In search of the truth about Diana Nyad
Diana Nyad’s performance on the afternoon of September 2, 2013, convinced many that she had swum all the way from Cuba to Florida under her own power. Decades of lies, a shipload of evidence, and a lady protesting way too much suggest that she did not.
Above: Nyad defends her crossing. According to the Miami Herald’s Linda Robertson, Nyad “quelled doubts and provided evidence . . . to show that she swam from Cuba to Florida under her own power.” In fact, the swimmer quieted few if any doubts while her evidence raised more. (18 Sep 2013, via newspapers.com.)
“I swam—we made it, our team—from the rocks of Cuba to the beach of Florida in squeaky clean, ethical fashion. . . .”
conference call, 10 Sep 2013, via CNN
“We proved without a shadow of a doubt that I swam without any assistance whatsoever from shore to shore.”
“This swim was a noble quest and a matter of indisputable ethics to each one of us. We sleep easily, consciences clear that I swam across fair and square, shore to shore.”
Find a Way, p. 278
By the time Diana Nyad jumped into the water off Havana to begin her fifth attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida, she had been lying to the public for over 40 years. She had lied about the Olympic Trials, Manhattan Island, and her professional swimming career. She had fabricated a 67-mile race in the North Sea and a world record ocean swim in Australia. She had lied about her memory, her family, her education, and her health; about diabolical jellyfish that kill with the touch of a tentacle and flying squid that snatch birds from the air. Far worse, she had lied about sexual abuse to aggrandize herself, both in her slander of a former coach and her fabrication of a three-year-old holocaust survivor.
After the crossing, she continued to lie about all that and more. Yet she wants us to believe that she’s telling the truth about three days in the summer of 2013.
Most likely, only her inner circle knows how she pulled off her Cuba–Florida stunt. While we wait for a member of that circle to submit to a pang of conscience, let’s consider the evidence from before, during, and after the swim.
Diana Nyad at her press conference on September 3, 2013, the day after the Cuba–Florida crossing. Other than goggle-eyes and a great tan, she exhibited few signs of having spent 52 hours stewing in the warm water of the Florida Straits while swimming over 100 miles. With Niko Gazzale, shark diver. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter via Portland Press Herald.)
1. Evidence from before the swim
No Rules—Real sporting events have rules. Nyad’s didn’t.
Unqualified Observers—Nyad put the success of the most important swim of her life in the hands of two acquaintances with no training or experience. They produced inadequate logs that included hours-long gaps.
2. Evidence from during the swim
The Miracle Storm—During a storm on the second night, Nyad tread water for 80 or 90 minutes at the same speed and in the same direction that she swam in the hours before and after the storm. This would have been impossible without help.
5½ Missing Hours—For five and a half hours on the final morning of the crossing, neither observer writes a word about Nyad.
The End—When Diana Nyad arrived at Smathers Beach, she neither looked nor acted like someone who had just swum 52 hours under her own power.
3. Evidence from after the swim
Vanishing Video—Other than footage from the beginning and end, most of the video from Nyad’s endeavor disappeared within months of her swim.
Impossible Speed—The explanation Nyad’s navigator gave for her blazing speed does not add up when you examine his numbers.
No Ratification—To date, Nyad’s crossing has not been legitimately ratified.
#1. Evidence From Before the Swim
You cannot undertake a legitimate sporting event—especially one for which you intend to claim a world record—without rules. Nyad’s crossing had none.
“We did not break one rule. Trust me, this dream [is] too important to me to have any slight thing outside the fair, just, ethical and agreed-upon rules of our sport. . . .”
—Marathon Swimmers Forum, Sep 2013
Unless a swimmer or a governing body specifies otherwise before a swim—and Diana Nyad did not—English Channel (EC) rules prevail. EC rules constitute “the fair, just, ethical and agreed-upon rules of our sport.” Briefly, they are:
Nyad knows these rules as well as anybody. “A legal marathon,” she said in 1975, “may be undertaken only in a regular racing suit, cap, goggles, and grease—no flotation devices, no insulating suit” (Esquire).
