A 23-Year-Old Speech Exposes Diana Nyad’s Decades of Deception

The recently unearthed transcript of a 1997 Diana Nyad speech confirms that she is a serial liar, if not a compulsive one. The document also shows that, in all likelihood, she fabricated her abuse allegations.

It’s important if you are going to take a look at your life
that you have to be honest about it.
—Diana Nyad, “The Courage to Succeed”

In September of 1997, members of the American Railway Bridge and Building Association gathered in Kansas City, Missouri, for their 102nd annual meeting. Glancing at the program, attendees might have been surprised to find, sandwiched between more routine offerings such as “Explosive Removal of Bridges,” “Safety Improvement Trends in Maintenance of Way Equipment,” and “Reopening of Stampede Pass,” something unexpected: “The Courage to Succeed,” presented by “Diana Nyad, Journalist.”

I recently came across a transcript of that presentation. It establishes beyond any doubt that, for Diana Nyad, lying is standard procedure. The transcript also provides the most persuasive evidence to date that Nyad fabricated her sexual abuse allegations against her high school swim coach.

Below, I’ve analyzed the most brazen claims[1] in “The Courage to Succeed.”

A National Title and a World Record

Diana Nyad never won a national title, nor did she ever hold a world record in the 100 backstroke. But that’s not the story she told in Kansas City.

It came to be that when I was 16 years old I won the United States Nationals. I was the best in the United States. Later that summer, I broke the world record for the 100-meter back stroke. I was the best in the world!

How close did Nyad come to being “the best in the world”? Not very. She swam her fastest 100 back in May of 1966. Her 1:04.6 in a 25-yard pool would have set a national high school record had she not been disqualified.

We can still use that time to compare with U.S. swimmer Cathy Ferguson’s prevailing world record of 1:07.7 for 100 meters. Various online tools—see, for instance, the converters at Swimming World, SwimSwam, and TeamUnify—give results between 1:12.9 and 1:13.75, nowhere near Ferguson’s time.

As for the nationals win—that never happened either. In the 1960s, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) held two U.S. national meets every year: a short-course championship in the spring and a long-course championship in the summer. Of the ten national meets from 1964 through 1968, Nyad’s prime pool years, she qualified for two. Again, she had her highest finish as a 16-year-old in 1966: a 19th place 100-yard back in 1:05.2.  Multiple world record holder and Olympic medalist Elaine Tanner won the event in 1:00.7.

Two years later, Nyad finished 36th in the 200 in a time of 2:22.7. Another world record holder and Olympic champion, Kaye Hall, took the event in 2:10.8.

Nationals results, 1964-1968 (via Swimming World Magazine):
1964 SC / 1965 SC / 1966 SC / 1967 SC / 1968 SC
1964 LC / 1965 LC / 1966 LC / 1967 LC / 1968 LC

Could Nyad’s national championship claim be a one-off? No. She had plenty of opportunities to repeat the lie. The documentary version of “The Courage to Succeed” came out in 1977. She began giving “The Courage to Succeed” presentations by 1979. She kept at it until around 2000, after which she gave it a more appropriate title: “The Courage to Fail.”

Unfortunately, I haven’t found a copy of the film or of any other “Courage to Succeed” transcripts. However, a journalist describing a 1989 version in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, wrote that…

Nyad wanted to represent the United States in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. And she seemed certain to do just that when in 1966, at the age of 17, she won a national championship. (Leader-Telegram)

Diana Goes Viral

In Kansas City, Nyad blamed a four-month illness for all-but-ending her Olympic quest.

I first came down with something called viral endocarditis….

When I got out of that sick bed at the end of four months, I couldn’t lift five-pound weights, not once.

Like many of her stories, Nyad never tells this one the same way twice.  Other versions have her convalescing for six weeks, for three months, for four months in the hospital with six additional weeks in bed, and on up to one year and beyond.

But viral endocarditis had nothing to do with Nyad’s failure to reach the Olympic trials. And she knows it—or at least she used to. In 1971, she told Dan Levin of Sports Illustrated: “‘I just wasn’t fast enough.” Levin went on to note, “It seems a strange admission, but it is honest, devoid of regret.”

