Exposing the lies of one of sports’ most successful frauds
How Diana Nyad Attempted to Manipulate the International Swimming Hall of Fame and Failed
Click a time to see how an edit changed an entry.
Table 1: Partial editing history of the eight Openwaterpedia entries for which the vandal undid their own vandalism. Bold black indicates the three entries (other than Adam Moine’s, the hacker’s test case) that the vandal undid almost immediately. Bold red indicates the two fixes done by editors other than the hacker. All data extracted from Openwaterpedia logs.
Razing Diana: The Packet
On March 4, 2019, the day the hacker hit the second batch of 1970s standouts, Munatones visited a post office in his home town of Huntington Beach. He carried a large manila envelope stuffed with 15 documents, 59 pages in all, relating to Diana Nyad’s as yet unratified Cuba-Florida crossing.
Two days and 2500 miles later, the packet arrived at the ISHOF. However, if Munatones and Nyad thought the packet’s intended recipient, CEO Brent Rutemiller, didn’t know about Nyad’s inclination to mangle the truth, they were wrong: he had known for close to a year if not longer. In May 2018, he had emailed Carl Williams of Fort Lauderdale’s Parks and Recreation department. The message helped block the installation of a Florida State Historical Marker honoring Nyad:
More information has been brought to my attention since my initial response about the Diana Nyad marker. At this time, ISHOF is withholding its support.
As a journalist and publisher, I have fact checked the following “issues” mentioned on this website: http://nyadfactcheck.com/ and find them true. The only thing that I cannot fact check is whether Diane Nyad completed the swim from Cuba to the Keys unassisted, but her history of falsehoods put that feat into question. (Message obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request.)
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I’ve recently received copies of the material in the packet. Even if Rutemiller didn’t know about Nyad’s history of deceit, I can’t see him taking the packet seriously.
Thirteen of the fifteen documents were hand-me-downs from an earlier ratification request. “I humbly present to you this packet of materials,” Nyad writes to Munatones. In an October 8, 2018, cover letter, Nyad writes to Munatones:
I humbly present to you this packet of materials, asking you to consider sanction of my Cuba-Florida Swim of 2013.
I am not familiar with your grounds in establishing world records or other assignations you accord to various swims.
But I am simply, respectfully, requesting an official sanction from WOWSA, stating that I swam shore to shore, unaided, from Havana, Cuba, to Key West, Florida, finishing on September 2, 2013.
Along with her unctuous solicitation, Nyad sent 10 letters of support from crew members. Nine were addressed to WOWSA and one to Nyad, presumably to pass on to WOWSA and Munatones. The similarity of the letters — the nearly verbatim recitation of Nyad’s ad hoc rules, the collective ignorance of actual marathon swimming standards, and a bizarre fixation on fins — shows that Nyad or Munatones helped the writers shape their responses. Some excerpts:
There is no doubt in my mind that Diana Nyad completed this epic swim under the rules stipulated. (Russell “Buco” Pantelis, kayak team chief)
I affirm that the statements above are completely accurate and reflect well articulated rules of the swim (no touching the vessel, no buoyancy assistance or forward motion help). (Dr. Angel Yanagihara, Nyad’s jellyfish expert)
I never saw Diana Nyad wear or use a pair of fins. (Yanagihara)
She did not and refused to wear fins even after that was suggested to her. She would just not have it. (Dee Brady, owner and captain of Voyager, Nyad’s escort boat)
I can honestly say she never touched the boats and no one ever gave her assistance with any flotation or buoyancy devices. She used no fins, and she was never pushed, pulled, or dragged. (Pauline Berry, handler)
I worked for Diana for four years on all her previous attempts and each one she would have it no other way than by the book. It was her rules and we obeyed them. (Brady)
Unfortunately, the packet did not include “the book.” Instead, Nyad tossed in a 17-page history of her first four Cuba-Florida attempts; and an 11-page description of attempt number five, titled “Triumph,” in which she again hammers away at her adherence to the never-published rules. Nowhere is the hammering loudest than when Nyad stumbles toward Smathers Beach and the television cameras that will record her reverence for the rules. “All our crew had gotten to shore at this point,” she says of the finish,
and, along with local police and many local citizens, had formed two lines, linking arms, all calling out to the crowd NOT TO TOUCH ME, as I swam and then walked in between the corridor. (“Triumph,” p. 10)
Nyad admitted shortly after her crossing that crew members had touched her throughout the endeavor. So, the shouts of “don’t touch her until she’s out of the water” just added a layer of sonic misdirection to Nyad’s subterfuge.
