Diana Nyad Fact Check
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The Call | Florida 44 | Notes on Notes | Marathon Swimming Rules! | A Touching Experience | Q.E.D? | I Smell a Ratification

Cuba-Florida analysis

THE CALL

CLAIM:  In a conference call shortly after her crossing, Nyad convinced all but one or two "haters" that she swam "from the rocks of Cuba to the beach of Florida in squeaky clean, ethical faction.
FACT:  Nyad fabricates almost everything she says about the call. Most if not all of the people on that call remain skeptical of Nyad's claims.

Details
One can unearth snippets of video and audio of the call, but most if it has vanished along with the video from Nyad's swim. Given that absence, I attempted to contact the fourteen marathon swimmers whom Nyad's team invited to participate. I asked them about some assertions Nyad makes about the call:

  1. "...I got many apologies and respectful notes from that group of swimmers when it was over to say 'please forgive us for doubting, but we needed to ask these questions. It's over, congratulations. It's history."
  2. "John Bartlett [Nyad's navigator] got out his electronic devices that measured the GPS tracking and proved, every eighth of a mile, where we were at that moment." (In other places, it's every quarter of a mile.)
  3. "Bartlett got on a phone call with them for 13 hours [sic] and went over every eighth- and quarter-of-a-mile of that swim." (In another interview, it was "a big all-night telephone call. In another, the call lasted 3 hours and 22 minutes.)
  4. "I posted all the data evidence online, along with the minute-by-minute logs from the two independent observers."

I asked the participants if Nyad and Bartlett had answered their questions and verified the swim to their satisfaction. I also asked if they (i.e. the participants) said or wrote anything afterwards along the lines of  "thank you...sorry...it's history"?

From those who answered, the answer to every question was a unanimous "no."

Donal Buckley, a participant on the call, wrote a detailed and illuminating description of it, the only first-hand account other than Nyad's that I've come across: "Diana Nyad, Penny Dean and me."


THE FLORIDA 44

CLAIM:  44 people—the number of folks accompanying Nyad on her swim—"wouldn't collude in fraud." [Miami Herald, Sept 17, 2013]
FACT:  44 people wouldn't be necessary.

  
Details
Forty-four people could easily collude in fraud—just ask Lance Armstrong. But it wouldn't have taken that many for Nyaduu. Only a few individuals—those on Voyager (her guide boat) as well as those in the water with her—could easily see her at any one time, especially after dark:

We use no lights of any kind at night. Lights attract jellyfish, and then sharks. With no moonlight, the situation we are facing tonight, you literally cannot see your own outstretched hand. The Handlers know I'm still there, twenty-one feet to the right of Voyager, solely by the slapping of my hands on the surface. The only people who actually see me in the pitch-black night are the two Kayakers on duty….." [FIND A WAY, p. 8]

[At night] her team could only see her by this little red light on her swim cap. [Florence Williams, XX Factor: Diana Nyad Goes the Distance, 22:57]

And/or something could have happened during the storm. Though Nyad insists that "[w]e're never gonna get out. You're never allowed to get out on this thing," [16:25 at press conf. or transcript] she has left the water during previous swims. During her 2012 attempt: "Safety dictates my being pulled from the water onto one of the mother ships.... Finally, after almost five long hours out of the water, it is deemed safe enough to get back in...." [FIND A WAY, p. 212] Later: "The swim is once again halted. This time, though, I am hauled onto Voyager instead of one of the bigger mother ships...." [ibid, p. 215]

And there's that mid-storm water treading issue--see "Treader Shredder."

"I'm not waiting for any petty little judgment," declared Nyad shortly after the swim. "To think that the 44 people out there would collude in a fraud is absurd...." [Miami Herald, Sept 17, 2013]

Forty-four people would not have been necessary.


NOTES ON NOTES

CLAIM:  Nyad's observers took "very specific long notes for every minute" so that they could say at the end, "'never did she touch the boat, get out on a boat, hang on to kayak, use flippers.' You know, all the things that would make a swim legal." [Town Hall Seattle Q & A, 9 Nov 2013. Transcript here]
FACT:  The observer reports contain inaccuracies, oversights, and gaping holes—including one of over 6 hours.

Details
In FIND A WAY, Nyad states that Steve Munatones, who had observed on her 2011 and 2012 attempts, "counseled us on how to keep accurate logs of observation every minute, from my first stroke to my last step" (p. 252). In her post-swim press conference, Nyad claims that her two observers, Janet Hinkle and Roger McVeigh, "took copious, accurate notes” [at approx. 42:10—partial transcript here]. "I posted all the data evidence online," she later declares in FIND A WAY, "along with the minute-by-minute logs from the two independent observers" (p. 278).