The regret will arrive later. First, though, let’s get back to the Olympics.

’68 Olympic Trials: “I remember it like it was yesterday.”

Diana Nyad never qualified for the Olympic trials, but folks who heard “The Courage to Succeed” would have told you differently.

It came to the Olympic trials [for] Mexico City…. [B]y the grace of God, I made it into the final eight. The Olympic trials were at Long Beach. Eight people are going to go for the three top spots. Three people would then get to go to Mexico City and wear the navy blue U.S.A. sweats and would get to swim for the United States and march in the opening ceremonies. The rest of us were going to go on with the rest of our lives….

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.

Sorry, Diana, but sixth went to 14-year-old Laura Novak (now Laura Artemenko). Click the image below for the complete results.

Even if Nyad qualified for the trials, she might have missed her heat. In 1968, the men—not the women—raced in Long Beach. The women faced off at the Los Angeles Swim Stadium.

Screenshot from “1968 Olympics: Women’s Swimming Trials” (via 68Olympix). That’s the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in the background. Janie Barkman represented the U.S.A. at the Olympics in 1968 and 1972, earning two golds and a bronze.

In 2015, Nyad repeated her trials lie on film when she gave the commencement address at Lake Forest University. (For just the trials part, see this clip.)


After giving up racing in the pool, Nyad turned to professional open water marathon swimming. In 1970, she traveled to Hamilton, Ontario, for her first pro race, the Labbat’s International Championship, a 10-mile swim in Lake Ontario. She finished 10th overall in a field of 30, setting a women’s record of 4 hours and 23 minutes, and beating five-time world champion Judith de Nijs by twelve minutes. Not too shabby for her first time out.

But that fine debut has never been enough for Diana.

Whenever she tells the story of this race, she begins, as she did in Kansas City, by belittling de Nijs. “She looked a little more like a linebacker for the Chicago Bears than she did a swimmer,” declared Nyad of the woman who, despite having finished behind Diana, was the far superior athlete. The 28-year-old de Nijs won two events in the month leading up to Hamilton: a 12.5-mile race in Holland and the 20-mile Capri-Napoli contest in Italy. The week after Hamilton, she would win a 25-mile race in Quebec.

The 21-year-old Nyad, on the other hand, came to Hamilton rested and fresh.  The Lake Ontario 10-mile race would be the first and only event Nyad completed that summer.

After attacking de Nijs, Nyad goes after the numbers. The rest is definitely not history:

Well, I finished third among the men that day. There were 200 men swimming in this race. I also finished first among the women. So the Dutch woman later that day announced her retirement from the whole sport. I mean, this is great power! I retired someone out of the sport and I just loved it.

I couldn’t believe it, but I started traveling around the world. I can’t believe how long it lasted, but I did it for ten years.

  • Nyad’s pro career lasted six years, not ten.
  • De Nijs did not retire. She sat out the 1971 season to have a baby, then came back in ’72. She continued racing (though not pro) until at least 2013. That year, she won the 70-74 women’s division of the Dutch open-water swimming championships. See Open Water Boek 2015, where she appears as Judith van Berkel-de Nijs on page 69.

Of course, there are also problems with the number of participants—30, not 200—and Nyad’s overall place—10th, not 3rd. Elsewhere, Nyad has said that she finished 3rd out of 444 at Hamilton and that the race took over 18 hours. In her 2014 presentation at the Beachbody Summit, the audience oohed and aahed when Nyad declared that she won the race in 37 hours and 38 minutes.

1978 Cuba-Florida Attempt

Nyad claims to describe her first Cuba-Florida attempt, but her account bears little resemblance to the actual endeavor:

They like to see you all the time and when you are in an eight-foot swell, sometimes they don’t see you for five, six, seven, eight, or ten minutes at a time and they get very nervous. I can’t tell where the heck I am going because I can’t see the boat.

Nyad seems to have forgotten that she swam in a shark cage. That cage had sides beyond which she could not see.  Crew members on the cage’s sides or bridge, however, could see her at all times, just as she could see them. In other words, she couldn’t catch sight of any of the seven boats in her flotilla because there was neither a way nor a reason to.