The Rutemiller Letters
The packet’s remaining documents — two letters addressed directly to Rutemiller — ostensibly have separate authors: Diana Nyad and Bonnie Stoll, Nyad’s main handler and best friend. In style, substance, and typeface, however, the two letters match. For instance, the author uses specific words in the same idiosyncratic ways, words like “haters,” “esteemed,” and “truth” — as in “speak my truth” (from the Nyad letter) and “speak our own truth” (from the Stoll letter).
The author begins the letters similarly: “Allow me to start by” (Nyad) and “Allow me to introduce myself.” The author ends both letters with “Respectfully submitted.”
For more examples, please see “Notes on Bonnie Stoll’s letter to Brent Rutemiller.”
Bonnie Stoll did not write to Rutemiller. She did, however, contribute one of the crew support letters. In that document, you will find no haters, no vitriol, no personal attacks. You will find a kind, thoughtful person who respects Diana Nyad and sometimes uses ALL CAPS. You won’t find all caps in either of the letters to Rutemiller.
No one but Nyad could have written those two letters. Having already devoted most of a six-page document to her grievances and knowing that further fulmination would appear unseemly, she submitted a second letter under another name. That gave her a longer lance on which to skewer her opponents. Note that Stoll didn’t sign the letter, so Nyad may have sent it without Stoll’s knowledge or approval. (I asked Stoll about this but have received no response.)
Curiously, nowhere in either of the letters does Nyad ask Rutemiller to help ratify her swim, though sending the packet can have no other intent. Nyad makes just one outright request of Rutemiller, who also serves as publisher of Swimming World magazine: “If you deemed it a worthwhile endeavor, I would like to write an open letter to my fellow marathon swimmers . . . for publication in Swimming World.”
So, would Steven Munatones sabotage his own website to clear the way for the packet, as I’m suggesting? Would he risk destroying his reputation on the off chance that Brent Rutemiller might know so little about marathon swimming that he’d rely on Openwaterpedia to verify Nyad’s claims?
Yes. In addition to all of the evidence pointing toward Munatones as the hack’s instigator, witness the following:
Sabotaging Openwaterpedia for Nyad’s sake is only slightly more outlandish than what Munatones did next: send a stack of documents to the ISHOF, an organization that doesn’t ratify swims, in the hopes that, without being directly asked to ratify Diana Nyad’s swim, the organization’s director would ratify it anyway.
A final flurry of pixie dust must have convinced Nyad and Munatones that no one would bother reading the documents. Otherwise, how could they think that anyone, much less the publisher of the preeminent swimming magazine in the United States, would inspect them without concluding they prove their senders’ duplicity and nothing more.
Enter Cameron Bellamy
Finally, why did Munatones and Nyad wait six years to go to all this trouble to pursue a goal they had no chance of achieving? Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time Nyad rode out to vanquish a windmill. But I suspect that this quest had to do with Cameron Bellamy.
In June 2018, the South African athlete swam the Tsugaru Strait in Japan, making him the 11th person to complete the Oceans Seven, a set of solo marathon swims on four different continents. The Oceans Seven includes most of the major swims on the planet. Nyad hasn’t completed a single one.
A few months after Tsugaru, on November 13, Bellamy completed the first circumnavigation of Barbados, 90 kilometers in 40 hours and 46 minutes. Four days later, Kristina Evelyn, co-director of the Barbados Open Water Festival, wrote: “He had done it. He never let up, he maintained his focus all the way and history has been created.” She concluded with the first public announcement of the athlete’s next endeavor: “Cameron Bellamy’s next endurance adventure? Swimming from Cuba to Florida in September 2019” (via Barbados Open Water Swim Blog).
Bellamy would have begun researching the swim months before he went public, so some people would have known about it long before November. He would have contacted those who knew more about the crossing than anyone: Diana Nyad and Steven Munatones. So, they probably knew well before October, when Nyad’s crew began sending in their letters. (I emailed Nyad, Munatones, and Bellamy, and asked for comments on my Bellamy supposition and other matters. Only Munatones responded. I include excerpts in the “5 Questions” section below.)
