"You felt that your body had been dipped in hot, burning wax oil," Diana Nyad says of being stung by a box jellyfish

By Tierney McAfee
Updated October 26, 2015 03:00 PM
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Credit: Monica Schipper/FilmMagic

It’s been two years since Diana Nyad became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without the help of a shark cage – and nearly 30 years since her first attempt in 1978 – but her brushes with the deadly box jellyfish still haunt her.

“I’ve been stung by the Portuguese Man o’ War – that’s no picnic; that rips across your skin, you feel paralysis, you’re very, very sick to your stomach, fever comes on immediately – but that’s like child’s play compared to that box jellyfish,” Nyad tells PEOPLE in a new interview.

The 66-year-old U.S. endurance swimmer, who’s also an author, motivational speaker and journalist, dives back into the tale of her four attempts to swim the straits of Florida – and her epic victory on her fifth try – in her new memoir, Find a Way, which hit shelves Tuesday.

Of all the dangers Nyad faced during her journeys – sharks, storms, hypothermia, dehydration – she says her encounter with a swarm of box jellyfish was the most terrifying. This happened on her third attempt to swim from Florida to Cuba in 2011.

After she was treated for the stings by a medical team, Nyad swam through what she describes as “an otherworldly, science-fiction pain. You felt that your body had been dipped in hot, burning wax oil. I still have kind of a post-traumatic fear over that whole episode. I wake up in the middle of the night with chills and screaming out, ‘Help me, help me, I’m on fire, I’m on fire.’ ”

She shouldn’t have lived, she says.

“I was told by all the experts that I should not have lived that night,” she tells PEOPLE. “We had a medical team, we had epinephrine, oxygen, anything you can think of that was in the airwaves, but I really believe it was will – it was just will alone that got me through those stings.”

Her will has gotten her through worse, and it ultimately helped her live out her dream of swimming the 110.86 miles of open water from Cuba to Key West, on her fifth and final attempt in 2013 at age 64.

“It was a metaphor,” she says of conquering the Florida straits. “It wasn’t only a sporting event to me. It was always an emblem of living life large, chasing after a star that’s so distant, so probably impossible that you would have to dig up every ounce of potential, every drop of courage in you to even try it, much less make it.”

“It was such a saga and we all love a good story,” she continues, adding that “now Hollywood is knocking to make that movie.”

“I got to live one out loud – to have a dream that was so epic and to chase after it, literally for 35 years. To almost die out there in that vast wilderness that lies between Cuba and Florida. And to stick with it, to finally arrive at that shore – that defines a life, that story.”