Diana Nyad Fact Check
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"World's Greatest..." details

CLAIM:  "For ten years (1969-1979), Diana Nyad was known as the greatest long-distance swimmer in the world." [TED bio. See also diananyad.com, HuffPost, FFA, Action Maverick Award, Barnard College, Lake Forest College, LiveTalksLA, etc.]
"I am the greatest!" [Diana Nyad in the Ft. Lauderdale News and Sun-Sentinal, Nov 16, 1975]

FACT:  Diana Nyad was never considered the greatest long-distance swimmer in the world.


From 1970 through 1975, Nyad competed on the World Professional Marathon Swimming circuit. Her rankings relative to other female swimmers during those years:
  • 1970: 3rd of 4.
  • 1971: 2nd of 4.
  • 1972: 2nd of 3.
  • 1973: 3rd of 7, beating Sandra Bucha—who only raced during the summer because she went to school the rest of the year—on points, but never close to beating her in the water or in total prize money.
  • 1974: 1st, again beating Bucha on points but never close in the water or in prize money. Nyad placed 6th (twice), 10th, 13th, 14th and 21st (overall, i.e. among men and women). Sandra Bucha placed 1st, 2nd (twice), and 3rd. Here's how Nyad fared when she went head-to-head against Bucha in 1974:
    1. Laval marathon: Bucha finished 2nd overall in 3:49.04, while Nyad finished 21st overall, the 3rd woman, in 4:36.34. [Complete Laval results.]
    2. Chicago 10 mile swim: Bucha again finished 2nd overall in 3:47.52, while Nyad finished 12th of 14 swimmers, the 3rd woman, in 4:36.59. [Complete Chicago results.]
    3. Lac St. Jean: Bucha finished 3rd overall in 8:09.35, while Nyad finished 14th (second woman) in 9:27.57, over an hour behind.  [Complete Lac St. Jean results.]
  • 1975: 3rd of 8

Starting in 1975, Nyad began attempting solo swims:
  • 1975: Around Manhattan, breaking the record by almost an hour.
  • 1976: Three unsuccessful English Channel attempts.*
  • 1978: 1st Cuba-Florida attempt
  • 1979: Bimini to Florida, setting a distance record.

So by what measure was Diana the greatest? She has always been, far and away, the best at generating publicity. The great swim coach Doc Counsilman described Nyad as "a very mediocre swimmer with a very good publicist." ["Go for the Gold, Doc," Sports Illustrated, Sept. 24, 1979] Of her Bimini to Florida swim, Counsilman added,

"When she gets into the tide off the Bahamas and rides it to Florida, a swim that truly great marathoners like John Kinsella could do with one arm tied behind their backs, she gets all the attention. The result is that more deserving marathoners...go begging." [ibid]

*Most people consider crossing the English Channel the pinnacle of marathon swimming accomplishments. Nyad never completed an English Channel crossing. During the 70s, over 150 people successfully crossed the Channel, including Lynne Cox, who swam it twice; Des Renford who swam it 14 times (19 total), and Michael Read, who swam it 16 times (33 total). In 1978, Penny Dean became the fastest person ever to cross the Channel, smashing the previous record by over an hour. That record, for both men and women, stood for almost 20 years.



"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."
—Carl Sagan

Sleeping Octopus

Compiled by Daniel Slosberg

updated 3/2/18
© 2016