Diana Nyad And The Evolution Of Her Stinger Suit

Diana Nyad And The Evolution Of Her Stinger Suit

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

One of the issues that has been controversial among the marathon swimming community is the use of a stinger suit.

A stinger suit is a full-length protective swimwear that covers most of the body, including the arms and legs, used by marine biologists, divers, and a small handful of open water swimmers in order to protective against jellyfish and other venomous creatures of the seas and oceans.

The stinger suits are usually made of sheer porous or closed-cell materials that prevents the barbs on the tentacles of jellyfish from entering the human skin. The stinger suits can be made of a variety of synthetic materials and is usually worn over a swimsuit. Protection also can be augmented by booties (shoes), gloves and some sort of hood or protective headgear and face masks that protects the ears, neck, mouth, and forehead.

Stinger suits derives its name from the dangerous stings of the marine stingers, also known as the box jellyfish, which is highly venomous and whose stings have led to thousands of recorded accidental deaths.

Diana Nyad used a stinger suit for her last 3 Cuba to Florida swims (2 failures + 1 success). But her choice to use stinger suits was an evolution. The catalyst of her stinger suit to use a stinger suit began with a series of terribly painful box jellyfish stings that she endured just after sunset in the Caribbean Sea on her second Cuba-to-Florida attempt.

Nyad did not use a stinger suit during her first two attempts across the Straits of Florida. But when she was hit by box jellyfish in her second attempt, she ended up treading water in pain for over an hour only a few miles off of Cuba. At that time, she did not understand the box jellyfish, but she and her team knew something had to change. It was then that discussions that the stinger suit began. By the time of her fourth attempt, the evolution had continued. She not only used a full-body stinger suit, but also gloves, booties, and a head piece. But with the proliferation of the box jellyfish had increased and the jellyfish were apparently ubiquitous on the surface of the water. So despite her near full body cover-up, her swim was jeopardized when box jellyfish stung her exposed lips. So the evolution continued to a level unseen by the open water swimming community. She went fore-bore: every part of her body would be protected from the box jellyfish. Utilizing the skills of medical professionals, she used a custom-fit plastic mask that fit over her goggles together with a customized mouthpiece so no part of her body, arms, legs, head, face, and lips – even her teeth – were exposed. Putting on this protective wear was a risk, but the risk of getting hit by a box jellyfish had proven to end her previous swims, so the risk was accepted. This was the only way she could protect herself against the dreaded box jellyfish. To eliminate even the smallest tentacle from stinging her in an opening in the small little flaps between her stinger suit and the gloves on her hands and booties on her feet were taped down by her team in the water. Her goal was to completely shut off the possibility that the life-threatening box jellyfish would sting her.

These extraordinary precautions were agreed even if the stinger suit, face mask, and mouthpiece created increased drag and Nyad slowed down.

Nyad’s experience led her to the conclusion that a full-body coverage was an essential requirements in the Straits of Florida. Even the American military Special Forces in Key West, Florida have had individuals have to drop from their Underwater Combat Training program due to critical medical emergencies caused by stings by box jellyfish. These highly trained military personnel jump from helicopters and navigate underwater with closed-circuit scuba re-breathers in military fatigues. The American military continue to amend their uniforms in attempts to reduce their vulnerablity to stings.

Dr. Angel Yanagihara, a renowned jellyfish expert and part of Nyad’s team, explains, “Non-fatal stings can lead to severe kidney damage, but especially vulnerable are depleted athletes in the midst of extreme exertion.”

So with this information at hand and with her own experience with box jellyfish, Nyad radically changed gears from her first and second attempts and followed a “rules of engagement” guideline for the Straits of Florida that was unlike anything she had done before. The rules were based entirely on (1) safety, and (2) the high probability that Nyad would run into life-threatening marine life. “When life-threatening marine life exists and the probability is almost certain that an athlete will encounter the life-threatening marine life, then extraordinary safety measures must be taken,” explains Steven Munatones who wrote the guidelines. “I recall when other swimmers attempted to swim across this body of water and used either a stinger suit or not. I greatly respect these attempts by Susie Maroney, Penny Palfrey and Chloe McCardel – absolutely courageous. These 3 Australian women are among the greatest marathon swimmers in history, male or female. But you have to be extraordinarily lucky to avoid the box jellyfish in the Straits of Florida at night from what I have seen.

I remember talking about stinger suits with Penny and about box jellyfish with Chloe. Penny and Chloe are as successful and strict, tough and traditional, as marathon swimmers come. Penny’s track record of marathon swims in her 40s is unprecedented. Penny put in two English Channel swims in her 40s – a 9:16 crossing and a 9:07 crossing – that are beyond remarkable, especially since she faced very unfriendly conditions during those fast crossings. But her two attempts in swimming from Oahu to Kauai were the catalyst for Penny to consider and ultimately use a stinger suit for the Cayman Islands and Cuba swims. But with Penny, she put on her stinger suits by herself, just floating by herself, and didn’t use the gloves, booties, and face mask that Diana ultimately resorted to. In Diana’s case, her elaborate protection armor required help to be put on.”

These guidelines allowed individuals to touch Nyad in a variety of situations including application of Sting Stopper on her face and taping of her stinger suit to her booties or gloves, or zipping up of the suit as long as she was not supported or boarding a boat or kayak. The guidelines had other differences between the rules used in the established channel governing bodies. For example, the guidelines also allowed for box jellyfish to be removed by a shark diver or kayaker if there appears to be a jellyfish encounter.

A different approach, yes. But, in Nyad’s case, four strikeouts were followed by one well-deserved success after 35 years of failure.

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