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Adventurers of the Year: Swimmer Diana Nyad

FOR THE PAST two summers, Diana Nyad has generated worldwide attention for her dogged attempts to swim the 103 miles from Havana, Cuba, to Key West, Florida. But the most amazing thing about her quest isn’t the mileage she racked up in her four failed bids but the fact that, at 63, she wouldn’t think of giving up. “I’m either going to die or make that swim,” says the Los Angeles–based Nyad, who plans to try again this summer. Nyad, who has been long-distance swimming for much of her life (she swam around Manhattan in 1975 and from the Bahamas to Florida, a distance of 102 miles, in 1979), says each failure drives her more intently to succeed. “We learn something every time we go out,” she says:

1. Eddies suck.
The Gulf Stream is 65 miles wide and flows like a river, at up to five knots, due east. And like any river, it has eddies—massive ones, as large as 50 miles across. “They’re difficult to predict and difficult to get out of,” says Nyad, who swims at roughly 1.5 knots.

2. Man-of-war stings hurt.
“You get nauseous, and it feels like an asthma attack,” she says.

3. Whitetip sharks are like honey badgers.
Unlike tiger and lemon sharks, whitetips are impervious to the fish-repelling electrical field generated by the device her chase kayak drags alongside her. “They don’t care about it at all,” says Nyad, who’s been buzzed but never bitten.

4. Box jellyfish are the worst.
“They’re the perfect lethal weapon,” says Nyad of the sugar-cube-size blobs. Their toxin attacks the nervous system, causing nausea, breathing problems, and even death. Last August, Nyad wore a full-body swimsuit, pulled a nylon stocking over her head, and had a leading box jelly researcher aboard her guide vessel with salves at the ready. Still, her lips were exposed. “I swam for 51 hours,” says Nyad, “and I was stung two nights in a row.”

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The Stuntmen: James Cameron and Felix Baumgartner

On March 26, 2012, Avatar director James Cameron piloted his mini sub, the Deepsea Challenger—which he designed with engineer Ron ­Allum—to the deepest spot in the ocean, the 6.8–mile-down Mariana Trench. It was only the second time mankind had reached that depth, after Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard made the trip in 1960 in the U.S. Navy’s hollow-steel bathyscaphe Trieste. Meanwhile, on October 14, Felix Baumgartner, the Austrian skydiver, stepped out of a steel capsule and fell to earth from the stratosphere, topping the previous record for highest parachute jump, which was set by Air Force colonel Joe Kittinger in 1960. Bold projects like this used to be possible only through government funding. Now the adventure world is dominated by individuals and companies with deep pockets.

Click through to compare Felix's jump with James's dive.

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Adventurer of the Year: Supersonic Man Felix Baumgartner

127,852.4 feet: After a massive helium balloon lifts him 24 miles high, Baumgartner opens the hatch to his eight-foot-diameter capsule and launches into the stratosphere.

91,316 feet: Fifty seconds into free fall, Baumgartner reaches his top speed of 843.6 miles per hour and becomes the first person to break the sound barrier with his body, creating a sonic boom that’s caught on amateur video from the ground.

75,000 feet: Baumgartner enters into an uncontrolled flat spin—one of the greatest concerns going into the mission, since G forces can cause blackouts. After 13 seconds he regains control.

8,400 feet: Baumgartner pulls his chute after four minutes and 20 seconds of free fall.

Touchdown: Forty-five miles east of Roswell, New Mexico, Baumgartner lands safely, drops to his knees, and raises a hand in triumph for the cameras.

For more, read Ryan Krogh's feature story Bull Shot.

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The Stuntmen: James's Dive

Sea level: Two hundred miles off the coast of Guam, Cameron’s support vessel winches the 24-foot Deepsea Challenger into the Pacific.

650 feet: Descending at a rate of eight feet per second, the Challenger moves through the sunlight zone, where most ocean life resides, and into the twilight zone, where light fades and bioluminescent creatures like lanternfish live.

13,000 feet: Lights out—Cameron enters the pitch-black abyssal zone.

19,700 feet: Three-quarters of the ocean floor lies at this depth. The only deeper points are its trenches.

Touchdown: Two hours and 36 minutes after beginning his dive, Cameron arrives at 35,756 feet, where water pressure is 16,000 pounds per square inch. Before collecting sediment samples for analysis, Cameron sends out a tweet: “Just arrived at the ocean’s deepest pt. Hitting bottom never felt so good.”

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