Nyad knew Bellamy could complete the swim. That left her and her unratified crossing in a precarious position. If Bellamy succeeded under the auspices of a recognized organization, with published rules and experienced observers, he would become the first person to complete a sanctioned, legitimate Cuba-Florida swim without a shark cage. Nyad gets six-figure speaking fees based on her unproven Cuba swim. If someone else completed a legit Cuba-Florida crossing without a shark cage, Nyad would face questions and have to defend herself. And Diana Nyad does NOT like to defend herself.* She wants the public to think that everything’s settled, and she has nothing left to prove. Everyone can just chill, hand over the cash, and listen to her play the bugle.
*Sometimes, Nyad forgets herself, as she did in this series of Facebook posts, which she quickly deleted. Other times, she tacitly encourages others to do her dirty work. In a Facebook discussion after the announcement of Nyad, her eponymous biopic, Nyad crew member Don “Woodkayaker” McCumber called her skeptics “conspiracy theorists” and “losers.” Responding to one doubter, McCumber wrote: “I don’t look up dumbass websites for info to feed jealousy, unlike you.” Nyad later praised McCumber in a Facebook Live video: “Don, thank you so much for all your comments on Facebook. You’re always so darn positive.” (March 10, 2021, 28:03). See also McCumber’s responses in a 2013 discussion about Nyad’s crossing.
Meanwhile, Bellamy, unaware of the lengths to which Munatones would go to support Nyad, asked Munatones to help organize his attempt. In the conflict-of-interest to end all marathon swimming conflicts-of-interest, Munatones accepted. And WOWSA, his organization, would oversee the crossing.
As we’ve seen, in October 2018, Nyad asked Munatones and WOWSA to recognize her 2013 crossing. (Except for the undated “History of Attempts” and “Triumph,” all of the WOWSA submission documents have dates from the first half of October.) But Munatones must have balked. He knew that, given his history with Nyad, most experienced marathon swimmers wouldn’t accept a WOWSA ratification. What’s more, he had already told the Miami Herald that “no organization regulated [Nyad’s] swim.”
So, rather than ratify it himself, Munatones threw a Hail Mary pass across the continent. He prayed that Rutemiller would believe Nyad’s claim that three haters had done horrendous and unwarranted damage to Diana Nyad’s honor. Rutemiller would then decide, without being asked, that he must redress these wrongs. He would ratify Nyad’s swim, even though the ISHOF doesn’t ratify swims. He might even nominate Nyad for induction into the Hall of Fame. According to Munatones, ill treatment by the marathon swimming community has deprived Nyad of her rightful place in the ISHOF. Of course, Diana believes that too.
Munatones and Nyad settle in and wait to hear from Rutemiller. Spring becomes summer, but they receive no response. Bellamy’s waiting too — the U.S. State Department hasn’t issued the permit for his guide boat to enter Cuban waters.
By the beginning of August, Munatones still hasn’t heard from Rutemiller, nor has Bellamy heard from the U.S. government.
On August 10, I contact Munatones about a separate matter: a blog post in which he touted “The Swimmer,” Nyad’s Off-Broadway show. “By promoting her run,” I write, “and by including her videos and books in the post, WOWSA is implicitly endorsing Nyad’s lies and her debasement of other swimmers.”
I believe that Diana swam from Cuba to Florida and so do all 40+ volunteers who were on her boat and witnessed her achievement. Her records, data and information — including written testimonials from those on her escort boat — have been delivered to the International Swimming Hall of Fame. This information all stands to scrutiny in my experience — that is why I submitted it to the Hall of Fame. If I did not think so, I would not have submitted it.
And that’s the first time Munatones tells me about the documents. So I start contacting people who might know more about them. On August 14, at 5:22 pm, Rutemiller verifies that he has the packet. “Called Diana to confirm,” he writes in an email to one of my contacts. “Not sure what they want us to do with it.”
Then, at 10:36 pm, Munatones edits Nyad’s Openwaterpedia entry and surreptitiously ratifies her crossing:
As of 2019, the swim has not been ratified or authenticated by
any official governing body the Marathon Swimmers Federation, but it has been long recognized since 2 September 2013 by the World Open Water Swimming Association that wrote the rules of the attempts and provided the onboard observers. [Strike-through text indicates the phrase Munatones cut from previous version of Nyad’s Openwaterpedia entry.]
