Washington Post Sportswriter Makes The Wrong Call Again

In a recent Facebook post, Diana Nyad lauds Sally Jenkins’ new book, The Right Call: What Sports Teach Us About Work and Life. But Jenkins missed the lesson about con artists.

Respected journalist Sally Jenkins has a blind spot for charismatic frauds.

Granted, I come to that conclusion based on a sample size of two, but let me explain.

Jenkins co-wrote a pair of books with Lance Armstrong: The best-selling hagiography, It’s Not About The Bike (2000), which barely mentions doping; and Every Second Counts (2003), which says more about it, but paints Armstrong as the victim of the French government and resentful trolls.

Jenkins is the only journalist I know who remained loyal to Armstrong after he fessed up. She considers herself Armstrong’s good friend. Doping, she believes, is a problem with the sport, not the riders.

That argument at least makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is excusing Armstrong’s intimidation, threats, and lawsuits against anyone who dared tell the truth.

Shortly after Lance’s limited confession to Oprah in January 2013, Jenkins suggested that his viciousness was all just a misunderstanding:

I think that he’s got some work to do to persuade people that that Lance Armstrong – the threatening, the intimidating Lance Armstrong that’s been portrayed – he’s got some work to do to convince people that that’s a mis-portrayal.(Charlie Rose, 15 Jan 2013, 4:28)

“He’s a good man,” she wrote a few months earlier. “There is nothing that I can learn about him short of murder that would alter my opinion on that.”

I suspect she feels the same way about Nyad. Diana’s section in The Right Call consumes half of a chapter called “Candor.” Nyad’s part begins

The truth is what got Diana Nyad through her record swim from Cuba to Florida in 2013. There was no room on such a trip for anything else.

Those familiar with Diana’s decades of lies will rightly ask, “WHAT THE F**K?”

I don’t know what untruths Nyad told during the crossing, but she told plenty before and after. A few examples:

    • “I posted all the data evidence online, along with the minute-by-minute logs from the two independent observers” (Find a Way, p. 278). Those logs contained multiple hours-long gaps.
    • “I never, of course, touched a boat or another person.” (Archived Facebook post). Nyad’s crew members touched her frequently throughout the crossing.
    • “WOWSA has fully sanctioned our swim” (Archived Facebook response). No organization sanctioned Nyad’s crossing.

Later in the chapter, Jenkins writes:

As a young woman in her twenties Nyad had been the greatest open water endurance swimmer in the world.

According to whom? Well, according to Sally Jenkins. In 2011, she wrote that Nyad “was the greatest endurance swimmer in the world.”

But the only thing Nyad has ever been the greatest at is fraud. Doc Counsilman swam the English Channel at 58 and was one of the greatest swim coaches of all time. He told Sports Illustrated’s Ray Kennedy that Nyad was “a very mediocre swimmer with a very good publicist. Most of her swims have been failures.”

John Kinsella, Olympic gold medalist, world record holder, and 4-time World Professional Marathon Swimming champion, called Nyad “a joke.” “THERE’S no comparison between her and Sandra Bucha,” he said. “In 1975, when they both swam Lake St. John in Canada, Sandra went the 20 miles in about 8 hours and 15 minutes and Diana was 2½ hours behind.”

Kinsella got that wrong. Nyad finished more than three hours behind Bucha. In fact, the  International Swimming Hall of Fame honoree pummeled Nyad every time they raced. Now an attorney in Florida, she chooses to remain above the fray. Her accomplishments speak for her.

Jenkins probably gets her “facts” directly or indirectly from Diana Nyad, the least reliable source for information about herself. (See, for instance, “I was the first woman  to swim around Manhattan Island,” “I swam in the Olympic Trials,” “I swam 37 hours in 48-degree water,” etc.)

Nyad’s Best-of-the-Seventies nonsense isn’t the only blunder in the book. Jenkins also buys the Nyad lie that

[Cuba–Florida] was the only large body of water she couldn’t conquer.

Tell that to the English Channel: Nyad tried and failed to cross it three times.

And another:

Nyad retired and didn’t swim a lap for the next thirty years.

Tell that to Jeff Keith, Nyad’s team member in a 1989 open water relay he put together. And to the organizers of the Alcatraz Sharkfest, an event Nyad completed in 1989. She had to train for those events, too, so she swam more than a few laps during those 30 years.

Jenkins also makes the fatal mistake of believing Nyad when she talks about rules. “Under the rules of open water swimming,” writes Jenkins, “[Nyad] would not be able to so much as hold on to the side of a boat if the swim was to be a legitimate record.”

Here’s a screenshot of Nyad holding onto the boat during her 2012 Cuba-Florida attempt:

If that were a legitimate marathon swim anywhere in the world, you’d be looking at the end of it.

But Nyad doesn’t care about following the rules, though she’s good at convincing people she did. Nyad’s 2013 crossing lacked legitimacy and will never become a record for many reasons, among them that the rules of marathon swimming preclude both touching the boat and touching other people, which Nyad did throughout the endeavor.

What’s more, during her crossing, she broke most, if not all, of the other rules of the sport.

But that’s all moot. Contrary to the prevailing opinion, Nyad never proved she completed the swim under her own power, and it’s unlikely she ever will.

~ ~ ~

Jenkins once told an interviewer about some advice she got from her father, sportswriter Dan Jenkins: “You take the prevailing attitude, you turn it upside down and you ask yourself if the opposite point of view is smarter. And, a lot of times, it is.”

She tried that with Armstrong and got it utterly wrong. She ought to try it with Nyad.

David Walsh, the journalist who, way back in 1999, looked at the prevailing attitude regarding Lance Armstrong, turned it upside down, and found that the opposite point of view was smarter, couldn’t understand Jenkins’ Armstrong-related denial.

On December 15, 2012, well after Lance could no longer deny doping, the Washington Post published “Why I’m not angry at Lance Armstrong,” Jenkins’ passionate defense of the discredited cyclist.

The next day, The Times published Walsh’s response, “Embrace the anger, Sally, not the lies.” He notes that the books she wrote with Armstrong were based on a massive fraud she accepted as truth. Because of their friendship, she didn’t subject him to the same scrutiny she had subjected others. “Jenkins didn’t make up the lie,” Walsh wrote, “she merely showed herself to be the Queen of Gullibility.”

By writing now about Diana Nyad’s commitment to honesty, Jenkins proves herself still worthy of the crown.

Above: “Lance & Diana Talk Sleep Hygiene” (or, “Something People Say When They’re Caught in a Massive Fraud”). Armstrong clip from Alex Gibney’s The Armstrong Lie via the BBC’s “Lance Armstrong two years on – the same, but different.”  Nyad clip from her appearance at Politics & Prose Bookstore, Washington, D.C., in October 2015.



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