In search of the truth about Diana Nyad
Omissions, Exaggerations, and Lies in Diana Nyad's Find a Way
Detail from Dawn Blomgren's photo of Diana Nyad (presumably) on the second day of her 2013 crossing. Note the LED-lit streamer snaking around her back. See "Everything is Connected" section for more. Image via HuffPost.
Given the recent deluge of media about scammers, con artists, and frauds, could there be anything original left to say about these enthralling scoundrels? Anna Sorokin (a.k.a. Anna Delvey), Elizabeth Holmes, Billy McFarland, Rick Singer (and his cornucopia of co-conspirators), wine fraudster Rudy Kurniawan, and embezzler Rita Crundwell (who stole over $50 million from a small town in Illinois to support her horse-breeding operation), to name just a few—can one more book or movie possibly add anything new to our understanding of con artistry?
Oscar-winning directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin have found a way. They've begun work on a scammer biopic with a novel twist: no one involved in the project—including the directors themselves—knows that their subject is a fraud. Diana Nyad is that good.
According to the producers' initial press release, the movie will be an adaptation of Nyad's 2015 memoir, Find a Way. So, it seemed like the right time to take another look at the book I first addressed five years ago in "From Bimini to the Big Apple—the Lies in Find a Way."
It turns out that I missed so many fabrications the first time that just calling them "lies" grossly understates the extent of Nyad's deceit. She lies about practically everything—from the trivial
Nyad's Basic Training for Women came out in the fall of 1981, two months before Jane Fonda's Workout Book. With a wave of Diana's magic wand, the two books arrive on precisely the same day in the spring.
to the momentous
Nyad became the seventh woman to swim around Manhattan, and—presto!—she's the first.
to the absurd
Nyad's grandfather died at 58, et voilà, he marries at 71.
(Of course, there's also that bit about swimming from Cuba to Florida.)
Is it possible she just made a few honest mistakes? If Find a Way contained only a handful of errors, then yes. However, she crosses into dishonest territory early on. Maybe it's page 53, when she says she looked at a scoreboard that didn't exist; or page 44, when she calls herself the best backstroker in Florida; or much earlier, on page 16, when anonymous "experts" inform her that "the box jelly usually delivers a fatal sting."
Nyad spent over thirty years as a journalist, so she knows the importance of getting her facts straight. Basic journalistic principles, however, are just one more set of rules Diana Nyad chooses to ignore.
Most of Nyad's untruths have a single purpose. She spoke openly about it early in her career:
I would not deny that the day to day motivations are fame and fortune. . . . I want very much to be recognized. (Ft. Lauderdale News, 16 Nov 1975)
That hasn't changed: Diana still covets recognition. She wants everyone to know that she's epic. And she has proven again and again that she won't let the truth stand in her way:
I became, in the 1970s the best ocean swimmer in the world. I held all the records on planet earth, out in the open sea. (Wilshire Ebell address, 7 Oct 2019—audio clip)
But Diana Nyad never held a single record for any major solo ocean swim. And she never came close to being the best marathon swimmer of the 1970s or any other era. (In the “Pro Swimming Career” section, I'll address the fluke of her 1974 World Championship.) In Find a Way, though, she wants to convince us not only that she was a great athlete but also a stellar human being:
In those younger years, the drive hinged on an imperative of proving my worth, to others and to myself. I found myself spelling out evidence to every stranger on a city bus as to what an impressive person I was. In later years, that drive didn't wane in intensity but derived from the joy of living a bold life. Hard-earned security evolved me from desperately needing to convince people that I was 502special to simply living a special life. (94)
On the contrary, little has changed. We're all strangers on a bus, a tanned woman in the next seat desperately trying to impress us with tales about swimming of all things.
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1. Family is Everything
Lucy Winslow Curtis [Diana's mother] was born in New York City in 1925, daughter of a wealthy, erudite man of society: businessman, artist, and college professor George Warrington Curtis, age seventy-one. Her mother was a young show dancer and gold digger, Jeanette, age twenty-one. (36)
For more on Jeanette Glass Curtis and her dancing career, as well as Marion Morgan, see "Dance, Jenny, Dance" and "Articles about Marion Morgan, Dorothy Arzner, Jeannette Glass, and George Warrington Curtis." Note the misspelling of "Warrington" in the caption. They correct it here.
To attack Jeanette, Diana dusts off the sexist and classist trope of a wily young seductress using sex to snare a wealthy, powerful man. Diana doubles the age difference to amplify our revulsion, eventually forcing her into some fancy footwork regarding birth order. She also ignores the power imbalance—in Diana's version, doddering G. W. stands no chance against Jeanette's wickedness.
All of that is possible. But I can think of several alternative storylines that imbue George with more agency than a piece of driftwood, don't denigrate Jeanette, and climax the same way: a shotgun wedding on September 27, 1924, with Lucy arriving a day shy of 7 months later .