A week later, the U.S. State Department denies Cameron Bellamy his permit. His plans for a 2019 Cuba-Florida attempt disappear in a puff of bureaucratic smoke. Nyad issues no comment when she learns that Bellamy’s attempt ended before it began. We can assume, however, that she did a little happy dance.
Presumably, the packet’s 15 documents present the most forceful argument Nyad can muster in favor of the legitimacy of her crossing. Yet, they contain no new or helpful information. Nyad spends most of her time personally attacking her skeptics rather than countering their allegations. The implication is obvious: She can’t prove she swam from Cuba to Florida. Distracting Brent Rutemiller’s attention from that fact is the best she can hope for.
Below are five questions the packet raises.
Was it Bellamy, as I suspect, or some other reason?
Munatones denied via email that Bellamy’s attempt had anything to do with the packet:
HIS EFFORT FROM CUBA TO FLORIDA HAD NO INFLUENCE OR RELATIONSHIP TO DIANA'S SWIM OR DIANA'S SUBMISSION OF DOCUMENTS TO BRENT RUTEMILLER. NONE WHATSOEVER.
Nyad’s Openwaterpedia entry currently reads that WOWSA has “long recognized” Nyad’s crossing. Does WOWSA differentiate between “recognized” and “ratified”? If so, how?
Munatones hedged, only saying that he was involved, not that WOWSA ratified or otherwise oversaw the swim:
RATIFIED, RECOGNIZED, SANCTIONED, APPROVED DIANA'S CROSSING. AS I HAVE TOLD YOU BEFORE - AND WHICH, VERY IMPORTANTLY, YOU REFUSED TO BELIEVE, I WAS CLOSELY INVOLVED WITH DIANA'S ATTEMPTS OVER THE YEARS.
Note that Nyad’s Openwaterpedia entry still includes the following:
If WOWSA oversaw Nyad’s swim, then it’s important to note that WOWSA has its own set of “Marathon and Channel Swims” rules. Nyad broke at least six of them during her crossing: 17.1, 17.3, 17.4, 17.6, 17.15, and 17.21. A separate rule, 17.14, states: “WOWSA will not ratify a swim if any rules are not followed.”
FOWSA WAS INVOLVED FROM DAY ONE. I WROTE THE ORIGINAL RULES BEFORE I ARRIVED IN KEY WEST ON THE FIRST ATTEMPT WHERE I WAS JOINED BY SEVERAL OBSERVERS FROM THE CAYMAN ISLANDS AND SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA.
The first attempt would have been in 2011. As best I can tell, though, FOWSA didn’t exist until 2014. That year, Steven Munatones created it via an Openwaterpedia entry. In 2018, he edited the entry, backdating the organization’s founding to 2010. He made some minor edits later on, so the entry now reads that FOWSA
was created in 2010 to propose and adjudicate the rules and conditions under which Diana Nyad attempted her crossings of the Florida Straits and to authenticate the rules as written were followed.
On pages three and four of “Triumph,” Nyad quotes a FOWSA rule at length. I include the entire passage below because, to my knowledge, no FOWSA regulation has appeared anywhere else in print:
(NOTE Rule #8.6 of the Florida Straits Open Water Swimming Association: ‘Crew members shall take care not to support, touch, propel or push the swimmers during the swim at any point along the course as long as there is not a rescue or emergency. However, if equipment is used and cannot be put on by the swimmer, then the crew can assist taking care not to propel the swimmer forward.’)
Nyad addresses FOWSA more extensively in her WOWSA Submission cover letter, first declaring her willingness “to become President of this entity.” In that role, she “would be willing to counsel, to some degree, swimmers wishing to cross from Cuba to Florida.” There’s much more. In fact, the letter provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to watch the self-styled “master storyteller” pretend that an imaginary organization is real.
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In 2012, Ned Denison (current Chair of the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame) and others suggested creating a FOWSA-like entity. They wanted to help Nyad avoid the repercussions of her previous attempts: charges of rule-breaking, poor planning vis-à-vis her observers, and a purposeful lack of transparency. Denison and the rest received no encouragement from either Munatones or Nyad, so no one pursued the idea. Two years later, Steven Munatones creates FOWSA, and the rest reads like the “Florida Straits Governing Organizations” episode of Drunk History.
