When the December 6, 1971, issue of Sports Illustrated appeared on newsstands, Diana Nyad’s marathon swimming career consisted of three pro race finishes out of five starts. Yet, by the end of the first paragraph of “She Takes a Long Swim Off a Short Pier,” author Dan Levin had declared that Nyad, the “pretty distance swimmer . . . with honey-colored skin and built like a Greek goddess” was “the best woman distance swimmer in the world.”
Nyad was, in fact, already the best at something, but it wasn’t marathon swimming.
Here’s more nonsense from Nyad’s national debut:
A Gut Swim
In ninth grade, at a Florida senior regional championship, she finished second in the 200-meter backstroke, two-tenths of a second behind the winner. Even now it is the race she is most proud of. “It was a gut swim,” she says.
That swim probably never happened.
Nyad was in ninth grade during the 1964 swim season. Neither of the two regional championships she swam that year had a 200-meter backstroke. At one, the Broward County Championships, she placed 2nd in the 100-yard backstroke. At the other, the Gold Coast AAU Senior Championships, she won the 110-yard backstroke.
#1 At Six State Meets and #12 at Nationals
In the next three years she won the 100-yard backstroke at six state meets, but she never surpassed her 12th-place finish in the nationals.
This one should have been a gimme. As you’d expect, Florida held only one state meet a year. In those “next three years,” Nyad won once, in 1967. She placed second in 1965 and got disqualified in 1966.
As for the Nationals, the highest Nyad ever placed was 16th. That happened in 1966, her most successful year. She got 19th in the 100 back, 39th in the 400 IM, and tied for 16th with two other swimmers in the 200 back. (Complete 1966 results here.) In 1968, her only other Nationals appearance, she placed 36th in the 200.
Not Another Virus!
She was given an EKG, and the diagnosis was endocarditis, a virus infection of the heart. . . . [T]he prescription was a summer of bed rest, with no visitors.
After Levin’s article appeared, Nyad continued to use viral endocarditis as her primary excuse for failing to qualify for the Olympics. Her recovery time telescoped from six weeks all the way up to “years” and then back down again. Even six weeks may be a stretch. Either way, Nyad got sick in the summer of 1966 and had plenty of time to recover by 1968.
The real reason Diana Nyad reached neither the Olympics nor the Olympic trials: she was never an Olympic-caliber swimmer. By comparison, world-class breaststroker Catie Ball fell ill with mononucleosis in January of ’68 and had to stay out of the pool until mid-April. Ball went on to set a world record at the Olympic trials in August and win a gold medal in Mexico City in October.
As to “no visitors,” that sounds suspiciously like one more example of Nyad exaggerating to gain our pity and admiration. If a visitor ban existed, though, it contained a significant loophole:
I spent three months on bed rest. I read all day, with intermittent conversations with my sister—who spent every minute of every day with me—my brother, and my mother. (Other Shores, p. 19)
Have I mentioned Nyad’s tendency to exaggerate? Speaking of which . . .
All that training and all I have to show for it is this lousy t-shirt?
. . . training from 5:30 to 7:30 every morning, 3:00 to 5:00 every afternoon, and sometimes a few hours after dark.
Few swimmers, if any—and certainly not high school kids during the school year—trained four hours a day (or five or six) in the mid-1960s.
The Evil Step-father
Her mother Lucy’s second marriage, which also ended in divorce, was to a wealthy Greek land developer named Aristotle Zason Nyad.
Aris Nyad may have been Greek, but he was not a wealthy land developer. By 1971, Diana knew that her step-father was a criminal and a conman, albeit a head-turningly handsome one. Arriving in Florida with, for all practical purposes, just the shirt on his back, he hooked up with Lucy Winslow Sneed, the recently divorced heiress to a patent medicine fortune. Before you could say “let’s make this legal before you start showing,” Aris Nyad had multiple homes, a yacht, and a couple of Cadillacs.
I can see how Aris’s step-daughter would want to keep all of this to herself. Later on, though, Diana, never one to pass up a lurid story, shed some of her inhibitions. For instance, see her 2005 Newsweek interview, “The Ups and Downs of Life With a Con Artist.”
The DGWS Championships
At the Illinois State University Women’s Intercollegiate Swimming and Diving Championships, she placed in the individual medley, backstroke and butterfly.
In 1970, the Division for Girls’ and Women’s Sports (DGWS, later AIAW) held the first Women’s Intercollegiate Swimming and Diving Championships. Illinois State University hosted the meet.
