No-Fear Fabricator Defies Sharks, Bermuda Triangle, and The Truth

Detail from Minneapolis Star, 19 May 1977.

Last night, a journalist researching Diana Nyad asked me if Nyad ever claimed to have completed an English Channel crossing. I couldn’t remember her saying so, but I recalled her walking right up to the edge.

In a 1977 Minneapolis Star article, Nyad begins a discourse on hallucinations with, “Last summer, when I was swimming the English Channel.” She doesn’t mention that she made three unsuccessful attempts “last summer” and didn’t plan on returning.

Earlier in the article, the author, Rob Tanenbaum, writes about “the perilous English Channel, which [Nyad] has done twice.”

Both statements leave escape hatches. Nyad doesn’t say she finished. Though Tanenbaum does — assuming “done” means she swam “shore to shore” in “squeaky clean, ethical fashion” — Nyad could claim he misquoted her.

The article contains plenty of other lies, including

  • she was still working on her PhD at NYU.
  • she was an Olympic-caliber swimmer.
  • she was “rated the top marathon swimmer in the world.”

But what demonstrates Nyad’s greatness as a con artist — along with her more recent success convincing the press, public, and a handful of marathon swimmers that she swam from Cuba to Florida under her own power — are the first three words of the article’s title: “No-fear swimmer.”

Nyad has convinced most of the public that she’s fearless. Yet, we know she’s scared of at least two things, and that’s not even counting box jellyfish. First, she has spoken about fearing the most common danger marathon swimmers face:

She is afraid of cold water, she thinks it’s like shell shock, she has been hurt and frightened too often by hideously long swims in deep cold when she wouldn’t give up. (Viva, November 1978)

Except she did give up — early and often. (Listen to her describe one of her English Channel failures.)

Secondly, she’s terrified of the truth, a dread she shares with most other con artists and frauds.

Just before her 60th birthday, she tumbled into a cycle of

constantly revolving regret and self-bashing: I really don’t deserve this. I’m really not that good. Somebody’s going to find out I’m a fraud. (Out Magazine, 9 Jul 2012)

But this wasn’t impostor syndrome. This was an impostor terrified of exposure.

So, what happens when you really are a fraud? Maybe you make four unsuccessful attempts to swim from Cuba to Florida, and then you engineer one to make it appear successful. Or maybe you tried to cheat on some of those earlier attempts, but your schemes didn’t work, or the conditions didn’t cooperate.

Luckily for Diana, number five was the charm.

Modern History

A final note: If this seems like ancient history, consider that the year before “No Fear” appeared in print, Nyad told The Village Voice,

It’s true I used to lie. . . . Only to impress myself. I would tell a cab driver a lie — anybody. I don’t have to do that anymore.

To paraphrase, “I used to be a compulsive liar, but I’ve stopped lying.”

That didn’t happen, of course. And that’s why, over 45 years later, Nyad gave her muddled, bullsh*t-packed version of the same statement to the Los Angeles Times:

“There’s braggadocio, which is more about attitude, and then there are misstatements,” Nyad says. “I can look back and wish I had evolved in so many ways. Am I embarrassed to have inflated my own record when my record is pretty good on its own? Yes, it makes me cringe. Some of those statements are 45 years old — there wasn’t even an internet then. But I’m human and I like to think that I’ve lived a life that now makes me proud of who I am.” (“Netflix has Oscar hopes for its Diana Nyad biopic. But the swimmer’s exaggerations cast a pall,” 30 Aug. 2023)

To paraphrase, “I used to be a serial liar, but I’ve stopped lying.”

And she has — since about June, when her advisors must have told her something like, “Zip it, or you risk scuttling your biopic.”

I’m still curious, though, what the internet has to do with all of this. The ’net certainly made it easier to distribute lies, but Diana did a fine job without it.

Above: Detail from “She Takes A Long Swim Off A Short Pier,” Sports Illustrated, 6 Dec 1971, the first article that gave Diana Nyad national exposure. She lied multiple times, including about placing at the Women’s Intercollegiate Swimming and Diving Championships.

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