A Sport Beyond
1968 was not a good year for Diana Nyad.
Her beloved high school coach, Jack Nelson, had promised her (or so she thought) that her zeal would win her an Olympic medal. With the Mexico City games on the horizon, Nyad scrambled to make the trials. But no matter how hard she swam, she couldn’t swim fast enough to qualify. And so ended the first of her aquatic dreams.
Reeling from the failure and the loss of purpose, ravenous for attention, she tried to parachute from the 4th floor of her Emory University dormitory. The stunt got her expelled.
Enter Buck Dawson, executive director of the International Swimming Hall of Fame at the time. Dawson and his pal, Joe Grossman, were on the prowl for fresh faces (preferably female) to gin up the pro swimming tour. And Diana Nyad desperately needed a new raison d’être. For the two veteran promoters and the one blossoming self-promoter, it was a match made in swimming heaven.
And so it came to pass that, on Sunday, July 26, 1970, Diana Nyad found herself on the shore of Lake Ontario in Hamilton, ON. She was there to compete in her first professional race, the 10-mile Labatt’s International Championship. Beside her stood some of the greatest swimmers of the era: Johan Schans, Horacio Iglesias, Abdel Latif Abou Heif, Jon Erikson, and 5-time (ultimately 6-time) world champion Judith de Nijs.
Thirty swimmers started the race. Twenty-five finished. Nyad placed 10th in 4:23, managing to beat 13th-place finisher de Nijs by twelve minutes.
But that’s not the story Nyad told in Brooklyn.
One day I was here at NYU, I was swimming in a city pool, and a graduate school colleague of mine stopped me, and he said, “I see you, I see that perfect streamline stroke of yours. I see the fire in the belly. You know, there is a sport beyond sprinting. There’s a sport of marathon swimming.” (17:34)
But Nyad didn’t enroll at NYU until 1973, so three years after Buck Dawson introduced her to marathon swimming.
I finished third among the 444 that day, and Judith de Nijs, who finished 10th, announced her retirement the next day. So, you know, you don’t want to kick someone out of the sport all together, but it is an empowering feeling. (21:14)
Ah, that feeling of strength when you kick someone while they’re down. Reminds me of another of Nyad’s declarations of compassion. The day after her Cuba-Florida crossing, she agreed that she rooted for Chloë McCardel to fail in her Cuba-Florida attempt. But “I didn’t want her to be stung, or really hurt, or die.”
And how about those 444 competitors? I, too, remember my first ten-mile race. Among the 100 of us who lined up at Huntington Beach that morning . . . no, wait, it was only about ten. I’d like to say that I outswam more than ninety people, but the number was somewhere in the very, very low single digits.
But let’s get back to the ostensible retirement of Judith de Nijs. In Nyad’s first memoir, Other Shores, she elaborates on the de Nijs retirement theme: Nyad claims that de Nijs “never swam again” after Hamilton (p. 31). In fact, six days later, de Nijs won the 25-mile race at Lac St-Jean.
Here is de Nijs’ 1970 schedule:
- Jun 27, Utrecht, Holland 12.5 miles — 5th overall/ 1st woman
- Jul 12, Capri-Naples, 20 miles — 12th/1st
- Jul 26, Hamilton, 10 miles—13th/2nd
- Aug 1, Lac St-Jean, 25 miles — 7th/1st
Here is Nyad’s:
- Jul 26, Hamilton, 10 miles — 10th/1st
- Aug 19, Saguenay, 28 miles — DNF
In 1971, Nyad raced three times but not against de Nijs. The Dutch great sat out the 1971 season to have a baby, then rejoined the tour in 1972. She continued to swim competitively until at least 2013 when she was the women’s 70+ Dutch Open Water champion (see Open Water Boek, 2015, p. 69).
Nyad claims to “take both joy and pride in honoring all great women athletes of all eras” (FB post, archived). But she practically explodes with glee when denigrating de Nijs, the far superior athlete:
The women’s world champion at the time, Judith de Nijs, Dutch Olympic butterflier. Six foot one, 187 pounds. Call me crazy—to me, she looked a little more like a tight end than a swimmer.
She came swaggering across the beach with just a couple of minutes to go before race time. Thunderous thighs. I know it’s not possible, but I thought the beach trembled slightly as she walked.
And she got up to me and took an index finger and jabbed it on the grease on my chest with every syllable. I was so intimidated by her, I just stood there and took it. I had a bruise this big for a month.
She said, “I hear you’re very good svimmer. Vell, you’re not going to beat me.” And she went swaggering off. And now I’m going to tell you the beach trembled when she walked. (19:19)
The silence of the audience members throughout indicated that they were appropriately appalled.
Three final points about de Nijs. First, Patty Thompson was the reigning world champion at the time, not de Nijs. Second, before her open water swimming career, de Nijs specialized in IM and distance free, not butterfly. Third, she never swam in the Olympics. But beating a former Olympian makes Diana’s victory over those 441 other swimmers so much sweeter.
No Snake, No Spider, No Ray
Brief comments on further nonsense from Nyad’s address:
Re: The Box
There’s no snake, no spider, no ray that can kill instantaneously like the box. 98% of people who have ever been touched by that tentacle have died within one minute. (29:20)
Box jellies do not kill instantaneously. Given the proximity of Nyad’s medical help, she was never in danger. But the truth doesn’t sound nearly as epic as the fiction.
I have to say, though, that “no snake, no spider, no ray” adds a dash of poetry to the poppycock.
Re: Sensory Deprivation
And the issue for me, and I’m an extreme endurance swimmer, different from a climber or a Trekker or a cyclist, is sensory deprivation. (31:35)
Another favorite lament of Diana’s. The problem, though, is that from the moment an athlete enters the water, swimming engages all five of her senses. Swimming is closer to sensory overload than sensory deprivation.
Here are a few excerpts from Diana Nyad’s 2013 crossing, brought to you courtesy of her senses:
- “The waves are slapping all night long.” (Find a Way, p. 258)
- “The sun is hot and life-affirming.” (259)
- “Salt water washing over those cuts now causes a constant, throbbing torment.” (259)
- “And I see Bartlett’s head peering out his window, right above the handler’s station. He gives me a big thumbs-up, that grin still beaming ear to ear. (261)
That doesn’t sound like sensory deprivation to me. However, Diana needs to portray her endeavors as one torment after another after another after another. The real torment for Nyad, though, is boredom. But boredom doesn’t sound as impressive as sensory deprivation.
Re: Only I Know What It’s Like
Well, I don’t know what it’s like at the top of the world, but I am the only one who knows what it’s like far offshore on your own steam. (31:24)
Thousands of people know what it’s like to swim far offshore under their own power. Let’s assume for the moment, though, that Nyad proved that she swam from Cuba-Florida on her own steam. If so, she swam 55 statute miles offshore, which may be the farthest of anyone.
But we don’t know that Nyad completed her swim under her own power, so we have no idea how far offshore she actually swam.
Diana also talked about her abuse allegations against Jack Nelson. I’ve placed them here at the end, so those who prefer to skip them can easily do so.
Nyad claims that just as soon as she began training—aged 11 or so—Jack Nelson noticed her epicness:
He said, “Nyad, you’re gonna be the best swimmer in the world.” (5:40)
In Diana’s 11-year-old mind, Nelson had promised her a trip to the Olympics. She told her step-father:
One day, dad, I’m going to stand on the podium at the Olympic Games. I’m going to bow my head for a medal for the United States of America. (8:44)
She could never accept that she was just one more of the 99.99% of swimmers who will never be Olympic-calibre. So, when she failed to reach the trials, she blamed a disease that she claims lasted six weeks to a year, depending on the version.
And she blamed Jack Nelson for breaking his promise. She hated him for that, and she needed everyone else to hate him too. So she made him into a monster:
Age 14. Big meet in my hometown. I hadn’t lost in the state of Florida in the 100-meter backstroke in two years now. I went over to coach’s house in between the prelims and the finals for a nap. I don’t know. Was it three minutes? Was it four minutes? (10:05)
As with the story of the grad student who told her about pro swimming, none of this adds up. According to the results I’ve been able to find, Nyad didn’t win a 100-backstroke until the state championships in May of 1965, the year she was 14.
And Nyad’s story about the abuse changes substantially from telling to telling (see Coach). So do her stories about her illness, her grad school accomplishments, and practically everything she talks about, including her future endeavors:
I want to do a swim with 10,000 swimmers across the Atlantic Ocean as an educational nod to what’s happening with the Earth’s oceans today and global warming. (53:34)
That’s a lovely sentiment but an irrational plan. By October, though, the new dream had morphed into a swim of “thousands, maybe 10,000 swimmers—not in a race, it’s not about swimming, it’s about the wonderful ocean — [swimming] from Miami to Manhattan” (Ebell Theatre, 7 Oct 2019).
Well, that’s a smidge more realistic, but I still have my doubts. Let’s hope that Diana doesn’t decide to claim she swam the whole way herself.