Yet, she broke every EC rule during her crossing. And her observers had no way to watch for compliance. How could they when Nyad set no rules other than the “no touching” directive that everyone ignored?
After the swim, Nyad concocted a sham set of regulations to make her crossing appear legitimate. “The rules of the sport,” she wrote in her 2015 memoir, Find A Way, “are such that you may not receive any aid at any time, in either moving forward or in staying afloat” (p. 72). That’s like saying that the rules of running are such that you can’t wear roller skates and a jet pack. Or the rules of chess are such that, while waiting for your opponent to move, you can’t practice your trumpet. In other words, they’re rules that go without saying. But Nyad says them because, in a sport as invisible to the general public as marathon swimming, her rules can pass as authentic.
Other than no touching, Nyad never mentions actual English Channel rules. “You can see I have a [jellyfish] suit, I have surgeon’s gloves, I got booties—all legal,” she tells Oprah a month after the swim. “You’re not allowed to wear neoprene.”
Diana Nyad? Could be. (Image via CNN/diananyad.com)
In a press conference the day after the crossing, Nyad says she didn’t want to use a shark cage, another EC rules no-no. Swimmers who do are “in a different category,” she said, “and for this swim I don’t want to be in a different category. I wanted to be flush on, 100 percent” (ABC News). But 100 percent of what? One hundred percent of nothing is still nothing.
A few days later, Nyad began claiming that she followed “Florida Straits Rules,” the ostensible creation of Steven Munatones. An experienced swimmer, observer, and administrator, as well as Nyad’s primary enabler in the marathon swimming community, Munatones said he would shortly make those rules public (Reuters, 11 September 2013). We’re still waiting.
There was chatter after the crossing about whether Nyad swam assisted or unassisted—effectively, whether she swam according to EC rules or not. Without mentioning Nyad’s name, Munatones weighed in on September 13. He argued that the answer depends on how a swim’s governing body defines “assisted” and “unassisted.” Nyad did not swim under the auspices of any organization, so Munatones’ argument was moot, at least until six years later when he falsely claimed that his group, the World Open Water Swimming Association (WOWSA), had overseen Nyad’s crossing. (More on that in the “No Ratification” section below.)
But if Nyad swam the whole way under her own power, any extant set of rules would have deemed her crossing assisted at best.
Most sets of regulations, however, would have disqualified her. The cardinal rule of marathon swimming is “no touching,” the one commandment to which she and her team paid lip-service:
I never . . . touched a boat or another person. (Nyad, Facebook)
[D]iscussed landing protocol and need for her to exit water without being touched, according to email received from Steve [Munatones]. (Roger McVeigh, observer report)
Nobody can touch her until she’s out of the water! (Bonnie Stoll, The Other Shore)
It was very important that no one touch me, ’cause you’re disqualified. . . . (Nyad, press conference, 28:30; transcript)
Some governing bodies allow for touching the boat under rare circumstances. The regulations in New Zealand’s Cook Straits, for instance, allow a swimmer to exit the water for up to ten minutes when sharks pose an imminent danger. Nyad, on the other hand, had touched crew members throughout the crossing. No rule permitted that. Her stumble up Smathers Beach to shouts of, “Don’t touch her or she’ll be disqualified” (Find a Way, p. 272) was all for show. “I was touched,” she told CNN afterward. “I agree with it.”
So, according to the one rule Nyad and her team agreed on, her observers should have invalidated the swim.
Certificate from the Diana Nyad Fact Check Annex post, “Disqualified.” Disclaimer: The Florida Strait Swimming Federation is a product of the author’s imagination. It should not be confused with another imaginary organization, the Florida Straits Open Water Swimming Association.
Nyad prides herself on enlisting elite practitioners in every field. Some examples from Find a Way:
Yet, for observers—the crew members who would attest to her crossing’s legitimacy—she recruited two acquaintances who had no training or experience at all.
Nyad had initially lined up Steven Munatones to be her sole observer for the planned 60-plus hours of swimming. Why just one observer for a swim that would require at least two? Because Munatones was the only experienced observer whom Nyad could trust to look the other way.
According to a crew member who worked with Munatones on an earlier Cuba–Florida attempt, he told Nyad:
. . . she should do whatever she needed to do to complete the swim and the swim would be ratified or not based on how it was conducted.