The Curtis family had come from a century-old successful clan of New Yorkers, starting back in the early 1800s with the first Lucy Winslow, one of the first female physicians in Manhattan. (36)
The first Lucy Winslow (1809-1899), Nyad's great-great-grandmother, came from Maine and was not a physician. She married druggist Jeremiah Curtis in 1829 in Freedom, Maine. They moved to New York sometime between 1850 and 1855, after the success of Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup. (See relevant birth, marriage, and census documents and "Mrs. Winslow's Credentials.")
This forebear Lucy evidently invented a soothing syrup for babies, long before such products were regulated. The syrup was laced with a pacifying ingredient, and it was the consumer product, the rage of its time, catching lightning in a bottle when Dr. Winslow's husband, Jeremiah Curtis, threw his marketing skills into it. (36)
Diana's anonymous pacifying ingredient? Morphine. The American Medical Association called Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup "a baby killer."
And to reiterate, there was no Dr. Winslow. (Not to mention that she likely would have been "Dr. Curtis" back then.) Also, it's improbable that either Lucy or her mother, Charlotte Winslow, the patent medicine's actual namesake, invented Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup. Much more likely: Lucy's druggist husband Jeremiah concocted it, then used his mother-in-law's name to make the product sound safer and more congenial than the era's other opium-laced patent medicines.
I had evidently discovered my grandparents had died in their early to mid-eighties, one in his early seventies. (44)
The word "evidently" is one of Nyad's tells, like "trust me" or "I remember it like it was yesterday." None of Nyad's grandparents died in their early seventies, nor did any live into their eighties. The second column below gives their ages at death:
Marion Elizabeth Stokes
21 Mar 1881–7 Dec1941
16 Jun 1869–11 Sep 1927
[Jeanette and George] had a stunning mansion out in tony Southampton, near the Jackie Bouvier Kennedy family's fabled manor, Grey Gardens. I've seen pictures of that Curtis home. Oh my. (37)
You can see pictures of it, too—the Library of Congress holds a bunch of them. Whether or not it was near Grey Gardens depends on how you define "near." The Curtis home sat on a 100-acre tract on Captains Neck Lane in Southampton. Grey Gardens lies almost 15 miles away in East Hampton, a considerable trek in the 1920s. Near or not, mentioning Grey Gardens provides Nyad her first of three opportunities to associate herself with Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis (see p. 66 and photo between pp. 212 and 213).
Map excerpted from Hagstrom's 1931 map of Long Island. Insets excerpted from Hyde's Atlas of a Part of Suffolk County, Long Island, New York, Double Page Plate No. 5 and Double Page Plate No. 9. All via NYPL Digital Collections.
Diana wants another whack at Jeanette, so she uses family gossip to all-but-accuse her of murder:
The lore of Mom's parents is sketchy, but the story goes that this young dancer had a baby in 1925. She had this older gentleman of a husband and all of Manhattan at her fingertips. Scuttlebutt has it that George was ill with pneumonia in the winter and his windows were suspiciously left wide open. However it transpired, Lucy's father George died when she was still just a baby.
The ink on Jeanette's inheritance papers had barely dried when little Lucy was packed up and sent to live in France with George's younger brother Atherton, sixty-eight.
Atherton was an expat in Paris, having moved there as a young man, and married to a Danish woman named Ingeborg. It was arranged. They would adopt little Lucy.
I've found no evidence that Atherton and Ingeborg legally adopted Lucy, though that would be hard to prove one way or the other.
I have a diary of Atherton's from those days. He was an art collector, mainly of Egyptian artifacts. As a matter of fact, his collection was eventually donated to the Louvre. (37)
Given the nonsense Nyad ascribes to Atherton's diary, it's unlikely it exists. His collection included far more than Egyptian artifacts. He donated works to many institutions, including Boston's Museum of Fine Arts (see 1914 print dept. annual report, p. 86) and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (see 1935 annual report, p. 58), as well as the Louvre.
Atherton and Ingeborg were patrons of the arts, lived next door to Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas on Rue Notre Dame des Champs, and had soirees where the likes of Gauguin, Matisse, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Zelda dropped by for cultured conversation. (37)
Stein and Toklas lived at 27 rue de Fleurus, the Curtises at 17 Notre Dame des Champs—not next door, but within a three-minute walk. It's unlikely, though, that Atherton and Ingeborg hung out with Stein and Toklas or any of the other luminaries in Diana's fusillade of famous names. In his voluminous correspondence with another American expat, artist Henry Ossawa Tanner, Atherton only mentions one of them:
I don't see any choice between Bouguereau, Manet, Renoir, Cabanel, or Matisse. Each paints in a different way from the other that is all & each one is just as bad as the other. (27 May 1932)
Dore as a painter could hold his own with Bouguereau, Manet, Matisse or any of them for badness. O là, là! What painting the world has had inflicted on it. ( ibid)
As for Gauguin, he died in 1903, the year before Atherton began living outside the U.S. and at least seven years before he married Ingeborg.
(Note that Atherton Curtis's Wikipedia page also reports that he hobnobbed with Matisse and the Fitzgeralds. The source of this information: Find a Way. I smell a Woozle. I'll define Woozles later, in "The Dry Years.")