As I told you, I was never allowed to touch the boat. I was never allowed to hold onto a rope or sit on a kickboard or use flippers or any kind of flotation, but I swam over close to the boat every hour.

Am I missing something?

Diana Nyad in shark cage during her first Cuba-Florida attempt. From “An Ill Wind That Blew No Good,” Sports Illustrated, 28 Aug 1978. An aerial view (via Ebay).

In 1979, after Cuba refused to provide visas for a second attempt, Nyad swam from Bimini, in the Bahamas, to Jupiter, Florida. The 89-mile current-aided swim took her 27 hours and 41 minutes.

At the 42-hour mark…I guess I had a little tantrum.

I crawled up onto the beach and that was the longest swim ever done by either man or woman. It was 102.5 miles without a shark cage. That world record still stands today.

Distance and time—putty in Diana Nyad’s hands. That goes for numbers of any sort:

I am going to look at the boat that has all the press people on it. It had about 100 people with guys from Sports Illustrated I know and guys from a lot of other papers and news organizations I don’t know. There were 100 of them – I’m not exaggerating.

Yes, she is. One journalist accompanied her on the crossing: broadcast news reporter Jim Leljedal of radio station WINZ, Miami. Leljedal told me that he recalled there also being a photographer. He wasn’t sure, though, because the guy with the camera could have been part of Nyad’s entourage.

Abuse Allegations Against Jack Nelson

In all of her recent presentations and writings, Nyad claims that her swim coach, Jack Nelson, sexually abused her when she was in high school. The 1997 Kansas City conference may have been one of the first times she went public with her accusations.

However, the tale Nyad told at the conference differs so much from the one she recounted just a year later—and from the one she tells now—that it’s clear she hadn’t yet settled on a story.

To begin with, consider the timing of the first incident. In 1998, Nyad told the Atlanta Constitution that the first attack occurred in 1964 when she was a 14-year-old freshman. She alleges the same thing in her 2015 memoir and her 2017 New York Times op-ed: “I was 14. A naïve 14, in 1964.”

In the Kansas City version, however, she is a 17-year-old senior:

Then at the state meet in 1967—it’s difficult for me to talk about even though it was so long ago—my life changed. I have just begun to talk about it and decided it’s important if you are going to take a look at your life that you have to be honest about it.

She goes on to allege a single incident. By 1998, that one incident becomes two. Then two becomes seven. By the time one of the most prestigious newspapers on the planet offers itself as a platform for her fabrications, Nyad alleges “years of covert molestation” (New York Times, 9 Nov 2017).

Memory can, of course, be unreliable for trauma survivors. But Nyad transcends the boundaries of unreliability when her last year of high school becomes her first, and when a single incident becomes so many that they “were the cornerstone of my teenage life” (ibid).

Other elements of Nyad’s current story don’t appear until years after Kansas City. Sharing her tale with her friend Suzanne, telling her school’s headmaster, getting coach Nelson fired—Nyad waited years to add those details. (I attempted to ask Suzanne about Nyad’s story and allegations, but she was unwilling to speak with me.)

Nyad will also claim in later versions that she had never lost at the state level before. That lie remains years away. But she does say in Kansas City that she lost at that particular state meet. She implies that had the alleged abuse not occurred, she probably would have won.

But she did win. At the 1967 state meet, Nyad finished first in the 100 backstroke. Nyad also won the event at the 1964 state championships, so that doesn’t fit either.

Article excerpts showing Diana Nyad’s 100-yard backstroke wins at the Florida State Class A swimming championships. Complete 1964 article here, complete 1967 article here.

Note that most later versions of Nyad’s tale have three things in common, none of which can be true:

  1. The incident occurred in 1964.
  2. Nyad was 14-years-old.
  3. She lost the race while swimming in the state meet at her school’s pool.

Nyad went to school at Pine Crest in Fort Lauderdale. During her time there, Pine Crest hosted the state meet just once, in 1966. That was the year Nyad was 16 and almost set the national high school record.