Given the possibilities of a swim based on English Channel rules versus one based on “whatever she needed to do,” you can see why Nyad wanted Munatones.*
*This wouldn’t be the first time Munatones had an opportunity to obscure Nyad’s indiscretions. In 2012, she grabbed and pushed off a boat—clear grounds for disqualification under any set of marathon swimming rules. A legitimate observer would have stopped the swim right there. Munatones did not. He may have noted the episode in his observer’s log, but he refused to make the log public. We only know about the incident because someone caught it on video.
For years, Munatones also lied about one of his own swims. He claimed that, in 1990, he completed the first two-way crossing of the Tsugaru Strait. The rules for multiple crossings have been set since the 1970s: a swimmer can take no more than 10 minutes at the turnaround. Munatones took 41 hours.
Again, you can see why Nyad wanted Munatones on her team.
At the end of August, Nyad’s meteorologists told her that the weather looked good for an attempt. But Munatones was on his way to Japan. In another revealing oversight, neither he nor Nyad had lined up any backup. So, despite Munatones’ claim six years later that WOWSA provided the observers, Nyad had to improvise.
At 11 a.m. on Thursday, August 29, with her flotilla set to sail for Cuba that evening, Nyad called an acquaintance, Key West sailor and philanthropist Janet Hinkle. She jumped at the chance to help out.
Nyad also rang retired Key West accountant Roger McVeigh. A triathlete and Nyad admirer, he too didn’t hesitate to accept.
Neither Hinkle nor McVeigh had any experience or training as observers. Munatones gave them some last-minute guidance via phone call and text, then off they went. Which is just the way Nyad wanted it: two observers who knew little about the rules but who trusted and adored Diana Nyad.
“[Y]ou are allowed to ratify a swim by having even your husband or your best friend or your son or your daughter be the actual observer who takes very specific long notes for every minute and can say at the end, ‘never did she touch the boat, get out on a boat, hang on to a kayak, use flippers.’ You know, all the things that would make a swim legal.”
Town Hall Seattle Q & A, 9 Nov 2013. Transcript here
So how did Janet Hinkle and Roger McVeigh perform? Nyad never released the original logs, so we have to make do with transcripts she posted online: Hinkle’s log, McVeigh’s log, and the two combined (the latter thanks to Anthony McCarley).
These documents show that, early on, Hinkle and McVeigh made entries every few minutes—the usual for a legitimate marathon swim is every 30 to 60 minutes. By the end of the crossing, they left unexplained, hours-long gaps.
(Another unusual feature of the logs: a postscript from each observer attesting to the legitimacy of Nyad’s crossing. Logs from genuine swims don’t include such declarations—they’re unnecessary and redundant when the observers do their jobs. See, for example, any of the logs for swims documented by the Marathon Swimmers Federation.)
The inadequate record-keeping makes it impossible to prove that Nyad completed the swim under her own power. What’s more, such fragmented documentation strongly suggests that she didn’t.
Chart comparing time between observer entries during two swims: Diana Nyad’s Cuba–Florida crossing and Sarah Thomas’s 67-hour 2017 Lake Champlain swim. With few exceptions, Thomas’s observers made entries every 30 minutes. Nyad’s observers made irregular entries and left lengthy gaps.
#2. Evidence From During the Swim
The Miracle Storm
Nyad claims that she treaded water while waiting out an approximately 80-minute storm during the second night of the crossing. During the storm, she moved at the same speed and in the same direction as she proceeded for at least four hours before and one hour after. This would have been impossible without help.*
Tavis Smiley: “You treaded water for an hour and 20 minutes?”
Nyad: “Yeah, and I was hanging on. . . .”
The Tavis Smiley Show, 31 Dec 2013
*Given the poor documentation, it’s difficult to pin down just what happened and when. Neither observer logged a word between 10:45 p.m., around the time the storm began, and 1:37 a.m. Nyad says the storm lasted 80 minutes (at 16:55 in transcript here) or 90 minutes (Find a Way, p. 262). McVeigh says the storm began at 10:45 and lasted “a couple of hours.” Crew member Candace Hogan says it began at 11, at which time operations chief John Berry declares that “Diana is still swimming strong.” But if the storm began at 11, Berry can’t see her. At the press conference, Nyad says the storm began at midnight.