Missing Documents — Rules & Logs
In her January 31, 2019, letter to Brent, Diana writes that her two independent observers were “taking notes, submitting their logs to account for every single minute” of the crossing. The transcribed versions of the logs (available on Diana’s blog) contain two gaps of over five hours each. If the original logs are as thorough as Nyad claims, they would immediately clear up all the controversy about the crossing. One has to wonder, then, why neither Steven nor Diana thought to include them in the packet.
Munatones wrote nothing about the logs in his responses, but he did address the rules: “I do not post the rules of the swims that I observe or ratify. I have never had any reason to do so. ”
I questioned him about this, noting that “without the rules, we can’t know what an athlete did or didn’t achieve.” He responded:
Did you publish the rules that you swam under?
I never published the rules that I swam under. Never.
Do you know why? Because we follow the established rules. Plain and simple.
He’s right, of course. We both followed established English Channel rules. We didn’t have to publish them because someone already had. You can find recent versions here (via the Channel Swimming Association) and here (via the Channel Swimming & Federation). They’re available to anyone in the world who wants to see them, anytime day or night.
On the other hand, when Walter Poenisch swam from Cuba to Florida in 1978, he had no intention of following English Channel rules, so he published his own. Everyone knows what Walter accomplished. Diana Nyad had no intention of following English Channel rules either. As long as her rules remain unpublished, we can never know what she claims to have done.
The packet contains no new information regarding the crossing. Nyad, rather than address her skeptics’ allegations, spends most of her time attacking them personally. Her only crossing-relevant argument is the old “44 people wouldn’t lie” contention. And she’s right: they wouldn’t. But 44 people didn’t have to lie for her to pull off an illegitimate swim.
Nine of the ten letters-of-support briefly restate the same argument, i.e., that Nyad followed “the rules.” The exception is Candace Hogan’s lengthy hagiography. The only member of Nyad’s crew to accompany her on all five attempts, Hogan literally can’t say enough about her old friend: Most of the letter writers eke out a page or less. Hogan’s dense five-and-a-quarter pages paint Nyad as a shoo-in for canonization or cult leader.
“While I adore Diana of course without reserve,” writes Hogan, “love does not and never has thoroughly blinded me about anyone.” But Hogan’s letter reveals that, around the woman who has claimed to be the first woman to have circled Manhattan Island, swum in the Olympic Trials, completed a legitimate swim from Cuba to Florida, and been the best marathon swimmer of the 1970s, she’s as blind as a newborn puppy:
Diana is authentic, the real thing, and a true hero for our time because she is true to herself.
I saw her much of the time [during the swim], but I know her, too, so I am certain that she conformed, with her fullest intention and self-respect applied, to the highest standards of the sport of long distance swimming, a sport she regards as noble and expansive enough to serve as a crucible for the highest human aspirations. I would sign an affidavit and testify under oath to everything I say in this document and to Diana’s fairness in heart, mind, and action and to her absolute integrity and unassailable character.
I developed as best I could ways of staying in touch with her energy state regardless of the distance between us, a sixth sense, as it were.
She smiled at times and that brought tears to my eyes.
Candace Hogan worships Diana Nyad. Many more of the 44 do too. The public idolizes her, as does most of the media. When Nyad trash-talks her detractors, you can feel the flames of her resentment. Having convinced so many people to exalt her, she will not tolerate three or 30 or 300 “perhaps jealous souls” — about whom she doesn’t “care a whit” and has “no regard for . . . whatsoever” — trying to push her off her pedestal of public credulity and veneration.
Lance Armstrong built his career on years of doping in plain sight. Elizabeth Holmes grew a $9 billion company from a blood-testing machine that never worked. If Armstrong and Holmes could get away with their years-long frauds, then Diana Nyad and a few accomplices could make her 52-hour hustle appear genuine.
Munatones sent the packet with minimal hope of success and no control over what happened after his envelope left Huntington Beach. Nyad attempted to swim from Cuba to Florida with no hope of finishing but nearly complete control over what happened after she left Havana, acts of God notwithstanding. She stayed true to herself and turned her dream into a brilliant simulacrum of success.