Diana Nyad’s recent Facebook post about an upcoming speaking gig sent Bill Poett to the moon:
This makes me super happy, your interview was one of the highlights of my show.
When swimmer Lisa Amorao pointed out that “Diana Nyad is the biggest fraud in marathon swimming,” Poett took offense, equating truth with hate:
not sure why you got to pass on hate, her swim from Cuba to Florida was no fraud so you might want to stand down.
Amorao offered Poett a way to check the facts, but his follow-up message suggests he declined the opportunity:
this post represents one of the worst things about Facebook I wasn’t talking to you or about you.
(Screenshot of Poett thread here.)
What prompted Poett’s responses? Clearly, he’s a believer who, like many others, has invested so much of himself in the Nyad myth that he blinds himself to contradictory evidence. When he interviews Nyad, his complete capitulation to Nyad’s con becomes obvious.
Before we get to that, though, here’s a bit of background.
About four years ago, Poett co-founded the business consulting firm 9Q Solutions. According to its website, 9Q is “the world’s first consulting and education company specializing specifically in energetic intelligence training designed to prepare you for the disruptions and opportunities of this new age.” Some part of Poett’s family still owns and operates Lompoc’s less ambiguous Rancho San Julian.
From December 2012 through September 2013, Poett had a podcast, Positively Speaking. It ran for 34 episodes. Nyad appeared on the podcast in May 2013. You can still find that audio at archive.org.
Poett introduces Nyad as “the toughest athlete in the world” (via the Dayton Daily News). In the agonizingly obsequious dialogue that follows, he elicits some fascinating responses, perhaps because his interviewee feels venerated in the manner to which she deems herself entitled.
Three of Nyad’s responses stand out:
#1 – On Other Swimmers
People who follow me, you know, who root for me who have some interest in what I say, how I live, none of them are swimmers, frankly. None of them are athletes, just about, virtually none. (33:10)
Diana has said this before, but never more decisively. Her statement is true, of course. Yet, I don’t recall an interviewer asking her why it’s true. Maybe they assume that marathon swimmers care only about their own accomplishments. A trip to Facebook would quickly prove that assumption wrong. (I’ve linked to four semi-random Facebook pages. There are thousands more that would do just as well or better.)
#2: Feigned Indifference
DNFCA Poetry Korner:
The lady did too oft protest her lack
of care o’er one more Hall of Fame or plaque.
“I’m telling you right now,” she didst beseech,
“The journey matters, not the goal of Smathers Beach.”
“Of course I yearned for first,” she later said.
“But, sure, I’m glad that Chloë is not dead.”*
*Some Poetry Korner quotes are paraphrased.
Nyad desperately wanted to be the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage, or at least appear to be. But she also wanted to seem enlightened enough not to care. So, she finds multiple ways of saying, “it’s all about the journey”:
I want the values and the inner journey that comes out of this more than I want the moment of accolade and the moment of accomplishment that happens when you get to the beach. (34:45)
But it doesn’t have to do with the athletic accomplishment. I’m telling you right now, I don’t care if I’m the first anymore. I don’t care if I set the record anymore. I don’t care if I get into some new Hall of Fame because of the swim. Don’t care at all. Don’t care, you know, if it’s even recognized anywhere. (36:12)
In fact, “the journey” only mattered to Diana Nyad if it ended at a Key West Beach, with a public convinced that she swam all the way from Cuba to Florida.
You can only say “I don’t care” so many times before it becomes undeniable that you do.
#3 – The End is Near (and Known)
In the interview, Nyad accurately predicted the future. She knew that her swim would have difficulty receiving official recognition (“Don’t care, you know, if it’s even recognized anywhere”). She predicted that other swimmers would question her claims. And, most importantly, she knew that she would finish. Barring extreme circumstances (i.e., situations so dangerous to crew members that forcing them to proceed would expose her callousness), she knew ahead of time that she would reach Key West.
But I can tell that there’s almost nothing more to learn on this journey. And that’s why I know, you know, I’ve said it before. And there are plenty of journalists and my own friends who have said, Yeah, well, you know, you said after that first try in 2011. That was it. It’s too big, it’s too tough. It’s too, you know, impossible. Move on to another dream.
Well, whether I make it or not, I just know that the journey has come to the end of, as I say, it’s discovery, by the end of this summer. And then I am on to, you know, all kinds of other thrilling moments, even if they may not be epic for the record books like this Cuba swim will be. (38:58 — listening to the clip will give you a better sense of her absolute certainty)
In “Lessons Learned From Diana Nyad,” an article Nyad supporter/collaborator Steven Munatones wrote while she was still swimming, he hinted that he knew she would finish. Not only does he write as if the swim is a done deal, but he also anticipates the reactions that an inadequately observed, rule-less swim would generate from fellow marathoners:
Not everyone was in her camp and a few never will be. She faced derision from coaches and marathon swimmers; she faced numerous no-thank-yous from sponsors. She often faced disbelief and reluctance. She regularly faced suspicion and incredulity.
Many more than “a few” still refuse to camp with Diana.