For the purposes of this document, I use a 10:45 p.m. start and a one hour, 20 minute duration. But using different numbers doesn’t change the conclusion: Nyad had help.
By 8 p.m. on the last night of her swim, Nyad’s GPS readings tell us that she had settled into a current-aided pace of approximately three mph. About three hours later, with a storm bearing down on the swimmer, fleet captain John Duke invokes “storm protocol”: to avoid accidental collisions, the five-boat flotilla spreads out and positions itself downwind of Nyad. The shark divers stay with her until the weather passes (Find a Way, p. 211). During the storm, the observers can’t see the swimmer, only “a small circle of red lights” in the distance (McVeigh, shift 9, archived).
When the storm ends, Nyad ostensibly stops treading water and begins swimming. So, we should see her speed increase, but it remains the same until dropping precipitously an hour later. She speeds up for another hour, then slows to about 1¼ mph. She continues at that rate for the rest of the crossing.
If the data Nyad provided is accurate, then she is asking us to believe a fairy tale.
Diana Nyad’s speed before, during, and after the storm of September 1–2, 2013. Adapted from Phil Hodges’ data visualization of the crossing: Nyad Cuba–Florida Swim 2013.
5½ Missing Hours
After the storm, Nyad’s in trouble. “More confusion than I’ve witnessed before,” Janet Hinkle writes at 1:37 a.m. “She is behind the boat and there is concern she has gotten under the boat.”
More from Hinkle:
2:37 a.m. “Diana switched to breast stroke . . . she then stopped and asked: ‘Are we there?’”
2:57 a.m. “Several stops and starts—switching from breast stroke to free style . . . . ”
3:49 a.m. “(Diana) begins swimming again with breast stroke.”
4:39 a.m. “(Diana) takes a break; getting new goggles.”
4:45 a.m. “(Diana is) back swimming, breast stroke.”
At 5 a.m., Bartlett reports:
During this time, Diana has stopped numerous times to tread water trying to restore herself. We don’t know how strong she is swimming at this point, but we’ll get an update soon.
But he’s right beside her, so he knows exactly how strong she is or isn’t swimming. Could he instead be asking how quickly she’s proceeding toward Key West given the interventions he and/or Nyad’s inner circle have provided? That would be my guess.
At 5:10 a.m., Hinkle writes:
Diana stopping and starting . . . periodically asking for water and nourishment . . . effort is to just keep her going . . . I recall now that she was very apologetic to divers for throwing up. They respond . . . “don’t worry, it’s just fish food.”
And with that, all direct observations of Nyad stop. For the next 5½ hours, you can hear a pinniped drop.*
*No pinnipeds were hurt in the making of this page.
Then, at 10:40 a.m., Nyad arises like Venus from a giant scallop to give an all-flotilla speech. Nyad’s resurrection occurs during Roger McVeigh’s final shift, but he doesn’t mention it in his log. Hinkle does, though she prefaces her entry with, “from the video I took, not in the notes.” Meaning, presumably, that the entry wouldn’t appear in the written log were it ever to surface.
Thankfully, two other crew members—kayakers Katie Leigh and Don McCumber**—posted footage of Nyad’s oration. Neither video shows a swimmer who, only hours before, had approached the end of her rope (or was finding it grueling to hang onto).
**Mr. McCumber withdrew his video from public view. You can see an archived version here.
McVeigh records nothing notable after 7:15 a.m., the beginning of his final shift, the last observer shift of the swim. And much of his log from 7:15 a.m. onward is written in the third person. So, the real Roger McVeigh all but disappears after 1:26 a.m., when Hinkle relieves him for her final shift. That’s more than 12 hours before Nyad reaches Key West.**
Nor do we hear from Hinkle in an official capacity after 5:10 a.m. that same day.
So much for the “very specific long notes for every minute” that would allow Nyad’s observers to say, “‘never did she touch the boat, get out on a boat, hang on to a kayak, use flippers.’ You know, all the things that would make a swim legal.”