Atherton's diary is mostly impersonal, but one entry does allow insight into the delight these two older parents, who had never had their own children, enjoyed in raising Lucy: "I came around the corner and there was little Lucy, holding the bars of her crib, taking her first steps! What joy!" (37)
Walk at one, talk at two, move in with Atherton and Ingeborg around three—so Lucy took her first steps well before she turned up in Atherton's diary, if such a thing exists.
Lucy was born in April 1925. We don't know precisely when she began living in France, but it was sometime after September 1927—when her father died—and before June 1928, when she first appears in one of her uncle Atherton's letters to Tanner:
Lucy is having a grand time. She runs the whole house. This morning she made & baked little cookies herself & very sweetly offered one to Ingeborg & one to me. I couldn't resist & eat a piece although I had seen the process of making. ( 29 Jun 1928)
So, Lucy was somewhere between 2½ and 3 when she went to France.
Though the Tanner letters put the lie to several of Nyad's claims, they do suggest that Atherton and Ingeborg loved having Lucy in their lives. They even exulted in her aquatic skills, something Diana doesn't mention:
Lucy is still at Le Touquet.* A letter from her yesterday announced that she had been able to swim without a cork belt. (17 Aug 1935)
Lucy got back yesterday afternoon. Left Le Touquet at 13 something & arrived in Fontainebleau 18:20. She is brown as chocolate & can swim like a fish. Yesterday morning she went for her last swim & swam from one end of the piscine to the other, 60 meters in 106 strokes. (27 Aug 1935)
*La Touquet is a seaside town about 50 kilometers south of Calais.
Curiously, while Nyad fabricates stories about her relatives, brags about their unlikely connection to historic A-listers, and drops other famous names every chance she gets, she never once mentions the only renowned artist with whom Atherton and Ingeborg had a well-documented personal relationship: Henry Ossawa Tanner.
According to the Smithsonian, Tanner is "the most distinguished African-American artist of the nineteenth century." Atherton and Ingeborg's patronage enabled him to work without worrying about money (most of the time). What's more, the relationship between Tanner and the Curtises transcended that of artist–patron. Their closeness suffuses their correspondence. Here's one of my favorite passages. It comes from the end of a June 2, 1930, letter to Tanner and his son, Jesse. Lucy would have been five:
When we got back I told Lucy we had been to see her friend Mr. Tanner & she said "I like my friend Mr. Tanner."
Here is much love from both of us to both of you.
Here is something else of Lucy's. She pointed to your picture of "Abraham's Oak" & said "That's by Mr. Tanner. You and I know it's blue but other people think its green. Even Mr. Tanner hisself thinks its green." Which is one on you.
Henry Ossawa Tanner, Abraham's Oak, 1905, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Norman Robbins.
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Lucy, Come Home
Lucy returned to the U.S. in 1941 and, according to Diana, tried to reconnect with her mother:
Jeanette's apartment was on the East Side of Manhattan somewhere. When Lucy knocked and announced herself, her mother never even opened the door, not a crack. . . . Her mother, through that cold closed door, told her she gave her up a long time ago, there was a reason she had never answered any of her letters all these years, and she didn't want to have anything to do with her. (38)
None of the above happened. By the time Lucy returned stateside, her mother had remarried and moved to Los Angeles, where she had grown up. (See "Through That Cold Closed Door" for more on Jeanette's early years in southern California.)
Diana says that Lucy had no communication with Jeanette before returning to the U.S. If that's true, then Lucy may not have known she was looking for Mrs. Arthur Cernitz, a name her granddaughter never mentions in Find a Way.
Jeanette Cernitz (next to a Cord 810) in front of the Arthur W. Cernitz residence in Pacific Palisades, California (detail), c. 1938. Maynard L. Parker, photographer. Courtesy of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
When I went up to the Columbia University pool for a photo shoot after swimming around Manhattan in my mid-twenties, I was struck by a photo-graph on the wall. . . . I read about this one and that one, and then came to a handsome fellow named George Warrington Curtis. . . . The caption said that George was captain of the Columbia swimming and track teams and he was the first person ever to swim across Long Island Sound. . . . I discovered there was distance swimming in my genes. (38-39)
Beyond Nyad's statements, there's no evidence for any of this. And Nyad's fabrications have a habit of inflating with time, so George captains only the Columbia swim team in a 2011 version:
I discovered in my 20's, while coaching at Barnard, that he (George Warrington Curtis) was not only captain of the Columbia University Swimming Team in his day but that he was also the first person ever to swim across the Long Island Sound. ( "History Rewritten . . .")
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Of William Sneed, her biological father and Lucy's first husband, Diana writes:
Apparently Sneed was a worthless wretch. . . . Mom gave him thirty minutes to pack and made him promise he would never again contact us. Her first business was to change our names legally. (39)
Lucy's surname didn't change until she became Lucy Nyad, so it's unlikely that Diana or her brother's did either. The Social Security Death Index lists Diana's brother, who died in 2010, as "William L. Sneed." His surname may never have been legally altered. It's an open question, then, whether Diana's changed either.
After parting ways with Mr. Sneed,
Mom moved to Palm Beach Florida, to make a new start. (40)
This happened! Diana would have been three years old. The photo below shows a five-year-old Diana somewhere among her fellow Palm Beach kindergarteners. I include this tidbit of truth because sometime around the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Diana began saying she lived in New York until she was seven. She even showed off her New York accent.
Five months after Lucy filed for divorce from William Sneed, she became Mrs. Aristotle Z. Nyad. Diana was four. She reports that less than a year later, on her fifth birthday, Aris excitedly opened the family's unabridged dictionary to the word "naiad" and read the definition:
"'naiad: in modern colloquial terrms . . .'
A girrl or woman champion swimmerr. Oh my God, darrling, zis is yourr destiny!"
I didn't latch onto the words "girl or woman," or "swimmer." I was, after all, only five. What I heard was the word "champion." From that day, I started walking around with my shoulders held just a little higher. (28)
No unabridged dictionary available in 1954 gives anything close to that definition of "naiad." The Random House Unabridged comes closest: "a girl swimmer, esp. an expert one." But that wasn't published until 1966, the year Diana turned 17.
Nyad repeats the lie twice:
No matter what other inner journeys I've traveled, my perception of myself as champion, as read to me from the bold black and white of the dictionary at such an impressionable age, has superseded all the rest. (34)
Nyad-naiad, nymph of the sea, girl or woman champion swimmer-may not have been my birth name after all, but it had been my name all my life. And it was the perfect name. (41)
Unfortunately, Diana includes little about the fascinating man from whom she inherited more than just a fortuitous surname. For details on Aris Nyad—con artist, career criminal, smuggler, and God only knows what else—see:
It wasn't too long after Aris showed me my name in the dictionary that my elementary school geography teacher, a former Olympic swimmer, promised that any kid who came out for the swim team would get an A in geography. (44)
She was in middle school when this happened, not elementary school.
From those early childhood days-that first day in the pool at age ten . . . (44)
Even as a ten-year-old, I was getting up at four-thirty every morning, 365 days a year, no alarm clock needed. (44)
Whatever swim-related sleep habits she developed, they didn't begin for at least two more years.
It wasn't long before I was the best back-stroker in the state of Florida. (44)
Diana was never the best backstroker in Florida. However, she did win two state high school championships:
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2. The 1960s-1970s
The Olympic Trials (1968)
It was my last 100-meter backstroke. . . . Top three would go on to compete for a coveted spot on the Mexico City team. (51)
Qualifying for the trials doesn't work that way. Swimmers must meet a time standard. Place means nothing.
Eyes still closed, I take a deep breath, then look up to the board. I am sixth. I go over to shake hands with the three girls who are moving on. (53)
Nyad couldn't look up at a "board" for instantaneous results because there wasn't one. Electronic scoreboards that gave such results only became commercially available for swimming in 1967. In 1968, scoreboards connected to electronic touchpads were still too expensive for most facilities.
Even the 1968 women's Olympic Trials didn't have such a setup. For close finishes, the athletes had to wait for the results. "My coach told me when I finished that I didn't finish in the top 3," recalled one of the competitors in the 1968 Olympic Trials 100-back final. "I think we just waited for final results to be announced" (via email).
And yet again, Nyad's story assumes qualification-by-place, which doesn't happen accept at the trials, and then only in the finals.
Nyad tells multiple versions of her trials story, including one where she's swimming at the Olympic Trials themselves. In her 2015 Lake Forest College commencement address and elsewhere, Nyad lies about finishing sixth at the trials, stealing that position from 14-year-old Laura Novak of Dearborn, Michigan. For details, see "Olympic Trials (1968)."
In a 2019 letter to International Swimming Hall of Fame CEO Brent Rutemiller, Nyad downplays her "top three qualify for the trials" story after he took issue with it:
I remember your concern that I spoke incorrectly about the qualification process for the Olympic Trials at one point. The gist of my story was that I did not qualify and the point was to share the life lesson that came with not making it. Could I look back at the discipline, the dedication, over my young years and feel confident that there were no regrets that I could have given more? Absolutely no regrets. And that's what the audience, non-swimmers, took from that story.
I spoke with a couple of Olympians after that conversation with you. John Naber, for example. They found it meaningless, especially some fifty years later, the details of whether Trials qualification was based on time or place in a heat.
But you respectfully pointed out that your job is to protect the sport and the correct details are important. I respected that and have never made that mistake since.
Translation: "I think your point is ridiculous, but you hold a powerful position from which you can help ratify my swim and induct me into the International Swimming Hall of Fame. So, I'll change my story a bit."
And that's what she did: after 2018 or so, she never—well, almost never—said "top three" again. See the video, "Olympic Trials: The Precipice."
Nyad prefaces her trials tale with a story about a debilitating illness:
Junior year I contracted a heart disease called endocarditis, which required three months of strict bed rest. (49)
Those three months began in 1966 as "out of the water for six weeks" (Ft. Lauderdale News). Eventually, her recuperation balloons to "bedridden for a year" or more. See "Diana's Kaleidoscopic Convalescence" and "Diana's Kaleidoscopic Convalescence (Summary)."
Pine Crest swim team circa 1966. Via Florida Memory. Nyad's in the top row, second from the right. See also this Florida Memory photo of Pine Crest students from around the same time. Nyad is again in the top row, second from right.
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Pro Swimming Career: Skinny D vs. The Burly Crew
Nyad swam her first pro race in 1971, a Lake Ontario 10-miler at Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.
It took me by surprise, but I was once again immersed, this time not in a pool but in open water. I hadn't swum since high school. (58-59)
Nyad attended Emory University in Atlanta from 1967-1968, then Lake Forest College in Illinois from 1970-1973. She swam while at both schools. During her brief tenure at Emory, she continued to swim for her high school coach, Jack Nelson. At Lake Forest, she lettered in swimming in the 1969-70 and 1970-71 school years.
I found myself standing on the shore of a very cold Canadian lake, having just been greased down with ten pounds of wool fat, lanolin, a unique experience unto itself. (59)
Diana's first pro race took place under ideal conditions: a sunny day with water in the mid-60s and little wind. No marathon swimmer would have covered themselves in 10 pounds of lanolin for a relatively short swim under such conditions.
Solo swims also have long been part of the history of the sport, and my first was frigid Lake Ontario, 1974. Eighteen hours, twenty minutes. I didn't like it. But I did it. (60)
A lie by omission: the 18-hour and 20-minute swim was a failed double-crossing attempt. She also sometimes says that it was the 10-miler at Hamilton that took her 18 hours and 20 minutes (or 37 hours and 38 minutes, depending on the version). In fact, she had a great race, setting a new women's record of 4 hours and 32 minutes. For details, see "First Pro Race."
I had the chance to swim a few weeks for the renowned University of Indiana swim coach Jim Counsilman, Mark Spitz's coach. Coach Counsilman told me I was born for open-water swimming; he said I had the perfect stroke for gliding long distances. (60)
I've found no evidence that Counsilman ever said that. One of the greatest swim coaches in history and a successful English Channel swimmer, he did tell Sports Illustrated that Nyad is "a very mediocre swimmer with a very good publicist."
The swims ranged from ten to twenty-five miles. This colorful cast of burly marathoners and skinny me. (60)
On the above right is Sandra Bucha, the great pro swimmer who trounced Nyad—and just about everyone else, male or female—every time they raced. Bucha doesn't have an ounce of burliness to her name. The athlete on the left is John Kinsella, one of the few people who could beat Bucha. Nothing burly about him, either, or about Phil Dodson, the pro swimmer in the middle. (Image via openwaterswimming.com.)
Nyad never mentions Bucha in Find a Way or any other public forum. Privately, however, she acknowledged Bucha’s dominance at least once—to Sandra Bucha’s parents. Nyad won the 1974 World Professional Marathon Swimming Federation (WPMSF) championship despite Bucha's unmistakable superiority. A quirk of the scoring system allowed Nyad to amass more points than any other woman. However, except for a race in Argentina where no other international-caliber female swimmers competed, Nyad got trounced in almost every race she entered. Bucha beat Nyad by 47 minutes or more every time they went head to head—when Nyad finished at all. For the second year in a row, she quit at La Tuque, forcing her partner, Marcello Guiscardo of Argentina, to swim the final seven hours of the 24-hour relay alone. Meanwhile, Bucha was setting the record for most laps ever swum.
Bucha's coach and parents joined the many pro swimmers outraged that the WPMSF crowned the inferior athlete. In a patronizing letter to the Buchas, Nyad first explains why she (Nyad!) deserves the award, then acknowledges their daughter's supremacy:
At the close of the 1974 season there is absolutely no professional swimmer or anyone knowledgeable about the sport who deny that Sandy Bucha is the best female to date. (4 Dec 1974)
Nyad copied this letter to WPMSF president Dennis Matuch, who'd been fielding the anger regarding Nyad's victory. "As you might notice," she told Matuch, "[the letter] is exaggerated and very kiss-ass which [her parents] don't deserve but Sandy might so it's OK" ( original / transcription, 14 Dec 1974). See "When is a world champion not a world champion."
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Manhattan: I Got Here First! (1975)
I was the first woman to swim around Manhattan. (66)
Nyad was the seventh woman to complete the swim. When she swam around the island, she knew of at least two predecessors and probably more.
A little research told the stories of a handful of men who had swum all the way around [Manhattan], in the early 1900s, but it hadn't been done since 1927. (63)
Nyad did more than "a little research" before her Manhattan swim. In her first memoir, Other Shores (1978), she gives details about two of the women who preceded her, and she implies she knows of others:
The first woman completed the circuit [on September 24, 1916]. Ida Elionsky's time was a very respectable 11 hours, 35 minutes. There were others who made the swim . . . but I will simply mention the male and female record holders. Diane Struble plunged into the Battery waters on August 15, 1959, and reached her original starting point in 11 hours, 21 minutes. (57)
Nyad says that she met Candace Hogan in the aftermath of her Manhattan endeavor. Candace would become one of Diana's most zealous supporters and the only individual to help on all five Cuba attempts.
Nyad goes on to say that, around the same time she met Candace, she attended a tennis match between two legends, American Chris Evert and Australian Evonne Goolagong:
The public life was scintillating for me, but I also at that time met someone to share this charmed life with. We were both twenty-six, and it was love at first sight.
Billie Jean King's magazine womenSports had done an article on me, and the staff invited me to a tennis match between Chris Evert and Evonne Goolagong in Madison Square Garden. . . . I was across the street from the magazine's offices when my heart skipped a beat. Waiting to cross at the light was a young Elizabeth Taylor. . . . She introduced herself as Candace Lyle Hogan, stated that she was an editor at the magazine that had profiled me, that it was in fact they who had invited me to the match, and we all went down to the Garden together. (67, my emphasis)
The womenSports article Diana refers to, "Fantasies and Fatigue: Diana Nyad floats alone," appeared in the March 1976 issue. She was 26, Candace two months shy of 28.
What's more, the staff of WomenSports could not have invited Nyad to an Evert-Goolagong match at Madison Square Garden because there wasn't one. Evert and Goolagong faced each other many times, but never at The Garden.
From 1975 through 1977, Goolagong didn't play there. Evert did, but only in one tournament: the 1977 Virginia Slims Championships. She beat Virginia Wade, Rosie Casals, and Mima Jaušovec to reach the finals, where she overcame Sue Barker for the title.
Tennisabstract.com lists all matches of individual pros. Below are links to Goolagong's:
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Discovering Cuba and a Bathroom
I remember standing on that Fort Lauderdale beach at age nine with my mother. "Where is Cuba, Mom?"
. . . [She] raised her arm to point toward the horizon. "There. It's right over there. You can't see it but it's so close, you could almost swim there." (15)
Candace and I gathered the charts of the Earth's oceans on the floor of our Upper West Side apartment. We had lived among boxes there for a year when to our delight, we discovered a half bath off the kitchen we never knew about.
. . .
I remember it as if it were yesterday. My eyes swept the charts and, zowie, there it was. Cuba. (69)
They had lived in an apartment for a year before discovering a half bath? Sorry, but nobody's that unobservant. And what's it got to do with the charts, anyway?
The excerpt does, however, give us one of Nyad's tells: "I remember it as if it were yesterday." Translation: "whatever I say next didn't happen." For example:
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")
Before Cuba, way back in 1975, the swim that made my heart race was Manhattan. I was the first woman to circle the island. . . . I'll never forget that glorious day. (Facebook, archived, 26 Aug 2016)
Anybody who swims around Manhattan Island or to Catalina Island or across the English Channel has my respect. But as I began to research Cuba in 1977, I quickly understood this was to be an entirely different mountain to climb. (71)
Nyad feigns respect and simultaneously belittles those who succeed where she could not. In 1976, she took a film crew to England to document her quest to become the first woman to complete a two-way crossing of the English Channel. She made three attempts, none of which lasted more than a few hours into the first leg—a small fraction of the total distance she sought to swim. Nyad, who says she never gives up, gave up and never returned.
The following year, Canadian Cynthia Nicholas became the first woman to complete the two-way, finishing two hours faster than the fastest man.
Of the Cuba–Florida swim, Nyad writes:
This is the Mount Everest of ocean swimming. (71)
No one besides Nyad equates the Florida Straits with Mount Everest, though she wants us to think otherwise:
[N]ow another elite Australian swimmer named Chloë McCardel has her sights on being the first to cross without aid. . . . [S]he is issuing statements about the Cuba Swim being the Mount Everest of ultradistance swimming. (244)
Chloë McCardel said that swimming the English Channel is like climbing Mt. Everest, a more accurate analogy. She has never called the Cuba crossing "the Mount Everest of ultradistance swimming."
What's more, Nyad omits that by the end of the 2012 season, McCardel had swum the English Channel six times—two singles and two doubles. And she didn't stop there. On October 13, 2021, she completed her 44th crossing, one more than Britain's Allison Streeter, the previous record holder for most crossings in history.
Diana also implies that she plans to be the first to swim from Cuba to Florida unassisted, i.e., "without artificial assistance to performance, other than the standard equipment of the sport" (Marathon Swimmers Federation).
However, even if she crossed under her own power, no existing set of marathon swimming rules would call her paraphernalia-dependent swim unassisted.
Of the crossing, Nyad writes:
It seems others had tried, going back to 1950. And springing forward to today, a few more have given it a go. . . . But whereas thousands swim ocean stretches around the world, year by year, only a handful of individuals have been brazen enough to try this stretch. (72)
I include the above nearly-true statement because Nyad usually says something different. A representative example:
All the great swimmers of the ocean have tried [to swim from Cuba to Florida]—male, female, young, strong, fast. (Brink of Midnight podcast, #9, 28:05, archived)
A group of Cuban men made an unsuccessful relay attempt in 1950. The first solo attempt came 28 years later when Walter Poenisch succeeded in 1978. Since then, only five others, including Nyad, have attempted to cross. See "Everbody's Doin' It" for details.
