The Best Worst Liar
After skeptics questioned the legitimacy of Diana Nyad’s Cuba-Florida crossing, she and Steven Munatones, her most prominent supporter in the marathon swimming community, organized a conference call to quell the doubts. The call took place on September 10, 2013. The following month, while discussing the call with Oprah, Nyad said that it lasted three hours and 22 minutes. This jibes with what conferees reported. Later, though, Nyad told a Washington, D.C., audience that the call lasted 13 hours. She informed a group in Chicago that the call lasted all night.
Diana Nyad may not be a pathological liar, but she sure acts like one. In her 2015 memoir, Find A Way, Nyad writes that, while in high school, she became the best backstroker in Florida; Lucy Winslow, her great great grandmother, was one of the first female physicians in Manhattan; giant squid can grab birds out of the air; and countless other bits and chunks of nonsense that contain no truth whatsoever.
And she doesn’t seem to care whether or not she keeps her stories straight. Maybe she can’t bear to commit herself to one set of facts when potential updates might make her seem more epic. Or maybe she just has a lousy memory. Either way, why should she bother to tell the truth when her fans can’t believe that “the most authentic athlete of our time” would ever tell a lie?
But she would. And she has—over and over and over—about practically everything. She lies about big things like the Cuba-Florida crossing, the Manhattan swim, and sexual abuse. And she lies about things so insignificant that you have to wonder why she bothers.
For instance, she says that when she was five, she “played three musical instruments—the harp, violin and piano—four, five hours a day.” She also says she played the piano, harp, and clarinet. She told Ms. Magazine that, at seven, she began “the harp, violin, piano, and trumpet.” Her stories change shape as readily as the bellows of an accordion, one instrument she apparently never took up.
The Shrimp Orchestra, a marine incarnation of the Main Squeeze Orchestra, performs at Coney Island Mermaid Parade in 2007. Photo: Anders Pearson, license CC BY-SA 2.0.
Some examples of Nyad’s shape-shifting fictions:
In the summer of 1966, Nyad got sick and couldn’t swim for up to a month-and-a-half: “Last summer [Nyad] suffered a virus of the heart,” the Fort Lauderdale News reported the following spring, “which put her out of the water for six weeks.”
Later, Nyad’s recovery time began to swell:
- 2 months in bed, 1 in the house (1978)
- 3 months in bed (1978)
- 4 months on her back (1978)
- 4 months in the hospital, 6 more weeks in bed (1981)
- 1 year in bed (1981)
- 4 months in a hospital, more time at home (1983)
- 4 months on her back (1985)
- 3 months in bed (2015)
- Bonus: Bedridden for years. (Minneapolis Star, 1977)
See Diana’s Kaleidoscopic Convalescence.
Degrees of Diana
Nyad graduated from Chicago’s Lake Forest College with a BA in 1973. That same year, she enrolled in graduate school at New York University. She left at the end of the term, never reenrolled, and never earned an advanced degree.
She told the truth at first, but her story soon began to oscillate.
- “Suddenly, after the Manhattan swim, a PhD in comparative literature seemed irrelevant.” (1975)
- “She is working on her doctorate at New York University.” (1976)
- “Diana Nyad…is a pretty 27-year-old woman rated the top marathon swimmer in the world and a soon-to-be Ph.D.” (1977)
- “…until recently [she was] working on a doctorate in comparative literature at New York University. No longer” (1978, March)
- “She speaks five languages fluently, has studied at the Sorbonne, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Lake Forest College…and is just a dissertation (on the Russian writer Turgenev) away from a Ph.D.” (1978, June)
- “She is now the 14th-ranked squash player in the country, [and] holds a PhD in comparative literature…. (1978, June)
- “Nyad, a Lake Forest (Ill.) College graduate, suspended her pursuit of a Master’s degree in comparative literature (1979)
- “[Nyad] is working toward a PhD in comparative literature.” (1981)
- “A master’s degree in comparative literature from New York University hasn’t hurt Diana Nyad’s ability to jump into and command conversation.” (1981)
See “Diana Nyad’s Academic Freedom.”
Nature’s Squishy Ninja: The Box Jelly
Unless you are a shrimp or small fish, your chance of dying from the mere touch of a box jellyfish tentacle is almost zero. But saying so wouldn’t make Diana sound very heroic, so she flips the odds.
- “90% of all people who have been touched by a tentacle of the box die instantaneously.” 89th FFA Convention & Expo, 10:19.
- “90-plus percent of the time that a human is touched by that tentacle of the box, it’s fatal. You are dead.” Blue Sky Innovation, 13:20.
- “95% of people who have been touched by that tentacle die instantaneously.” Brink of Midnight, 35:30.
- “98% of people who have ever been touched by that tentacle have died within one minute.” K8 East, 29:26.
- “Usually a fatal sting, 99% of the time.” Politics & Prose, 25:55.
- 100%: “If that tentacle touches, you’re dead instantaneously.” Wild Ideas Worth Living, 8:35.
See “Not a Tentacle To Stand On.”
And that’s just the beginning. Every page on this site has examples of Nyad's unstable fables.
So how does she get away with being such a terrible liar?
The same way all great con artists do: charisma, confidence, and a credulous, adoring public she has groomed to believe every word she says.
“I certainly hope that all of you out there know of my pedigree for many years in this sport. I have always upheld the highest ideals. It is the champions who achieve under the purest circumstances whom I respect…..and I have always, proudly, fallen into that category.”
—archived blog post, 20 Jul 2012