The Olympic Roots of Diana Nyad’s Abuse Allegations

Diana Nyad’s abuse allegations grow from her failure to achieve her first Xtreme Dream: Winning a gold medal at the Olympics.

“Nyad, you’re going to be the best swimmer in the world.”
—Diana Nyad quoting Jack Nelson, Find A Way, p. 43

Whether Jack Nelson said exactly those words or not, a young Diana Nyad heard them as a promise. The moment her high school coach made that promise, reaching the Olympics became Nyad’s obsession, her original Xtreme Dream.

Most young swimmers have that same fantasy. It becomes a reality for a few, while the rest manage to work through their disappointment and move on.

Well, most of the rest. When Jack Nelson told Diana Nyad she could be great, an Olympic medal became, in her mind, a foregone conclusion. Over half-a-century later, she still wraps herself in the security blanket of her failure every time she strides out to face an audience.

Take, for instance, her latest presentation. On May 20, she gave an online program for the Australian organization, Business Chicks. Here’s a sample:

[Nelson] said, “Nyad, you could be the best swimmer in the world—if you want to work that hard.” I did.

[Diana tells her step-father] One day dad, I’m gonna stand on the podium at the Olympic Games and bow my head for a medal for the United States of America.

[Nelson tells Diana] I was going to be able to do anything I wanted in this life. 

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In the excerpts below, Nyad and various journalists address her quest to reach the Olympics. Much of what Diana says—and most of what she tells the authors—is false. What’s true is how Nyad’s feelings about missing the Olympics mutate from acceptance to regret; regret to resentment; and, finally, resentment to contempt for the man she blames for her failure.

1964 — A 14-year-old contender

Diana Nyad, who may qualify for the Olympic Trials in both the 100 and 200-meter backstroke events….
(“Locals Seek Swim Berths,” Fort Lauderdale News, 16 Jul 1964)

1971 — Never good enough

000Miss Nyad is driven by the desire to be No. 1. She was frustrated as a backstroker because she was never quite good enough to make the Olympic team.
000“It didn’t matter how much I worked at it — there was always somebody stronger and faster who could beat me.
(“Goddess of Water,” Ft. Lauderdale News)

1971 — She’d give it all for gold

“I haven’t come close to my potential in marathon swimming yet, but I’d trade all of what I’m going to be for an Olympic gold medal. I just wasn’t fast enough, though.” It seems a strange admission, but it is honest, devoid of regret.
(“She Takes A Long Swim Off A Short Pier,” Sports Illustrated)

1974 — Nelson becomes “they”

“I didn’t make the 1968 Olympic team and I resented it because I worked so diligently for so many years. I became a fanatic about it. When I got on the ‘block’ for 1968, for the Olympic trial, I knew I was going to make it because that’s the coaching philosophy, ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way.’ They trained you and they psyched you up. By the time you’re isolated on the platform, if you don’t believe 100 percent, that you’re going to win, then you won’t. I became a recluse for almost eight months after I lost. It was a psychological shock for me. I came in fifth. I was only 600ths of a second behind third place. I was a poor sport. I packed my bag and took off for India for a month.”
(“In the Swim with Diana Nyad,” Military Life)

1975 — Nelson disappears

000Ask Diana who in Fort Lauderdale helped actively launch her career and she names no one except Dawson. But mainly she believes she got herself to the top through sheer determination.
000“Buck Dawson was my first trainer actually, when things weren’t going so well back in my youth,” she said. “He came to me in the spring of 1970 and said, ‘You’re unhappy with your swimming career because you didn’t make the Olympic team. Why don’t you come up to Ak-o-mac and train?’”
(“Diana’s Big Splash In The Big Apple,” Ft. Lauderdale News)

1976 — A tragic case

In 1968 observers thought that Nyad was certain to make the Olympic team. “I was considered a ‘sure thing.’ The media considered it a tragic case when I didn’t make it. An attack of heart disease in the summer of 1967 slowed me down. I just wasn’t swimming fast enough to make the team. I was so disappointed, I stopped swimming.
(Barnard Bulletin; complete issue here)

1976 — A more tragic case 

oooDiana says she had a friend who missed qualifying in ’68 by 6/100ths of a second and committed suicide.
000“It’s ingrained in you that the only reason you’ve been training since nine or ten is to be the best. To win those national championships or that Olympic gold medal.”
(“Marathon Woman,” p. 4, Miami Herald. See also pages 123)

[Note: There’s no evidence that Diana’s troubled friend existed. I’m going with projection.]