You don’t have to look hard at Nyad’s tale to see that it doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of holding together. The New York Times must have realized this, so they issued a correction two summers ago. The original’s “That summer, our school hosted the state championships” became, in the “corrected” version, “That summer, on the day of a swim meet.” They must have figured that the correction would give the snowball a slightly better prognosis.

The Times left all the other lies intact. But “it is simply not normal for a victim to misremember the setting of the core anecdote,” writes Irv Muchnick in “My Diana Nyad Problem — And Ours.”  Muchnick, a prominent crusader against sexual abuse in sports, goes on to say that “[i]f that testimony is unreliable, then the whole story becomes a house of cards.”

Muchnick concluded that the self-serving Nyad “takes up far too much of the oxygen of this urgent national conversation.” Her lust for the spotlight draws attention away from genuine survivors. Her appropriation of the issue adds another layer of injury to those whose stories are, tragically, not fiction.

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I am very certain…that I would have been damn good,
if not the best, at anything I took seriously.

—Diana Nyad in Other Shores, p. 65

When Nyad thought she heard Nelson say that she could be the best swimmer in the world, Olympic hardware became a foregone conclusion. “I’m going to stand on the podium at the Olympic Games,” she told her step-father. “I’m going to bow my head and receive a medal for the United States of America” (The Swimmer, 20:30).

When that didn’t happen, first she blamed an illness. Then she blamed Jack Nelson—and set out to destroy him. (For more on this, please see my previous post, “The Olympic Roots of Diana Nyad’s Abuse Allegations“).

Nelson passed away six years ago, yet Nyad continues to attack him. She does this, she wrote in the Times, because she wants to help others, to “prepare coming generations to speak up in the moment, rather than be coerced into years of mute helplessness.”

Again, not true. Diana Nyad speaks up because her allegations give her the kind of attention she craves, the kind of attention she gets from telling people that she worked out six hours a day as a ten-year-old, or swam 32 miles a day as an adult. The kind of attention she gets from telling audiences that she suffered through 37 hours in the frigid waters of Lake Ontario, 42 hours in the Atlantic, 67  hours in the North Sea, and 102 miles in the presence of jellyfish that kill with the slightest “touch of a tentacle.”

Diana Nyad wants us to know that she suffers. And she wants us to respect and adore her for that, even if most of her pronouncements—including every claim in that last paragraph—are false.

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    1. I chose to include only what I deem essential untruths because a close analysis of every lie in the transcript would require a book-length study. Okay, that might be a slight exaggeration. But take, for instance:
      • Nyad’s frequent claim that “By the age of ten…I was swimming six hours a day.” As a friend of the Annex pointed out, that’s nonsense. Few if any swimmers—even older Olympic hopefuls—swam six hours a day in the mid-60s. A 10-year-old school kid? Two hours max. Probably not even that.
      • The rubbish about the word “nyad” meaning “a champion swimmer.”
      • The transcript’s entire second paragraph. It challenges a key tenet of Nyad hagiography, namely her fearlessness about being herself. See, in particular, Carole Cadwalladr’s 2016 piece in The Guardian, Endurance swimmer Diana Nyad: ‘It’s about having a steel-trap mind’:

She’s always had an impressive ability to ignore what other people think. She came out as gay in her early 20s and she’s never had any issues about it or tried in any way to hide it.

IMO, Cadwalladr got it all wrong. Diana Nyad has no ability to ignore what other people think. Her thirst for adulation motivates everything she says and does.


Update, 13 June 2020: Added information about Jim Leljedal, the reporter who accompanied Nyad on her Bimini swim.

Update, 14 June 2020: Added a link to the engagement announcement for Laura Novak, the swimmer who finished 6th in the 100-meter backstroke at the 1968 Olympic trials.

Update, 3 July 2020: Corrected Nyad’s age during her senior year in high school. I had erroneously stated that she was 18. But her birthday is in August, so she was 17.

Update, 8 July 2020: Corrected length of Nyad’s pro swimming career. She spent six years on the pro tour. I had erroneously stated it was five.

Update, 10 September 2020: Edited for ease of reading.

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