters on Friday in her latest attempt to become the first person to swim from the communist island to Florida without a shark cage.
Nyad, 62, tried to make the 103-mile (166-km) crossing of the Florida Straits last month but was thwarted by asthma, shoulder pain and heavy seas.
"How many times do you get to do something of this big an adventure? How many times do you get to feel this alive, this awake and alive?" the muscular Nyad said to a small gathering of onlookers as she stood on a rock jetty at Havana's Hemingway Marina.
"It's not going to be easy," she said while greasing up parts of her body to prevent chafing. "I know I'm going to feel cold, I know I'm going to run into all kinds of jellyfish, I know the nights are going to be long."
Then, with a shout of "onwards" and another of "courage, she jumped in, clad in a black bathing suit and blue swimming cap.
The skies were partly cloudy and the sea mostly calm as she began methodically stroking her way to Florida on what was expected to be a 60-hour journey.
Her specially equipped boat, from which she will get water and food but that she cannot touch during the swim, accompanied her as did other watercraft including a kayak and jet ski.
She said in a news conference earlier in the day that forecasts called for calm seas through the weekend, giving her a small window of opportunity before seasonal changes in winds and water temperature would make the swim too difficult.
Nyad is pointing toward the Florida Keys, but because of the Gulf Stream, which runs east through the straits, she did not yet know where she would land.
In August, Nyad swam for 29 hours and about 50 miles before abandoning the attempt. She said she had asthma for 11 hours of the swim, which drained her strength.
She said in the news conference she learned from the failed swim that she has the strength to make it to Florida.
HOPES TO INSPIRE
"I knew getting almost half across like a dying floundering fish ... to go that far, I thought, 'If I had my body healthy, I can do this. I know I can do it and I don't want to train another year,'" said the broad-shouldered, darkly tanned swimmer.
Nyad first tried the crossing in 1978 when, at the age of 28, she was at the peak of her career as a marathon swimmer. But heavy seas forced her to give up before reaching Florida.
She retired from swimming years ago, but said she wanted to try again now to inspire people her age to do thing they did not think they could do.
Her problems in the August attempt had nothing to do with her age, she insisted.
"At the age of 62, I honestly believe I'm in the best shape of my whole life," she said.
She also said the swim was an attempt to promote better U.S.-Cuba relations after years of bitterness.
The Florida Straits crossing was successfully completed in May 1997 by Australian Susan Maroney, then 22, but she swam in a cage to protect her from sharks.
Nyad will be protected in the warm, shark-infested waters by an anti-shark device that uses a mild electrical current to shield her from the predators.
She has about 30 people on the team accompanying her.
The only thing she will do differently this swim is have medicine ready in case of another asthma attack or more shoulder problems. She also plans also to eat more during her periodic breaks for liquids and nourishment.
Nyad broke records 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.
After she gave up the swim in August, she said she did not expect to try again.
"You don't beat Mother Nature ... I think I'm going to have to go to my grave without swimming from Cuba to Florida," she told CNN at the time.
But on Friday she said that no longer applied.
"Never listen to athletes when they say it's the end," Nyad said.
(Editing by Tom Brown and Eric Walsh)