The missing hours. Adapted from Phil Hodges’ Nyad Cuba–Florida Swim 2013. And with thanks to Anthony McCarley for suggesting I focus on this segment of the swim rather than on a related 8½-hour section.
**So what could McVeigh have been doing all that time? One theory: for at least part of it, he swam. In 2011, he competed in the 20K “Swim Around Key West” as part of a three-person relay. In 2012, he swam the race as part of a two-person relay. In 2013, he swam solo. So as the only experienced swimmer on Nyad’s crew, he could have relieved her during the final night. A lack of night-swimming experience could explain some of the chaos in the hours between the end of the storm and Nyad’s renaissance (see 8½).
When Diana Nyad arrived at Smathers Beach, she neither looked nor acted like someone who had just swum 52 hours under her own power.
Below are videos of the ends of three swims. First is Nyad’s Cuba–Florida finish. After that, two people finishing legitimate crossings.
In Nyad’s, note how she removes her goggles and cap before she leaves the water. She wants to look sharp for the media. Her hair appears dry. She glances right, presumably at a camera. Her crew members work to ensure that no one touches her before she reaches dry land, as if she hadn’t already been touched multiple times. She knows the rules. With the world watching, she intends to follow those rules to the letter.
Now compare Nyad’s finish to the conclusion of two legitimate swims. In the clips below, 48-year-old Australian Penny Palfrey and 37-year-old American Sarah Thomas had just swum 40 and 54 hours, respectively. Both are phenomenal athletes, but could either of them have given a coherent speech two hours earlier? As they left the water, were Palfrey or Thomas concerned about how they looked or what they’d say? Did they have any thought of removing a cap or a pair of goggles to spiff up for the cameras?
No to all of the above. Both women had the same objective in what remained of their minds: reach dry land, sit down, don’t move another inch.
Above: Penny Palfrey in 2011, finishing the first Little Cayman to Grand Cayman swim in 40 hours, 41 minutes. This swim was a warm-water crossing like Nyad’s. Palfrey spent two days in the hospital recovering. (See “Penny Palfrey’s record swim.”)
Below: Sarah Thomas in 2019 finishing a four-way English Channel crossing in 54 hours, 10 minutes. (See “Sarah Thomas Completes Historic Four-Way. . . .”)
(Much of the last section comes from “Nyad at the Ebell, part 2”.)
#3. Evidence From After the Swim
Most of the video from Nyad’s endeavor disappeared within a few months of her crossing. Nyad must have feared that scavengers might stumble on something incriminating like they did in 2012.
Nyad’s YouTube channel remains devoid of clips from her crossing, though you can still find plenty of footage from the start and finish elsewhere. With only a few exceptions, however, everything in between is gone.
Here are two screenshots from Nyad’s YouTube channel. The image on the left shows how it appeared on September 2, 2013, the day she arrived at Smathers Beach; on the right, how it looked by April, scrubbed to squeaky cleanness:
Screenshots of Diana Nyad’s YouTube channel. How it looked on September 2, 2013 (left), and April 25, 2014 (right). Via the Internet Archive Wayback Machine.
John Bartlett Explains Nyad’s Impossible Speed, and the Numbers Don’t Add Up
“[Bartlett’s] empirical proof of our course satisfied all but a couple of what they call online ‘haters.’” *
Find A Way, p. 278
*For Nyad, “skeptic” and “hater” are synonyms, just like they were for Lance Armstrong.
When Nyad ambled ashore 52 hours after leaving Cuba, then gave a speech to conclude her inadequately observed and shoddily documented endeavor, questions necessarily arose.
So two weeks later, Steven Munatones gathered fourteen marathon swimming luminaries for a conference call. The idea was that Nyad and Bartlett would answer questions, unburden the conferees of their skepticism, then welcome them and their marathon swimming brethren into the flock of Nyad believers.**
**Nyad’s skeptics did not convert despite her protestations to the contrary. See “Nyad’s Statements After the 10 September 2013 Conference Call.”
