In July 1978, Walter Poenisch became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida. Diana Nyad slandered him in the press, causing him to lose his sponsors and his reputation. Poenisch sued Nyad and won an out-of-court settlement and a letter of retraction.
Cover of the October 2013 edition of (614), the edition which includes Lori Gum’s “Lost At Sea” (download).
by Laura Sanders.
“He’s not a legal marathon swimmer…. He does not swim by the rules. He’s a gimmick. He’s a cheat. In the world of sports, he’s a cheat.”
—Diana Nyad, New York Times, 14 Jul 1978
Walter Poenisch planned his Cuba-Florida “Swim For Peace” for over a decade. He had two fundamental goals: improve U.S. relations with Cuba; and show that getting older didn’t mean giving up your dreams, even when those dreams involved swimming 100 miles. Sound familiar?
Before and after the swim, Diana Nyad did everything she could to ruin Walter Poenisch:
“With all due respect to the aged, a man who’s 64 years old and very overweight is not going to swim for two days nonstop.” (Miami Herald, 26 June 1978)
I’ve been calling the Swimming Hall of Fame about this guy who claims he’s done some ninety-mile swim, and of course it’s illegitimate, ridiculous. (Ms. Magazine, Aug 1978)
“Nothing personal,” she said, “but he was strictly a charlatan. See, marathon swimming isn’t like other sports. A baseball player can’t say he hit .500 for the season because somebody can check. How was somebody supposed to check on Poenisch?” (Minneapolis Tribune, 10 Feb 1980)
Nothing personal, but those accusations sound awfully familiar too.
“As far as I’m concerned,” said Faye Poenisch, Nyad “helped destroy my husband’s life” (“Lost at Sea,” p. 65). The Poenisches sued Nyad for defamation in 1979. In 1983, after finally tracking her down and deposing her, Walter and Faye Poenisch won an out-of-court settlement and a letter of retraction. In the contest for Briefest and Most Insincere Retraction in History, Nyad’s letter gives her a legitimate claim for a spot on the podium:
From “Widow Of Columbus Man Says He Completed Cuba To Florida Swim First,” an interview with Faye Poenisch on September 5, 2013.
A month after her 2013 Cuba crossing, Nyad made a show of publicly apologizing to Walter Poenisch. “Whatever he did,” she told the Wall St. Journal, “he was an incredible swimmer” (c.f. “Damning with faint praise”).
Nyad’s Find a Way is, for all practical purposes, the story of her fifth attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida and of her life leading up to it. But the book contains no mention of Poenisch. Given the crocodile tears with which she dampened the Wall St. Journal two years earlier—“I wish that I could look up to the sky and tell Walter that I am profusely sorry”—you’d think she would concede him at least a brief acknowledgment.
Nothing doing. Nor does Nyad mention Poenisch a single time during the rest of her Everest-sized pile of interviews and public appearances. Instead, she ignores him, just like she ignores the women who circled Manhattan before she did, the swimmers who really swam in the 1968 Olympic Trials, and the genuinely great marathoners of the 1970s—practically any other athlete, for that matter, who is not named Diana Nyad.
On August 26, 2017, the ISHOF posthumously honored Walter Poenisch with induction as a Pioneer Open Water Swimmer. Diana Nyad is often mistakenly referred to as an ISHOF inductee—for example, see her bios at TED Talks, AARP, and KCRW. The latter even gives her year of induction. But she is not, nor has she ever been, nor does she deserve to be, a member.
Walter Poenisch’s International Swimming Hall of Fame induction video.
For more information about Walter Poenisch’s historic Cuba-Florida swim, please see the Swim For Peace site. Also, see sportswriter Dave Heeren’s book The Sporting Stings. Heeren includes an illuminating chapter about Poenisch and Nyad.
(♦ denotes articles that contain Nyad’s defamatory remarks)