Winning an Olympic medal was Diana Nyad’s first Xtreme Dream. But she was never fast enough to qualify for the Olympic trials, much less reach an Olympic podium.
Detail from the cover of Swimming World magazine, 9 Sep 1968.
I remember it like it was yesterday…. I looked up at the electronic scoreboard and I was sixth. I didn’t go to Mexico City after all that.
—“The Courage to Succeed”
With five meters to go in the 100 backstroke final at the ’68 Olympic Trials, Kaye Hall of Tacoma, Washington, is well ahead, but less than two seconds separate the remaining seven swimmers. Only the top three earn a trip to Mexico City.
Among the seven trailing Hall is 14-year-old Laura Novak of Dearborn, Michigan. Novak won a state championship at 12. Two years later, she finds herself going head-to-head against some of the greatest athletes in the world. The three officials in her lane lean in with their stopwatches as Novak windmills her last stroke and stretches into the wall.
A few minutes later, her coach gives her the bad news: sixth place.
Above: Results of the 100-meter backstroke final at the 1968 U.S. Women’s Olympic Trials. Winner Kaye Hall of Tacoma, Washington, would go on to set a world record in Mexico City. (Images via USA Swimming.)
In 1968, instantaneous results via touchpads and electronic scoring were new, costly, and rare. The men’s trials had them. The women’s did not. Diana Nyad didn’t know that, though, because she wasn’t at the women’s trials. She didn’t qualify for the Olympic trials in 1968 or any other year.
On the right are the results from the 100 backstroke heats at the 1968 trials. You’ll find Laura Novak in heat four. You won’t find Diana Nyad anywhere.
Could Someone Have Accidentally Left Nyad Off the Results?
No. Had Nyad competed, she would have known about the scoreboard.
She also would have known that the women swam in Los Angeles, not Long Beach:
[B]y the grace of God, I made it into the final eight. The Olympic trials were at Long Beach. Eight people are going to go for the three top spots. Three people would then get to go to Mexico City…. (“The Courage to Succeed”)
In 1968, the Los Angeles Swim Stadium held the women’s trials. The facility was built to host the aquatic events of the 1932 Olympics.
Above: The Los Angeles Swim Stadium during the 1932 Olympics. Partially visible in the upper right is the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. (Image via the Huntington Library.)
Below: Screenshot from “1968 Olympics: Women’s Swimming Trials” showing the Coliseum in the background. Janie Barkman represented the U.S. at the Olympics in 1968 and 1972, earning two golds and a bronze.
By 1968, the L.A. Swim Stadium hadn’t yet upgraded to an electronic scoreboard. Electronic touchpad timing for aquatics didn’t become commercially available until 1967. At that time, a new Omega system would set you back about $500,000. That would be around four million dollars today.
Nyad knew none of this when she began telling her trials story sometime in the 1980s or ’90s. But as a sports commentator, she would have seen lots of electronic scoreboards by then. She must have assumed that the 1968 women’s venue had one too. Not to mention that waiting for results would kill her momentum.
Above right: Nyad in an ABC Wide World of Sports promotional photo from 1979.
Below: Rather than an electronic scoreboard, the women’s trials had what looks like a nifty bulletin board.
Screenshot from “1968 Olympics: Women’s Swimming Trials.”
When Diana Requests a Change of Venue
Despite claiming to “remember it like it was yesterday,” Nyad sometimes changes the race’s location. In her 2014 Middlebury College commencement address and her 2015 memoir, Find a Way, she describes a non-specific meet before the trials. No matter the venue, though, her story always ends the same: touch wall, check electronic scoreboard, miss top three.
But no meet in which Nyad swam before the trials had an electronic scoreboard. More importantly, in qualifying for the trials, top three was meaningless. Swimmers in 1968 had to achieve a time standard, just like they do today. Once at the trials, though, “top three” meant everything because it got you a seat on the plane to Mexico City. So Nyad is always talking about the trials, even when she’s not.
In a 1974 Military Life article, Nyad changes her story in another way, claiming to have swum the 400 IM at the trials and placed fifth. The results, however, show former world record-holder Patty Caretto taking fifth. Claudia Kolb, who went on to win the event in Mexico City, finished first in world-record time.
But Nyad never talks about any of these great athletes or their record-breaking swims. When Nyad speaks of the trials, she mentions only one name: Diana Nyad. On the other hand, in her 1978 memoir, Other Shores, she doesn’t bring up the Olympic trials at all.
If Nyad had been there, she would have said something.
So How About Those Men?
Two days after the women finished in Los Angeles, the men’s event began about 25 miles down the freeway in Long Beach. The city’s new Belmont Plaza Pool had opened just two weeks earlier with a celebration, the program for which boasts that Belmont’s “Electronic scoring and timing equipment is [the] most modern available.” If Nyad saw photos of the men’s trials or watched it on television, she would have seen the facility’s state-of-the-art electronics and probably assumed that the women had the same.
But you know what assuming does: It makes you think that everyone swam in Long Beach and had an electronic scoreboard.
Screenshot of the scoreboard at Belmont Plaza. (Image: screenshot from “1968 Olympics: Men’s Swimming Trials.”)
I am grateful to the many people who contributed to this entry. In particular, I am immensely thankful to one 1968 Olympic Trials competitor whose input regarding the event—and regarding timing systems—enriched this page beyond measure, electronic or otherwise.
Further Watching and Reading
On this site
Associated Press photo of damaged scoreboard at 1967 Pan American Games in Winnipeg. The same image appears in the Wisconsin State Journal. The Miami Herald published a different view (with Nyad coincidentally on the same page).