During the teleconference, John Bartlett, Nyad’s “genius navigator,” explained his strategy for using the Gulf Stream to boost Nyad’s speed. Bartlett claimed that three things combined perfectly to propel Nyad towards Key West at double or triple her usual velocity:
Engaging in what he called “vectoring,” he would take #1 and #2 into account to find the perfect #3, the heading that would maximize Nyad’s Key-West-bound speed.
He gave little specific data during his 25-minute ramble. The lack of information, however, may have been purposeful. The minimal data he did let slip indicates that Diana Nyad could not have swum all the way under her own power.
He pointed to a 5.5 hour period during which Nyad scudded along at about four mph towards Key West. At the beginning of that period, around noon on the second day, he said they had a 3.3-knot current flowing at 75 degrees, so he headed Voyager west at 290 degrees. Bartlett claimed that this resulted in Nyad “going 3.5 miles an hour” at 40 degrees. (Hear John Bartlett give the numbers.)
However, if you plug those numbers into the equation for true speed and direction—a calculation that gives the actual speed and direction after factoring in the current’s speed and bearing—then Nyad would be moving at 2.7 mph (2.36 knots) with a heading of 57 degrees. In other words, toward Bimini, not the Florida Keys (See calculations here.)
Nyad’s actual vs. claimed speed and direction. Adapted from: Google maps, a Wikimedia compass rose, John Bartlett’s swim positions plot sheet, and his “Vectoring: How It Works.”
This explains why Nyad’s handlers continually urged her to swim to the left as the gulf stream pushed her toward the Bahamas. It also explains why Ben Shepardson, one of her shark divers, had trouble staying on her tail:
Even with my longfins it was hard to keep up with her for long distances and once you got behind her it was quite difficult to catch up. (“A Shark Diver Story”)
Shepardson and Nyad shared the same current. With the help of his fins, Shepardson should have had no trouble matching Nyad’s speed. That is unless she was getting help too.
Two marathon swims from below. Left: Mike Tyson showing how it’s supposed to look (while crossing Kyrgyzstan’s Lake Issyk Kul, by permission of the swimmer). Right: Nyad’s Cuba–Florida crossing (via Ben Shepardson’s “A Shark Diver Story”). Nyad or another swimmer could have been attached to Voyager in a way that was imperceptible to most of her crew. See “Attachment Disorder 3: Well-Connected” for details.
To date, over seven years after the attempt, Nyad’s crossing lacks legitimate ratification.
“I’m sure this swim will be ratified in due time. . . .”
43:50 at press conference (or see transcript)
Just after the endeavor, Nyad seemed concerned about official recognition. In response to a question at her September 3, 2013, press conference, Nyad said,
[I]t takes them awhile to vet records. . . . We had two independent observers over there—Janet Hinkle and Roger McVeigh. . . . They took copious, accurate notes. [A]t some point, the Swimming Hall of Fame or the Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame will call them and say, ‘let’s sit down with you,’ and, you know, ‘did she ever get out on the boat, did she ever put on a pair of fins.’ You know, and all the things that they observed will go . . . it takes awhile to have records declared. . . . (41:55 at press conf. or transcript)
No governing organization has yet declared the crossing a record. Not to mention that neither the [International] Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF) nor the [International] Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame ratifies swims. However, in January of 2019, Steven Munatones decided to overlook that fact and sent the ISHOF a packet of materials from Nyad’s crossing. According to an email from Munatones, this packet contained the swim’s “records, data and information—including written testimonials from those on [Nyad’s] escort boat.” He hoped that someone at the ISHOF would look at the materials and stamp them “Approved.”
Eight months passed with no response, so Munatones took matters into his own hands. On August 14, 2019, he edited Diana Nyad’s entry on Openwaterpedia—Steven’s “Wikipedia for the open water swimming world”—to read that his organization, the World Open Water Swimming Association (WOWSA), had:
Munatones later changed “provided the onboard observers” to “approved the onboard observers.” He left everything else intact, including a separate statement that Nyad’s Cuba–Florida claims “have yet to be independently verified by any swimming organization.” Maybe Munatones felt he needed to hedge his bets.*
*WOWSA once had its own set of marathon swimming rules, most of which Nyad broke on her crossing. Those rules have disappeared from all WOWSA-related sites. The latest archived version comes from August 24, 2019, just after Munatones gave WOWSA’s belated blessing to Nyad’s endeavor. He may have recognized that rule 17.14—“WOWSA will not ratify a swim if any rules are not followed”—conflicted with his enterprise.