More excerpts from Positively Speaking:
Diana’s Destiny, Part 1
But I’m not a person who buys into destiny. (7:09)
If we got to meet your great, great, great, great grandmother, would we say, “Oh, my God, Bill, you are exactly like her. It’s just, it’s uncanny.” (7:40)
Funny she picked that example. How’s this for uncanny: Nyad’s great great great grandmother, Charlotte Winslow, is the namesake of the patent medicine that eventually funded Nyad’s private-school education and her swimming career. Can one have a genetic disposition for chicanery? (See “No Syrup, No Swimmer.”)
On the other hand, were we to meet one of Poett’s great great great grandmothers, we might have the pleasure of Maria Antonia De La Guerra’s company. She had eleven children. One of her sons, Pablo, is Poett’s great great-great-grandfather. A daughter, Ana Maria, got married in Santa Barbara on January 24, 1836. Lucky for us, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., was in town for the three-day celebration. Dana’s magnificent Two Years Before the Mast came out four years later. Here’s a sample:
A tall, stately Don, with immense grey whiskers, and a look of great importance, was standing before me, when I felt a light hand on my shoulder, and turning round, saw Donna Angustia . . . with her finger upon her lip, motioning me gently aside. I stepped back a little, when she went up behind the Don, and with one hand knocked off his huge sombrero, and at the same instant, with the other, broke the [cologne-filled] egg upon his head, and springing behind me, was out of sight in a moment. The Don turned slowly round, the cologne, running down his face, and over his clothes, and a loud laugh breaking out from every quarter. He looked round in vain, for some time, until the direction of so many laughing eyes showed him the fair offender. She was his niece, and a great favorite with him, so old Don Domingo had to join in the laugh. (ch. XXVII)
She Must Be Humble Because She Brags In The Second Person
Most who try to distance themselves from their narcissistic inclinations use the third person. Nyad, ever the disrupter, goes with the second:
So I’m just dancing as fast and hard as I can every day in every direction. I don’t think it matters, you know, what your, particular milieu is. Okay, you’re, you’re a swimmer, you graduated Phi Beta Kappa, you’re, you know, you worked for the ABC Wide World of Sports, covered many Olympic Games. You know, you’ve been inducted into many halls of fame, you’ve got a lot of world records, you’ve written three books, you speak a bunch of languages.
Okay, you know, those are great. Those sound wonderful on a resume, you know. Is there, are those, is that list any, you know, more admirable than someone else’s list? Honestly, I don’t know and I don’t care. [Then why did she bring it up?]
I used to buy into all that stuff a lot. And I’m just, I’m just not living for those, you know, particular societal pats on the back and kudos anymore. [You can never say this enough!] (8:49)
Dr. Diana’s Prescription For Mental Health: “Block Out That Angst.”
You know, if there’s an existential angst that we feel — especially as we get older — that the clock is ticking, and it ticks faster as you get older. If there’s an angst that it’s also short, and now I regret the way I spent, you know, some of childhood and the 20s and the 30s in the 40s.
Well, there’s only one remedy, the way I can figure it anymore, is to not dwell on any of that. Learn from it, and move onward, and just take this day, that’s right in front of you. That’s all you have. Yeah, you don’t have yesterday anymore. And you don’t have tomorrow yet, you have this day. And that’s the way to, you know, block out that angst and get to the end with no regrets. (9:40)
You can’t “learn from it” if you block it out, so it’s one or the other. In different tales, Nyad has signaled that she favors the Block It Out school. In her fictitious story of a childhood sexual abuse survivor, the survivor’s mother implores her: “You must take these memories and bury them deep in a corner of your soul” (Find a Way, p. 135). Buried and unacknowledged pain, however, will find a way to call attention to itself.
The Noble Quest . . . Again
It’s a noble quest. It’s got tremendous imagination to it. It’s kind of like the Mount Everest of the ocean. There’s nothing more difficult than this passage. (13:50)
Nyad likes to assert her and her venture’s nobility:
Believe me, I sleep very easily, no doubts about what I’ve done or the fair and noble way I’ve gone about my life and my swimming career. (letter to Brent Rutemiller, 31 Jan 2019, p. 2)
This swim was a noble quest and a matter of indisputable ethics to each one of us. We sleep easily, consciences clear that I swam across fair and square, shore to shore. (Find a Way, p. 278)
Nyad’s use of the word “noble” or its derivatives, it turns out, is one of her tells. When she says something is “noble,” we can assume it’s the opposite. For instance, she tells Poett that her swim is noble and has “tremendous imagination.” For Nyad, though, “tremendous imagination” means “tremendous opportunity for money and fame” (see below). So, not exactly noble.
And her statement that “there’s nothing more difficult than this passage” isn’t exactly noble, either. Of course there are more difficult swims. For Diana, though, no endeavor is worthwhile unless it’s first or best. Her solution when it’s not? Just say it is, block out the fact that she has just lied, and move on.
Speaking of the devil:
What, no hugs?
Last year I went and got the world’s leading expert on box jellyfish. It’s all she’s done. She’s kind of a Jane Goodall of box jellyfish — Angel Yanagihara from the University of Hawaii. (15:14)
Angel Yanagihara is not the world’s leading expert on box jellyfish. And has she ever hugged a jellyfish? I don’t think so, at least not on purpose.
Not My Film, Nope, Nope, Nope
The documentary film that’s been made on this, it’s called The Other Shore, which will, you know, it’ll broadcast in the fall sometime. And it’s a very powerful, emotional film. It’s not my film, I had nothing to do with it. But it’s um, it’s out there, and I’m, I’m, I’m moved by it. (19:10)
Technically, she’s right that it wasn’t her film. It was Tim Wheeler’s, her nephew, a fact she often omits. However, at her press conference the day after the swim, she acknowledged Wheeler: “Tim also was here yesterday shooting so that he can massage that ending that I wanted.”
And that she and Steven Munatones so accurately predicted.
Cuba Is So Off The Charts!
Nyad has said that she began dreaming of swimming from Cuba to Florida when she was nine years old, so around 1958.
She has also said that her first thoughts of the Cuba crossing came in 1977 after she “spread all the nautical charts of the world across my living-room rug” and “finally came up with the ideal swim” (Other Shores, p. 154).
She tells Bill Poett a less dramatic tale — she’s looking at an atlas this time:
Well, when I was a kid in my 20s and looking at the maps of the world, because I wanted to do one last swim before I retired. I was getting to be 30 years old, and I thought, one, one — something that will strike me, and I looked, and my eyes kept coming back. And my eyes kept gravitating. I was looking over at the Mediterranean and Africa and looking here and there, and then I saw it. And it just leapt off, you know, the world atlas to me, and that was Cuba. (27:17)
But an atlas? How mundane! She floors it again in her 2015 memoir, Find a Way:
Candace and I gathered the charts of the Earth’s oceans on the floor of our Upper West Side apartment . . . I remember it as if it were yesterday. My eyes swept the charts and, zowie, there it was. Cuba. (p. 69)
Much more dramatic! However, the phrase “I remember it as if it were yesterday,” is another of Nyad’s tells. It signals that what follows never happened. See also: “I remember it like it was yesterday. . . . I looked up at the electronic scoreboard and I was sixth. I didn’t go to Mexico City after all that.” “It” is the 1968 Olympic Trials, another event that Diana Nyad didn’t go to.
If I had to bet that one of those accounts is true, I’d go with none of the above. The version that journalist Deborah Larned reported in 1976 sounds much closer to reality:
Privately, she is considering a solo swim from the Keys to Cuba, an event which she says “has more imaginative possibilities.” (womenSports, March 1976, p. 39)
Again, as in: “imagine the money and fame a Keys-to-Cuba swim could bring.” According to her manager, the event would be “a publicist’s dream.”
Diana’s Destiny, Part 2
Nyad has always swum for the accolades, for the adoration. When she lets down her guard, she acknowledges that she hates the sport.
And he [her coach] said, Nyad, you’re going to be the best swimmer in the world. So you could say maybe I was destined for it. (5:57)
Actually, I can’t stand swimming. It’s very boring. It is the most boring thing I can think of. But after all the time I have put into swimming, I felt it should pay off in some way. (Military Life, Nov-Dec 1974)
Compare this to Billy Jean King. The LA Times recently published an excerpt from her new autobiography, All In. “I can still remember,” she writes, “exactly what it looked, felt, and sounded like on that September afternoon in 1954 when my life changed forever.” She was 10 years old. She says nothing about destiny, about eventual greatness. She writes only of how it feels to fall in love with tennis:
Once Clyde [her first coach] showed us how to hit a proper groundstroke, I loved the pure feeling of the racket strings connecting cleanly with the ball, absorbing its energy and hurling it back. I couldn’t get enough of the thrill of making contact — how the transference of energy shoots through your fingers, your arm, your shoulder, and how your whole body is involved as you swing. I loved the drama of it all, too — chasing down each ball, the universe of possibilities that opened up as I drew my racket back, then that split-second pause where everything hangs in the balance as you’re preparing to hit a return. There was something swashbuckling and instantly addictive about all of it. I loved the challenge and suspense of trying to hit a perfectly executed shot and the charge I got when the ball landed out of my opponent’s reach. Then I couldn’t wait to get the next ball and do it again.
It might surprise Diana Nyad to learn that lots of swimmers can’t wait to jump back in the water.
- As a former Santa Barbara resident, Bill Poett’s family history fascinates me. Many Santa Barbara landmarks carry his ancestral family name. There’s a De La Guerra street, Casa De La Guerra, De La Guerra Plaza, and probably many others. There’s also a De La Guerra dining commons at UC Santa Barbara. That’s the dining hall closest to Santa Cruz dorm, where I spent my first two years in Santa Barbara, and where I met Lynne Cox. I will forever be grateful to her for introducing me to marathon swimming. Fuel for our early morning ocean workouts came courtesy of the dining hall named for William De La Guerra Poett’s ancestors.