In search of the truth about Diana Nyad



The English Channel (1976)


“The only sort of world-class swim I had tried and failed at back in my twenties was going from Cuba to Florida.”

TEDMED, 2011, at 2:27, full transcript here



During the summer that Diana Nyad turned 27, she attempted to cross the English Channel—the world-class marathon swim—three times without success. She never returned to try again.


Screenshot from Courage To Succeed, the documentary about two of Nyad’s three English Channel failures.


Nyad devotes an entire chapter of her first memoir, Other Shores, to her three attempts to become the first woman complete a two-way crossing of the English Channel. What’s more, she brought along a film crew to chronicle what she must have assumed would be a grand triumph (check out the t-shirt). The resulting documentary, Courage To Succeed, covers her first two attempts. According to Nyad, the film crew leaves before the third.*

*I spoke with one of the film’s producers. He implied that the group stayed for the final go, but he wouldn’t provide details.


<°))̂)̖)><    ><((̗(̂(°>


Diana celebrates her 27th birthday—August 22, 1976—in Dover, England, waiting for the weather to clear. No woman had yet completed a two-way crossing of the English Channel. Nyad wants to be the first.

By 1976, four swimmers had completed English Channel doubles:

  1. Antonio Abertondo, Argentina, 43:10 (1961)
  2. Ted Erikson, U.S., 30:03 (1965)
  3. Kevin Murphy, U.K., 35:10 & 36:03 (1970 & 1975)
  4. Jon Erikson (Ted’s son), U.S., 29:50 (1975)


Given Jon Erikson’s record time, Nyad said she anticipated swimming up to 30 hours. That was wishful thinking: in all but one of her 10 races against Erikson, he beat her handily. He thumped her by almost an hour and a half in one 20-mile race. The English Channel two-way would be over twice that distance. (In 1981, Erikson became the first person to complete an English Channel triple.)

On August 24, Nyad finally gets her shot. At 12:13 a.m., she wades into the Dover Strait and begins stroking toward France. The conditions are ideal: smooth water and almost no wind. American Richard Davis Hart will cross that day in 9 hours and 50 minutes.

Nyad gives up after an hour and a half. “I don’t like to be known as a quitter,” she says afterward. “But I quit.”


Above: Diana Nyad ends her first English Channel attempt after about 90 minutes of swimming. Footage from Courage to Succeed.


Nyad tries again on August 30. But the Channel becomes “a mass of breaking whitecaps,” she writes in Other Shores. The weather is “a greater force than anyone could battle.” Her crew yanks her out again. This time, though, she congratulates herself. “August 30,” she concludes, “was without a trace of doubt my mental and physical best” (Other Shores, p. 134).

But Courage to Succeed tells a different story: bumpy seas, yes, but few if any whitecaps. And she succumbs not to “force 6” winds (ibid) but to a cramp.


Above: After getting a cramp, Diana Nyad ends her second English Channel attempt. This was nothing new for Nyad—just a month earlier, a cramp caused her to quit her effort to swim across Long Island Sound. (Footage from Courage to Succeed.)


On August 31, Erdal Acet of Turkey crosses in 9:02, setting the men’s record. On the same day, twenty-year-old Wendy Brook, a student-teacher from Yorkshire, England, races across in 8:56 to become the first human to break nine hours.

A reader pointed out that four swimmers set English Channel records that August, the most in any month in history. “It screams GOOD conditions,” he noted. The other two were American Tina Bischoff’s overall and women’s mark of 9:03 on the 3rd; and Syria’s Marawan Saleh’s men’s record of 9:27 on the 18th.

However, the same reader pointed out that well-prepared swimmers don’t require good conditions to complete the swim. Plenty of athletes battle seas at least as rough as Nyad faced and still emerge victorious. For example, see these clips from the successful crossings of Courtney Moates Paulk (by permission of the swimmer) and Paul Newsome.

Desperate not to be seen as a quitter, Diana tries to browbeat her pilot into taking her a third time. No go. On September 5, 16-year-old Chris Sifleet of Devon, England, completes the crossing in 14:56.

At 11 a.m. on September 6, Nyad, having snagged another navigator, begins her third and final attempt. She swims for a few hours before giving up again. She blames failure number three on cold water. That same day, two swimmers complete the crossing: the U.K.’s Kevin Murphy in 15:32 and Canada’s Cynthia Nicholas in 10:20.

Below: Successful English Channel crossings (and Diana Nyad’s attempts) in August and September 1976. Record-setting swims in bold. For more detail on the swims and the swimmers, see Swimming the English Channel and the Solo Swims Database.


  4 Aug


Des Renford



Kevin Murphy



  5 Aug


Tina Bischoff



Michael Read



  6 Aug


Nasser el Shazley



Nazia Faidalla



18 Aug


Marwan Saleh



Magdi Mandour



24 Aug


Richard Davis Hart 



Diana Nyad



25 Aug

Jenny Anderson



30 Aug   

Diana Nyad



31 Aug  


Wendy Brook



Erdal Acet




  5 Sep


Christine Sifleet



Peter Dyton



  6 Sep



Cynthia Nicholas



Kevin Murphy



Diana Nyad



  7 Sep

Michael Read



17 Sep    


Cynthia Nicholas



Robert de St. Paer    




<°))̂)̖)><    ><((̗(̂(°>


Diana Nyad has called herself a superhero for her ability to resist pain. Yet, despite lucking into ideal conditions on at least one of her attempts, she gives up three times, then never returns to try again.

After 1976, she doesn’t mention her English Channel failures, though she often brings up the Channel itself:

Not to disparage the English Channel . . . it’s a great feat. But it’s one of the more lucky swims. There are many many very slow swimmers who make the English Channel because they’re there on the right day. (20/20)




In 1977, Cynthia Nicholas returned and completed a two-way. Not only did she become the first woman to do so, but she shattered Jon Erikson’s record by almost ten hours. In 1990, Britain’s Alison Streeter became the first woman (and third person) to complete a triple.

In 2019, American Sarah Thomas completed a four-way crossing. Except for a little jag at the end, Thomas made it look like a walk in the aquatic park, though it was anything but.



In the early seventies, Nyad said that she skipped the English Channel because it was too easy. “[I]t doesn’t prove a thing,” she declared. “Everybody and his uncle has done it.” The filmmakers who accompanied her to Dover, though, recorded her telling a different story:

[D]uring the last 100 years, there have been almost 2000 attempts to swim the English Channel, and these are the best and the strongest swimmers in the world. Less than ten percent have made it. It’s true that in this sport, in my sport, unlike the 100-meter dash or the mile run, it’s not always who has the most talent and who has developed the most speed, but it’s who has the heart, the guts, and the courage. (14:50)


After her failures, Diana decided she was right the first time: piece-of-cake swim, but you gotta get lucky. As an American, though, perhaps she neglected to consider the value of sustaining herself with salty meat paste rather than sour grapes.

Wendy Brook for Bovril. On August 31, 1976, Brook had heart, guts, courage, and maybe Bovril when she became the first human to swim the Channel in under nine hours. This 1977 television ad shows Brook and Bovril in action. (Image from Daily Mail, London, England; Saturday, November 10, 1979; p. 16; Issue 25947.)


Further Reading

Blog post

“The Captain and Diana”

Addresses Nyad’s lies about information in the Channel Swimming Association’s Channel Swimming Handbook.


English Channel Swims/Records



English Channel debrief

Nyad usually keeps her insecurity stuffed into a dark corner of her soul (to paraphrase Diana Nyad—see penultimate paragraph of Big Questions survivor story). Occasionally, though, her self-doubt makes a run for it. She records this monologue after failure #1.