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 indicate that she did not.
Nyad defends her crossing. According to Linda Robertson of the Miami Herald, Nyad “quelled doubts and provided evidence…to show that she swam from Cuba to Florida under her own power….” The swimmer, however, quieted few if any doubts while her evidence raised more. To date, no legitimate organization has officially recognized whatever record Nyad intended to claim. (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….”
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 forty 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 killing with the touch of a tentacle and flying squid snatching birds from the air. Far worse than any of that, 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 of that and more. It’s hard to believe that, in the summer of 2013, she scheduled three days for telling the truth.
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 - Unqualified Observers
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…. ”
Unless a swimmer or a governing body specifies otherwise before a swim—and Diana Nyad did not specify otherwise—English Channel (EC) rules prevail. EC rules constitute “the fair, just, ethical and agreed-upon rules of our sport.” Briefly, they are:
No Artificial Aids beyond a swimsuit, cap, goggles, nose clip, earplugs, and grease.
No physical contact with the swimmer by any other person.
The observers time the swim and watch for compliance with the rules.
The swimmer must swim from shore to shore, starting and ending on dry land.
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 so invisible to the general public as marathon swimming, her rules 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)
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.
Dr. Angel Yanagihara, “the world’s leading [box jellyfish] expert.” (p. 196)
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 he 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.”
So how did Janet Hinkle and Roger McVeigh perform? Nyad never released the original logs, so we have to make do with what she posted online: Hinkle’s log and McVeigh’s log.
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.
Their inadequate logs make it impossible to prove that Nyad completed the swim under her own power. What’s more, such fragmentary record-keeping makes it appear likely 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 - 5½ Missing Hours - The End
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….”
*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 red circle of lights” in the distance (McVeigh, shift 9).
When the storm ends, Nyad ostensibly stops treading water and begins swimming. 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, and 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 5½ hours, you can hear a pinniped drop.*
*Note: 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).
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 “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.
First is 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, and wags her right index finger at the crew members surrounding her. Some of them link arms to ensure that no one touches her before she reaches dry land. 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 a hospital recovering. (See “Penny Palfrey’s record swim.”)
#3. Evidence From After the Swim Vanishing Video - Impossible Speed
- No Ratification
Most of the video from Nyad’s endeavor disappeared within a few months of her crossing. Presumably, Nyad feared that scavengers might stumble on something incriminating like they did in 2012.
Nyad’s YouTube channel remains empty, 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:
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 as synonymous as 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.**
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 typical velocity:
Nyad’s baseline swimming speed
the current’s speed and direction
the heading of Voyager (the guide boat)
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.
Nyad speed: 1.3 knots
current speed and direction: 3.3 knots, 75 degrees
Voyager heading: 290 degrees
claimed result: 3.5 mph (3 knots), 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.)
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. If she were swimming without help, Shepardson could easily have matched her speed. Matching Voyager’s proved more difficult.
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 part of 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:
Written the rules for the swim (you know, the ones that no one has ever seen).
Provided its observers (whom we know Nyad enlisted on the day before the swim).
“Recognized” the crossing as of September 2, 2013, (which is weird because, on September 17, 2013, Munatones told the Miami Herald that the swim had “no organization regulating it”).
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.
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 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 three back-to-back English Channel crossings in the days before Thomas’s feat; and Kevin Murphy, who had already observed at least 16 crossings and had himself swum the channel 34 times. Martin and Murphy kept regular, accurate logs, which verified 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 in precisely the same way—less three shores and a history of integrity. But she chose not to. 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 that the incredulous have been asking for years, the question that 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?
Nyad and Munatones have almost a century of marathon swimming experience between them. They could easily have come up with a plan to minimize doubt. They knew that trained observers, good documentation, and transparency would have eliminated skepticism.
So, at the cost of maximizing doubt, Diana Nyad arranged a crossing that 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.
Every time I think I’ve had an original idea about Nyad’s Cuba swim, it usually turns out that Donal Buckley had it first. His “Diana Nyad Controversy” series is the most thorough commentary on Nyad’s crossing: