Everybody’s Doin’ It

Diana Nyad says that everyone who’s anyone has tried to swim the Florida Strait. I count six.

From the Brink of Midnight podcast, #9:

All the great swimmers of the ocean have tried [to swim from Cuba to Florida]—male, female, young, strong, fast. [28:05]

Complete nonsense.

Five people who are not Diana Nyad have attempted to swim from Cuba to Florida:

  1. Walter Poenisch—the first documented solo attempt, July 1978, successful with a shark cage.
  2. Skip Storch—1993, swam about 35 miles.
  3. Susie Maroney—1997, successful, also using a shark cage.
  4. Penny Palfrey—2012, swam about 80 miles.
  5. Chloë McCardel—2013, jellyfish stings ended the swim after 11 hours.

Of those athletes, only three—Susie Maroney, Penny Palfrey, and Chloë McCardel—rise to the level of “great swimmers of the ocean.” The vast majority of ocean swimmers have never attempted the Florida Strait. “Male, female, young, strong, fast”—where does Nyad come up with this hooey?

But maybe I missed something, so I ambled over to Openwaterpedia’s Florida Strait entry:

The Florida Strait has been the site of many solo marathon swim attempts since 1950 by reportedly over 20 individuals including Jose Cortinas, Leo Vigil, Rolando Elejalde, Luciana Nunez, Susie Maroney, Skip Storch (on his Coral Reef Relief Swim,[sic] Chris Green, Diana Nyad, Walter Poenisch, Penny Palfrey and Chloe McCardel between 1978 and the present. Salvatore Cimmino will make an attempt in April or May 2016.

Twenty individuals? First, note that it doesn’t say “crossing attempts.” Rather, it says “solo marathon swim attempts.” That could be any long swim in the strait (see Chris Green below). And what’s going on with “between 1978 and the present”? Maybe the author got blown off course while trying to write something accurate like: “Between 1978 and the present, a handful of swimmers have attempted solo crossings of the Florida Strait.”

And what about “since 1950”? Nyad repeats this exaggeration in most of her speeches and interviews. For example, in her “Never, ever give up” TED Talk from November 2013:

The greatest swimmers in the world have been trying since 1950. [:41]

J. Cortinas overdoses after the 1950 Florida Strait relay attempt.

No one attempted a solo crossing in that year nor in any of the next 28. However, in 1950, three of the men in the Openwaterpedia entry—Jose Cortinas,* Leo Vigil, and Rolando Elejalde, along with Bernardo Martinez—made an unsuccessful relay attempt. Luciana Nuñez, the fourth man in the entry, appears in an early article but not in a subsequent photo. Nuñez may have been a late scratch, with Jose Conill (pictured in the latter image) replacing him.

*Cortinas is the only member of the 1950 relay to have been inducted into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame. His entry in the LongSwims Database lists two Catalina crossings, one in 28:55 and the other in 32:10; and a Strait of Gibraltar swim in 10:45. Not exactly “greatest” caliber times.


In 1988, Chris Green swam 30 miles off the Florida Keys. He never attempted a Florida Strait crossing. Salvatore Cimmino has yet to set out. (See end of INCLUSIONE, il mondo può essere salvato solo dalla pace / INCLUSION, the world can be saved only by peace.)

The final tally:

  • 12—if we count everyone who has attempted marathon swims in the strait since 1950, including relay members and Chris Green.
  • 11—if we count only those who attempted to cross the strait.
  • 6—if we count only those who attempted to cross solo.
  • 3—if we count only “the greatest swimmers in the world.”


On the Brink of Midnight podcast, Nyad pointed out that she’s the only swimmer to attempt the crossing more than once:

The people who had made it before, not one of them came back and tried a second time. [33:35]

True! The three swimmers who did not complete their crossings never returned to try again. They wised up and moved on to other things.

Update, 23 Nov 2020: Changed to address Nyad’s “greatest swimmers in the world” contention in greater detail.

Update, 17 Apr 2022: Edited for readability.

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