More recently, WOWSA began offering to authenticate swims “for a small fee” (which turned out to be US$49.95). The ratification-for-remuneration offer disappeared after it became public that WOWSA had certified a semi-fictional swim.
To see the original authentication offer, scroll to the bottom of this archived page.
At 6:12 a.m. local time on September 17, 2019, Sarah Thomas crawled up onto the shingles of Shakespeare Beach in Dover to complete the first English Channel four-way crossing in history.
Thomas’s triumph may turn out to be the most astonishing marathon swim of the 21st century, yet no one questioned its legitimacy. Thomas swam according to predetermined, English Channel rules. And the Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation, one of the two major English Channel governing bodies, provided Thomas’s two observers: Suzanne Martin, who had observed more than 10 crossings—including a pair of two-ways—before Thomas’s feat; and Kevin Murphy, who had observed at least 16 crossings and had swum the channel 34 times. Martin and Murphy kept regular, accurate logs, verifying that Thomas swam from shore to shore to shore to shore to shore in squeaky clean, unquestionably ethical fashion.
Diana Nyad could have conducted her Cuba–Florida crossing the same way—less three shores and one history of integrity. But she chose not to even though she knew her swim would be scrutinized and questioned. Steven Munatones knew it too. “Not everyone was in her camp,” he wrote as Nyad approached Key West, “and a few never will be. She faced derision from coaches and marathon swimmers. . . . She regularly faced suspicion and incredulity” (“Lessons Learned From Diana Nyad,” archived here).
This leaves us with the question the incredulous have been asking for years, the question marathon swimmer and conference call participant Donal Buckley asked Nyad a week after she finished her crossing:
Why, in a swim with global visibility and of a commercial nature, therefore unlike any other swim, didn’t [you] set out to maximise transparency and use fully independent observers?
With almost a century of marathon swimming experience between them, Nyad and Munatones knew that trained observers, good documentation, and transparency would have eliminated skepticism.
Others experienced open water swimmers had volunteered to help. Before Nyad’s 2012 Cuba–Florida attempt, Ned Denison, current chair of the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame, offered to help create a Florida Straits organization to set rules and sanction crossings. But Nyad and Munatones knew that any set of rules would constrain her ability to do “whatever she needed to do to complete the swim.” Competent, experienced observers would also severely limit her options.
So, Diana Nyad arranged a crossing that maximized doubt but minimized the likelihood she would appear to fail. With no chance to make her dream come true legitimately, she found another way.
On Smathers Beach: At the end of the crossing, Roger McVeigh and Janet Hinkle (circled in red) protect Diana Nyad from unwelcome physical contact. Nyad also used McVeigh and Hinkle as figurative human shields against accusations that her swim wasn’t legal. Enlargement, above right: McVeigh’s clipboard and papers suggest an explanation for his dearth of log entries.
Data & Analysis—The Big Two
John Bartlett’s Documents
“Navigator’s Log—John Bartlett” (archived here) appeared on Diana Nyad’s blog on September 13, 2013. At first, the post linked to six documents, which subsequently disappeared. Through the magic of the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, however, we can still nab ’em:
Readings of Gulf Stream
Positions Plot Sheet (ostensibly plotted during crossing, but current readings don’t change from previous chart)
Pre-Navigation Plot Sheet (with actual positions added after crossing)
Every time I think I’ve had an original idea about Nyad’s Cuba swim, it turns out that Donal Buckley had it first. His “Diana Nyad Controversy” series is the most thorough commentary on Nyad’s crossing:
Also, see the 17 pages of discussion on the Marathon Swimmers Forum: “110 miles, 53 hours: Questions for Diana Nyad.”
Nyad Fact Check Annex posts
WOWSA, Openwaterpedia, and Ratification
Did she cheat (and how)?
Also see “Treader Shredder,” a video about Nyad’s water-treading adventure.