Neither Janet Hinkle nor Roger McVeigh were experienced marathon swim observers. Nyad entrusted the success or failure of her massive undeavor, what she often calls the Mt. Everest of ocean swims, to novices. Without decent records, it's impossible to prove that Nyad completed the swim.

For an example of thorough documentation, see Chloë McCardel's 2014 Bahamas swim. Scroll down, and you can download the orginal handwritten logs. Diana Nyad never provided the original logs of her attempt.

Much of the information above comes—sometimes verbatim and sometimes close-to-verbatim—from Anthony McCarley's timeline of the swim. As of October, 2016, the typed versions of the observers' logs were still available at Nyad's website: Hinkle / McVeigh.


MARATHON SWIMMING RULES

CLAIM:  "We did not break one rule.... Trust me, this dream [is] too important to me to have any slight thing outside the fair, just, ethical and agreed-upon rules of our sport…."[Marathon Swimmers Forum, Sept, 2013]
FACT:  Nyad followed some marathon swimming rules and ignored others.

Details
The "agreed-upon rules of our sport..." are universally considered to be EC (English Channel) rules unless specified otherwise in advance of a swim. Nyad never defined the rules by which she would cross; so, again, EC rules would be assumed. What she seems to be getting at when she says "the fair, just, ethical and agreed-upon rules of our sport" are the rules regarding assisted vs. unassisted swims. "I don't want the record," she declared shortly after her attempt, "if they're going to call it assisted…." [Miami Herald, Sept 17, 2013]

The difference between an assisted and an unassisted is clear. The MSF (Marathon Swimmers Federation) Rules of Marathon Swimming, which generalize EC rules for other bodies of water, state that an unassisted swim is one done "Without artificial assistance to performance, other than the standard equipment of the sport..." (see "Definitions"). A swim using nonstandard equipment—e.g. stinger suits, underwater streamers, and many other items that Nyad used in her swim—is considered assisted.

"The rules of the sport," Nyad states in FIND A WAY, "are such that you may not receive any aid at any time, in either moving forward or in staying afloat" (p. 72). She knows the rules but omits the ones she prefers not to follow. She mentions nothing about the prohibition of protective swimwear in unassisted swims:

The swim-tech company Finis will make me a custom stinger suit, this in accordance with the rules of marathon swimming. No neoprene or any fabric with either flotation or warming properties allowed.... I try a number of gloves, all of which make my hands very tired. As for the feet, we wind up using a pair of Finis Lycra booties. [FIND A WAY, p. 199]

In her post-swim press conference, she talks about how she didn't use a shark cage because it would have "put her in a different category, and for this swim I don't want to be in a different category. I wanted to be flush on, 100 percent...." But 100 percent of what? She never makes that clear.

What is clear is that Diana Nyad doesn't like rules: "I have never much respected society's expected standards...." [FIND A WAY, p. 222] After her 1978 attempt, Nyad was even more direct: for that particular body of water, she stated, "there were no rules...." [Lost At Sea, p. 73—downloadable here] However, by all established channel-swimming standards, Nyad's effort was—if completed—an assisted swim.


A TOUCHING EXPERIENCE

CLAIM:  "I never...touched a boat or another person."
FACT:  "I was touched."

Details
Nyad has a history of flaunting the no-touching rule. In what would have been an immediate disqualification in most other marathon swims, Nyad touched and held on to the boat during her 4th Cuba-Florida attempt. The captain on her Manhattan Island swim said that "she touched/held onto the boat" during that swim as well. [Marathon Swimmer’s Forum]

Nyad was very concerned, at the end of her latest endeavor, about appearing untouched despite having been touched throughout the swim. "It was very important," Nyad says of the end of the attempt, "that no one touch me, 'cause you're disqualified...." [28:30 at press conf. or transcript] "I never of course touched a boat or another person," Nyad declared on Facebook. Towards the end, crew members frequently mention the finish protocol, something that usually goes without saying. Roger McVeigh notes in his log, "[D]iscussed landing protocol and need for her to exit water without being touched, according to email received from Steve." Hinkle adds, "John Berry reminds everyone to make sure Diana is not touched until she is out of the water and Bonnie will be the first person to touch her." Again, all of this after Nyad has been touched throughout the swim.