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1978: 1st Cuba–Florida Attempt
Finally, in late May, the Cuban minister of sport sent word through Washington that we were cleared. (83)
Despite her media blitz and statements to the press—including The Herald—that she has the permission of the Cuban government to make her swim, Nyad has no such authority.
"Miss Nyad has sought such clearance but it has not yet been granted," says Rene Mujica, secretary in charge of cultural affairs with the Cuban Interests Section in Washington.
"Mr. Poenisch is the only one so far honored," Mujica says. "In fact, we have been a little confused at some of the statements (Nyad) has made publicly that she has approval . . . because she does not."
Cuba granted Walter Poenisch a visa during the last week of March. He had waited for 11 years. "Golly," he said, "I'm happy as a dolphin." (Orlando Sentinel Star, 1 Apr 1978)
I will say that fund-raising for the event came through in a ten-minute meeting [with Rocky Aoki, the CEO of Benihana]. Mr. Aoki . . . asked how much it was going to cost. I told him $300,000. He pressed a button, and one of his accountants soon entered with a checkbook. . . . I left Mr. Aoki's office with a check for the full amount. (83)
Nyad left empty-handed. From "Diana Nyad: A free spirit tries to plunge into history," Miami News, 16 June 1978:
Rocky Aoki, owner of Miami's Benihana restaurant, offered her funds, the use of his Miami Beach House and a jeep. Unfortunately, when Diana took him up on the offer the funds were unavailable, the house was occupied by his wife and children and the jeep was nowhere to be found.
Considering the above, the following probably didn't happen either:
Margie and I also started eating all our dinners in Miami at Benihana. (83)
President Castro has sent a personal note with good-luck wishes. (85)
Unlikely. Castro supported Poenisch, who'd been planning his "Swim for Peace" for over a decade. I found no evidence that Fidel ever contacted Nyad personally. He did, however, send Walter Poenisch a birthday card.
Faye Poenisch and Cuban president Fidel Castro toast Faye's husband, Walter Poenisch, on his 65th birthday. “With all due respect to the aged,” Diana Nyad told the Miami Herald in June 1978, “a man who’s 64 years old and very overweight is not going to swim for two days nonstop.” Poenisch completed the swim two days after the toast. (Image via Swimming World Magazine.)
Nyad finally gets her chance and begins stroking toward Florida on Sunday, August 13. After a tumultuous start with lots of complaining, Diana decides to change her attitude:
I don't utter one negative word the rest of the way. (87)
Or not. According to the Associated Press, Nyad "gave up—weeping, swollen and screaming at her trainers . . . as they insisted she abandon the 103-mile crossing from Cuba to the Florida Keys."
After failing to complete the Cuba crossing, Nyad swims from the Bahamas instead:
I step off the island of Bimini on August 20 and expect to make it across, though no one has ever done it before. (90)
Jim Woods made it across in 1964. As we've seen, though, Diana Nyad likes to be first. She also likes cameras:
The press boat, a big yacht with a slew of photographers leaning over the railings, looms high above. (90)
"There was no 'press boat' per se, unless she was referring to one of the boats that accompanied her," said Jim Leljedal, who reported on the swim for south Florida radio station WINZ. "There was a photographer, but I think he was part of her entourage. I was the only 'press' (meaning an independent news reporter) present during her swim" (via email). On the other hand, the Miami Herald says there was a press boat, but with only two people aboard.
It's a fine achievement for me, and my Team. It's a world distance record. (91)
It was not a world distance record. Nyad knows this, having pointed out in her previous paragraph that the oft-cited 102.5-mile distance "must be taken with a grain of salt" because:
The general rule for calculating marathon swim distance: you measure the distance from the "starting point to the nearest point of the targeted landmass."* Nyad's content, though, to let the public and the media continue to believe she set a record.
*The "starting point" citation comes from a discussion on the Marathon Swimmers Forum, "Remeasuring the English Channel (What Constitutes Shortest Route?)." Also see "How Do You Measure Open Water Swims?")
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The Dry Years: 1980-2009
In 1981, Nyad published her workout book, Diana Nyad's Basic Training for Women:
There was a timid knock at the door and a young woman sheepishly apologized for interrupting us but said she just found out Jane Fonda was coming out with her first exercise book, by a different publisher, the exact same day, in the spring, that ours was to be published. (96)
Fonda's book "spent more than half a year at number one and more than 16 months in the top five" of the New York Times bestseller list (NY Times, 24 Feb 2008). Nyad's didn't fare as well, which may be why she lied about her head start.
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Julia Child and the Supermodels
On CNBC in its earliest days, I had a weekly half-hour show called One on One with Diana Nyad. It was a poor man's Barbara Walters Special. I'd choose any personality I found interesting—not only sports figures—go get a twenty-minute interview with them, and fill in the half hour with photos and video to tell the stories of their careers, their lives. I loved every minute of it.
