The Captain and Diana

In 1875, Captain Matthew Webb became the first human to swim across the English Channel. One hundred years later, the Channel Swimming Association published the Centenary edition of their Channel Swimming Handbook. Diana Nyad didn’t like some of the facts it cites, so she made up alternative ones.

Update 22 Feb 2021: Added that Webb attempted to cross the Niagara River below the falls, not above them (thanks to information provided by a well-informed reader).

In the summer of 1976,  Diana Nyad flies to England…

…happily accompanied by my two closest friends…and by an American film crew of seven. We were off to make, assist, and record history. I was attempting to become the first woman to complete the double crossing of the English Channel. (Other Shores, 1978, p. 121)

Nyad passes some time during the flight reading the Channel Swimming Association (CSA) handbook. She paraphrases:

Who knows the story of Captain Matthew Webb…? Webb was the first to swim across…. Some weeks later Webb tried to cross the Niagara River four hundred meters above the falls; he is buried at the bottom. (p. 122)

The way Nyad describes it, Webb would barely have time to dry off before steaming across the Atlantic. Once in the U.S., he’d have to hightail it for Niagara and jump right back in the water.

The timing sounded suspicious. A few moments with Google revealed the truth: Webb attempted to cross the Niagara River not weeks but years after his EC attempt. And not above the falls (with the implication that he went over them) but below. The current carried his body downstream and he is buried in a cemetery near where he washed ashore.

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So was Nyad making stuff up—again—or just repeating erroneous information in the handbook?

Michael Read, a fellow who has crossed the English Channel a few times himself, very kindly sent copies of the relevant pages from the handbook’s Centennial Edition—the current volume as of Nyad’s trip:

Captain Webb lost his life in an attempt to swim across the rapids and whirlpools at Niagara in July 1883…

(in other words, eight years after he conquered the English Channel).

He was buried at Lewiston, seven miles below the mighty falls, where his body was found.

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I can understand the big lies: She resents not being first around Manhattan, so she makes herself first. Not qualifying for the Olympic Trials is a painful loss, so she writes herself into the race. She resents all the swimmers who conquered—and continue to conquer—the English Channel, so she declares the swim unworthy of her and pretends that she never made the attempts.

But why the tiny, insignificant lies? Why lie about Captain Webb? She seems to gain nothing. You could dismiss it as exaggeration, a way to amp up the story, make it just a little bit juicier. But I’ve come to see that there’s a pattern: most of Nyad’s lies belittle or ignore the accomplishments of others while promoting and maximizing her own.

For Nyad, marathon swimming is a zero-sum game. Others’ successes somehow diminish her. If others succeed where she cannot, she must find a way to disparage them and their achievements while making herself feel more special.

Nyad went to England in 1976 not just to cross the English Channel but to become the first woman to complete a double. Too many others had already completed one-way crossings; a single wasn’t worth her time.

That summer, Nyad made three attempts and couldn’t get across once. So she had to denigrate everyone who already had made the crossing and everyone who eventually would.

She started with crosser #1. Nyad did her best to make Captain Webb look as ridiculous as possible. She has him race from swimming the English Channel to attempting a fatal stunt at Niagara Falls, thereby contorting a hero into an attention-starved loon. (A bit of projection?) Then she twists a proper burial into an eternity at the bottom of the Niagara River.

Finally, she dismisses the accomplishments of all English Channel swimmers in perpetuity:

…I knew the difficulty of conquering the [English] Channel to be highly overrated, despite its public acclaim…. (Other Shores, p. 123)

Nyad gave different excuses for each one of her failures:

  • Her “love affair [with marathon swimming] was fading.”
  • She didn’t weigh enough (but “if I put some weight on, I was sure to have a good crack at the record next time”).
  • The weather, “a greater force than anyone could battle.”

But they could—battle it, that is. In the summer of 1976, 19 people made 21 successful English Channel crossings. Cynthia Nicholas and Kevin Murphy each crossed twice. Nine people crossed on or near the dates that Nyad attempted the swim (see Successful EC Swims, 1976):

  • Aug 24 Richard Davis Hart, USA 9:50
  • Aug 25 Jenny Anderson, Australia 14:15
  • Aug 31 Wendy Brook, UK 8:56 (new record)
  • Aug 31 Erdal Acet, Turkey 9:02
  • Sep 5 Christine Sifleet, UK 14:56 (16 years old)
  • Sep 5 Peter Dyton, UK 14:58
  • Sep 6 Cynthia Nicholas, Canada 10:20 (This was her 2nd of 19 total crossings; in 1977, she became the first woman to complete a double.)
  • Sep 6 Kevin Murphy, UK 15:32 (his 5th crossing of 34)
  • Sep 7 Michael Read, UK 17:56 (his 7th crossing of 33)

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Nyad never returned to the English Channel. Clearly, further attempts to tread that well-worn trail from England to France would have been beneath the woman some believe to be “the greatest marathon swimmer in history”:

Oops—forgot something.

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