1977 — Cheated

[S]he missed the Olympics by 1/1600th of a second and still remembers. “It was eight years out of my life,” she says. She quit swimming for a while. “I felt cheated,” she says.
(“All She Hears is Water, All She Hears is Fog,Detroit Free Press)

1978 — The Olympics reimagined

ooo“‘This is my Olympics,’ she says matter-of-factly…. ‘The Cuban swim is the greatest endurance feat in human history. But if anyone can do it, I can. After the Cuba swim, that’s it. I’ll never do another long-distance swim.’”
(“Marathon woman with 3 bathing suits,” The Philadelphia Inquirer)

1981 — Nelson becomes “the worst”

By the time she was 12, she was practicing six hours a day, and her coach had noted she was developing a swimmer’s physique and a swimmer’s desire. He was “brilliant as far as the techniques and psyching up for swimming a race. But as far as overall human growth, he was — ahh, he was the worst. And a lot of people say this about him. He’s an extremely emotional, charismatic guy and would grab you before every workout — this was eight years for me — and he would get tears in his eyes. And he would say, ‘We’re going to do it, baby’” — her voice toughens — “‘We’re going to be on that Olympic stand together, baby. You’re going to do it for me, baby.’ A child can’t be expected to respond to this kind of emotion and pressure.”
(Journal Herald, Dayton Ohio)

1981On why she swam from Bimini to Florida

000“‘Why’d I do it? I don’t know why, exactly; I suppose there are a number [of] factors. A lot of people say I did it as a response to not making the [1968] Olympic team, and there may be some truth to that.’”
(“Diana doesn’t want to waste time sleeping,” The Philadelphia Inquirer)

1981Still a painful subject

000“I had the desire to be a world-class swimmer,” she says. “And my coach thought I had the ability. But I didn’t make it to Mexico City (for the ’68 Olympic Games). I didn’t get where I wanted to go.”
000Her dream was interrupted by a bout with viral endocarditis, a heart disease. For four months she was in the hospital; for six more weeks, on her back at home. “I lost a lot of strength and a lot of speed. And I just couldn’t recuperate in time.
000It’s still a painful subject for her, and she glosses over details. “The day came (for tryouts) and I didn’t make it.” Period.
000Her spirits dashed, she enrolled in college….
(“Diana Nyad,” Ft. Lauderdale News, p. 1, p. 2)

1982 — emotional and physical break-down

000[Nyad] was so dejected about not making the 1968 Olympic swim team she told a USM Honors Forum audience Tuesday night, that she sought ways to inflict pain on herself….
000She failed to make the Olympic team, she said, because she had pushed herself so hard at training that she had an emotional and physical break-down which prevented her making the team.
(“Nyad: She swam because she hated herself,” Hattiesburgh American)

1983 — doomed hopes

000IN HER talk Nyad told how she decided at age 10 to become an Olympic swimmer, training six hours a day.
000When she was 16 she was third at the U.S. Nationals on her way to the Olympics when struck with viral endocarditis, a heart ailment which attacks the vessel’s muscles. Confined to a hospital for four months with more recuperation ahead of her, her Olympic hopes were doomed.
(“Swimmer Nyad Flashes Style,” The Cincinnati Enquirer)

1984 — obsessed

oooFrom the time she started swimming at 10, Ms. Nyad was “obsessed” with winning a spot on the U.S. Olympic swimming team….
oooAfter a third-place national finish in the 100-meter backstroke in 1966, Ms. Nyad contracted a heart disease. Her prolonged recovery kept her out of the win column in 1967, and in 1968 she finished sixth in the trials for the Mexico City summer Olympics, erasing her dream.
(“Marathon swimmer relates long journey, lifelong quest,” Central New Jersey Home News)

1989 — twenty years on, still  fixated on the Olympics

oooNyad 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.
oooBut a viral infection that hospitalized her for several months left her far behind her competition as the 1968 Olympic trials opened…
oooThough she finished sixth and missed the Olympics, Nyad knew she had done her best.
(Leader-Telegram, Eau Claire, WI)

. . .