At the time, Nyad attended Chicago’s Lake Forest College. Her school finished 6th as a team. Nyad, however, didn’t do quite as well individually. If we define “placing” as “finishing in the top three,” then she didn’t place in a single event. If we define it as “finished in any place whatsoever,” Nyad succeeded in two of her three races: the 200 free and 100 back, finishing 14th and 15th respectively. She got disqualified in the 200 individual medley. (Complete results here: unmarked; marked with all Lake Forest finishers.)
Nyad swam at Lake Forest again the following year, but the team didn’t travel to Arizona for the 1971 championships.
(NOTE: For the DGWS results, I am indebted to the folks at the University of Maryland Library’s Special Collections and University Archives. I learned about their “Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) records” collection during the COVID lockdown. Shortly after the lockdown lifted, the DGWS results appeared in my inbox—not by magic, but it seemed like it.)
Maybe fact-checking wasn’t a thing in 1971. More likely, though, it never crossed Levin’s mind that a “pretty distance swimmer . . . with honey-colored skin and built like a Greek goddess” would lie.
Yet lie she did. Levin had succumbed to what I call the Holmes Effect —after Elizabeth, not Sherlock: the unquestioning acceptance of utter nonsense when that nonsense comes from someone who exhibits a seductive combination of confidence, charisma, and charm. Of course, the nonsense presenter must choose a susceptible audience, as Elizabeth Holmes did when she convinced two former Secretaries of State, two former Secretaries of Defense, two former U.S. Senators, a retired U.S. Navy admiral, and the former CEOs of Wells Fargo and the Bechtel Group, that she would change the world by pulling coins out of their ears. And as Donald Trump did when he convinced millions of Americans that a racist, soulless, bankruptcy-prone pathological liar would rain down upon them manna from heaven.
And as Diana Nyad did when she mesmerized Dan Levin—and most of the journalists, scientists, politicians, artists, and talk show hosts who followed—into blindly swallowing the handfuls of bullshit she hurled their way. Over the decades, a few have caught Nyad’s nonsense and hurled it back, but not in the quantity required to make it stick. Yet.
Final Note: On Timing
In her 2017 New York Times op-ed, “My Life After Sexual Assault,” Nyad claims that she was 21 when she told a friend that Jack Nelson, their high school coach at Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale, had abused her. According to the op-ed and an interview with CNN (at 1:22), Nyad was also 21 when she brought her abuse allegations to Pine Crest’s principal. She claims that the principal fired Nelson the next day.
Not a word of that can be true. Levin’s article shows why.
Sports Illustrated published “She Takes a Long Swim…” when Nyad was 22. In the article, Levin paints Nyad’s relationship with Nelson as one of mutual adoration bordering on idolatry. Not one drop of animosity bleeds through, no hint of what you’d expect if Nelson had abused Nyad, then Nyad had buttonholed Pine Crest’s principal, accused Nelson of rape, and gotten him sacked—all of which would have predated Levin’s article.
In July of 1971, about a month before Nyad’s 22nd birthday and about four months before Nyad hit the newsstands in Sports Illustrated, she paired up with Quebec’s Gaston Paré to take on the grueling 24 Hours of La Tuque. About their third-place finish, a local reporter raved that Nyad and Paré had “finally proved that they belong to the category of the greatest swimmers in the world” (my translation from the original French). Given Nyad’s excellent showing and the attention she received for it, her triumph at La Tuque may have been the high point of her professional swimming career.
Levin reports that, after the race, Nyad wrote to one of the few people in whom she could confide. “These swims have a deep-felt effect on me,” she told Jack Nelson. “I need to share them with someone who is capable of understanding.”
If Nelson was capable of understanding in July or August of 1971, much of what Nyad said about him later makes no sense. Something is terribly wrong with this picture.
(Note: For the last section, I borrowed from two previous posts—”Addressing Diana’s Op-ed” and “New Evidence that Diana Nyad Fabricated Her Abuse Story.”)
Update, 26 August 2020: Added extracted results chart to Swimming World piece about 1971 DGWS National Intercollegiate Swimming and Diving Championships.
Update, 9 June 2021: Overhauled DGWS Championships section using results from 1970 and 1971 meets. The pre-update version contained the following:
In 1970, the Division for Girls’ and Women’s Sports (DGWS) held the first Women’s Intercollegiate Swimming and Diving Championships. Illinois State University hosted the meet. An article in Swimming World, “Arizona State Captures First Nat’l Women’s Collegiate Champs,” names the top three finishers in each individual event. No Nyad. Arizona Stated hosted the 1971 championships. Again, no Nyad.
Also, I haven’t seen evidence of her ever having swum butterfly in competition other than as part of an IM. That might change if I can find complete results from the championship meets. Either way, a former teammate of Nyad’s told me that she (Nyad) couldn’t swim butterfly “worth a damn.”