Nyad describes the finish: 
" ...My Team has jumped off the boats in advance, and they now form two human walls, to make sure nobody touches me with even an innocent brush of a shoulder or a finger until I am, as the rule states, 'where no more sea water lies beyond…. [N]ow I’m walking, slowly but surely. I know some of the faces left and right. Teammates and friends, arms locked, legs braced hard, yelling, 'DON’T TOUCH HER! STAY BACK! SHE’LL BE DISQUALIFIED IF ANYBODY TOUCHES HER! STAY BACK!'" [FIND A WAY, p. 272]

In the end, though, all of that concern about touching was just for show.  "I was on my own steam entirely," she claimed, "but I was touched. I agree with it." [WPTV, Sept 11, 2013]


Q.E.D.?

CLAIM:  "We proved without a shadow of a doubt that I swam without any assistance whatsoever from shore to shore." [reddit, Jan, 2014. Also here.]
FACT:  Again, there is no way to prove that Diana Nyad swam all the way from Cuba to Florida.


Details

I swam. We made it, our team, from the rocks of Cuba to the beach of Florida, in squeaky-clean, ethical fashion. [NBC News, Sept 11, 2013]

Nyad has been adamant that she swam unaided and non-stop from Cuba to Florida: "We had reverence for this record," she declared, "and we did it fair and square." [reddit] "We did it squeaky clean.... It's all authentic." [Miami Herald, Sept 17, 2013]

Nyad's two observers are also unusually intent, despite the gaping holes in their logs, on proving that she swam all the way. Normally, observers' logs are just that—observations of the swim as it's happening, a place to record objective information. Hinkle and McVeigh, however, include post-swim statements attesting to the fact that Nyad swam the whole way, something a normal log would not include. From Hinkle's log:

Diana did not leave the water. She was never buoyed up or supported in any way. She never held onto the boat or kayak or anything that would have assisted her through the water....
Hinkle reiterates in a later interview: "I can say unequivocally she swam every stroke without question." But she can't say that unequivocally and without question, because she observed for less than half the swim.

McVeigh’s statement is more objective but just as unusual:

During all my shifts and time aboard Voyager..., I never saw Diana receive any assistance in floating or in propelling forward, never used any snorkel or fins, she never left the water (always swimming forward or treading water), and she never hung on or touched any boat or kayak or person....
Logs would only include such assertions if the observers or other crew members foresaw post-swim suspicions. Had the observers kept thorough and conclusive logs, their statements would be unnecessary.

VIDEO

Video evidence would have helped, but little exists beyond film of the finish. Some from other parts of the swim materialized shortly afterward the attempt but quickly disappeared. Nyad’s YouTube channel remains empty.

The logs mention video cameras:
Still—no video. Nyad raised about $1,000,000 for the swim (FIND A WAY, p. 234), so cost shouldn't have been a problem. Her nephew, filmmaker Timothy Wheeler, had accompanied her on a previous swim (FIND A WAY, p. 121). Wheeler didn't go this time, but he had a documentary about his aunt ready to release before she dried off: He filmed Nyad's walk ashore so that he could, as Nyad put it in her post-swim press conference, "massage that ending that I wanted" [49:25 at press conf. or transcript], then made THE OTHER SHORE available on his website the day after the swim. It officially opened two weeks later.   

You would think that, after 30 years and five attempts, Nyad would want to make it as easy as possible to prove, "without a shadow of a doubt," that she completed this swim. Video could have done that. Experienced observers and thorough logs could have done that. But, given the documentation we have, there is no way to prove that Nyad swam the whole way.


I SMELL A RATIFICATION

CLAIM:  "I'm sure this swim will be ratified in due time...." [43:50 at press conf. or transcript]
FACT:  To date, over three years after the attempt, the swim remains unratified.


Details

Just after the attempt, Nyad seemed very concerned about certification. In response to a question at her post-swim press conference, Nyad said,

[I]t takes them awhile to vet records.... We had two independent observers over there—Janet Hinkle and Roger McVeigh.... They took copious, accurate notes. [A]t some point, the Swimming Hall of Fame or the Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame will call them and say, 'let's sit down with you,' and, you know, 'did she ever get out on the boat, did she ever put on a pair of fins.' You know, and all the things that they observed will go...it takes awhile to have records declared…. [41:55 at press conf. or transcript]

And in a Facebook post,  Sept 6, 2013:

"We have submitted two independents overseers comprehensive and accuracy observation notes from the entire crossing. Those will be judged by the auspices of the sport and different record keepers.... I am an honest, straightforward person. Never been anything but. Every attempt I've made has been by the rule books. And now this successful crossing was done in same fashion....[sic]"
The available data cannot prove that Diana Nyad swam all the way from Cuba to Florida. It strongly suggests, however, that she didn't.

"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."
—Carl Sagan

Sleeping Octopus

Compiled by Daniel Slosberg
bio / contact

10/2/17