By the end of the 1970s, Nyad had convinced herself and the public that she was the greatest marathon swimmer of that decade. The eighties, though, would prove more difficult to spin. In 1981, Diana Nyad’s Basic Training for Women arrived just two months before Jane Fonda’s Workout Book. The latter spent more than six months atop the New York Times bestseller list and almost a year and a half in the top five. As far as I can tell, Nyad’s book never cracked the list.

In 1982, a lawyer for Walter and Faye Poenisch, both of whom had sued Nyad and the International Swimming Hall of Fame for defamation, finally caught up with Diana and deposed her. The following year, Nyad agreed to an out-of-court monetary settlement and a written retraction.

In 1984, Nyad helped cover the Los Angeles Olympics for ABC. “Diana Nyad has been horrendous with post-race interviews,” wrote Leo Zainea in the Austin American-Statesman. “She never seems to know what to ask.” Sports Illustrated’s William Taaffe agreed: “Try as they might, ABC’s lesser lights, including such 15-watt bulbs as…Diana Nyad, couldn’t sink the show with their biased commentary and shallow interviews.”

Two years later, we find Nyad in San Francisco working for local TV station KPIX. This was not quite the venue Nyad envisioned for the woman destined to become  “one of the best broadcasters there’s ever been.” In 1989, Nyad debuted a talk show, “Days End.” Its critical reception rivaled that of her work at the ’84 Olympics.

Were Nyad to see Jack Nelson venerated after such a decade, you never know what she might do.

. . .

1993 — Jack Nelson named “Man of the Year” 

oooOn Monday, Nelson will be honored as the Man of the Year by the Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce.
ooo“They’re starting to realize this man means an awful lot to our community,” said Sam Freas, president of the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
(“Bestowing Praise,Sun-Sentinel, 28 Sep 1993)

Did you know he’ll also be inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame any minute?
(Sun-Sentinel, 22 Sep 1993)

1994 — ISHOF inducts Jack Nelson

oooLast Saturday, Nelson, 62, was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame…. His list of swimming accolades is a mile long. Nelson still wears a ring signifying his 1954 world record-breaking butterfly. But it’s his coaching that warrants the most attention.
(“Since the beginning, Nelson has been a winner,” Miami Herald, 12 May 1994)

1997 — First abuse accusation¹

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. (“The Courage to Succeed,” 1997)

      1. In “Jack and Diana,” Ashley Harrell writes that, on a 1989 TV talk show called “People Are Talking,” Nyad accused her coach of rape. I can find no examples of other allegations between 1989 and 1997. In the absence of concrete evidence to the contrary, I have to believe Harrell’s “1989” is a transposition error. (Correction: It wasn’t. I should never have doubted Ms. Harrell.)

Nyad goes on to allege a single incident of abuse. A year later, she will tell the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that it happened twice. Nine years later, she’ll say it happened seven times. By 2014, when she tells her story to the New Yorker’s Ariel Levy, the number of occurrences balloons to “throughout high school…in hotel rooms, at his office, in his car….”

Finally, in 2017, Nyad gets her big break, an op-ed in the New York Times. Having mounted a platform with international reach and respect, there’s no way she will squander this opportunity. The number of occurrences becomes all but limitless: “…That first savage episode signaled the beginning of years of covert molestation,” she writes. “These molestations were the cornerstone of my teenage life.”

Diana Nyad at press conference in Key West, on Sept. 3, 2013, the day after she crossed from Cuba to Florida. From “Swimmer Diana Nyad’s success story inspires aging boomers” in the Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Washington (AP Photo/J Pat Carter).

Update, 28 July 2020: Corrected my erroneous conclusion that Nyad probably made her abuse claims on television for the first time in 1998. See footnote 1 above.

Update, 29 January 2020: Corrected publication timing of Nyad’s workout book vis-a-vis Jane Fonda’s. They came out two months apart, not one.

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