For one, I approached Julia Child as a fan in a queue at a wine show in New York. She agreed to be the subject for one of my profiles. But on the scheduled morning we showed up at her town house in Boston, she answered the door, looming above us at the top of the steep steps, even taller than her already six-foot self, tears standing in her eyes. This was the first day her husband, in the throes of Alzheimer's, hadn't recognized her. (99-100, my emphasis)
Though One on One with Diana Nyad wasn't an actual program, many Nyad bios mention it. For example, her TEDMED bio:
From 1989-1992, Diana Nyad even hosted her own show on CNBC, entitled "One on One with Diana Nyad."
That's an example of the woozle effect, one way Nyad fabrications sometimes become facts. A woozle is a myth everyone knows is true because everyone says it's true. The term comes from a chapter in Winnie the Pooh, "In which Pooh and Piglet go hunting and nearly catch a Woozle."
Piglet and Pooh walk in a circle through the snow around a stand of larch trees. They think they're tracking an increasing number of Woozles. In fact, they're seeing more and more of their own footprints.
Further woozles: Nyad's 50-mile Australia swim, 67-mile North Sea jaunt, 30 years out of the water (details below in "Wet Again") and membership in the International Swimming Hall of Fame. (The ISHOF gave Nyad their Al Schoenfield Media Award but never inducted her.)
Nyad didn't swim a single lap for three decades, from 1979-2009. "Major burnout," explains the International Swimming Hall of Fame inductee, who kept busy as a journalist, speaker and radio commentator. "Couldn't pay me to get in the water." ( Miami Herald, 27 Aug 2010)
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The broadcast work that brought me the most personal fulfillment in those years was a column for National Public Radio. It was called The Score, yet for the twenty-two years the weekly opinion piece aired, I never once mentioned the score of anything. NPR was an intellectual and creative play-ground, even though the compensation was rock bottom, $150 per week. (100)
The Score lasted 7 years, not 22. And she didn't make it for NPR. Nyad created the show for KCRW, an NPR affiliate. This distinction may seem unimportant. It certainly wasn't important to Nyad, for whom making a show for NPR must have sounded more prestigious than making one for an affiliated station. But it was important to whoever asked the Los Angeles Times to issue a correction.
And the part about never once mentioning a score? Nonsense, of course. For example:
The Lady Huskies won their 16th Big East title last week, whooping West Virginia in a lop-sided score of 60-32. Also last week, #8 in the country Notre Dame went down to UConn by an embarrassing 25. On Sunday the Huskies crushed Syracuse 77-41. ("Huskies Need Rivals," 11 Mar 2010)
With under two minutes left in the game, the Vikings leading 27-3, on fourth down Favre tosses a touchdown pass into the end zone to notch a final score of 34-3. (“Favre, the Man,” 21 Jan 2010)
Three glaring, definitive ump errors in a game the Yankees romped in a 10-1 victory. (“Baseball Replay,” 22 Oct 2009)
And, that score, 11-10, that incorrect score, was the first time in the history of the NFL, the first time in 12,837 games, that a score of 11-10 had been recorded. ("A Gambler's Empathy," 20 Nov 2008)
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The Agent's Nightmare
I was, for the most part, an agent's nightmare, because as a broadcast journalist I gravitated toward the storytelling shows where the audience number was sometimes so low there was no accurate measurement for it. (98)
Nyad was an agent's nightmare because she was a lousy journalist. In 1981, she predicted that "10 years down the road, I'll be one of the best broadcasters that's ever been." But that's not what happened. In 1984, she covered the Los Angeles Olympics for ABC. "Diana Nyad has been horrendous with post-race interviews," wrote Leo Zainea in the Austin American-Statesman. "She never seems to know what to ask." Sports Illustrated's William Taaffe agreed: "Try as they might, ABC's lesser lights, including such 15-watt bulbs as Gordon Maddux, Cathy Rigby McCoy and Diana Nyad, couldn't sink the show with their biased commentary and shallow interviews."
Five years later, she debuted in the new ABC talk show, Day's End. The Chicago Tribune's Rick Cogan wasn't impressed: "Diana Nyad, who once swam around Manhattan, still seems waterlogged." Michael Dougan of the San Francisco Examiner foresaw a mercifully quick finish: "'Day's End' will end in precious few days, and good riddance."
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Wet Again: 2010-2013
Hadn't Swum in 30 Years
Nyad writes about getting back in the water the month she turned 60:
Over those thirty years out of the water . . . (117)
It had been thirty long years since I had been engaged in the sport. My body memories had faded and it was truly a brand-new experience. (156-57)
Both shoulders had felt strain from the very start, coming back from the thirty-year hiatus. (165)
Granted, while covering almost every sport on the planet those thirty years, as a retired ocean swimmer I was oblivious to the growth of open-water swimming around the world. . . . I did, however, keep my eye on Cuba. I like to think myself a sporting person, but I will admit that each time a swimmer would make an attempt at the Cuba-to-Florida crossing and fail, I would do a little happy dance, alone in my living room. The Dream was still alive for me now, at age sixty, but I hadn't swum a stroke in thirty years. (117, my emphasis)
Also, a sporting and decent person wouldn't do this:
Nyad celebrates another swimmer's failure. See "The Happy Dance" video to watch her celebrate in multiple venues.
(If you need a palate cleanser after that, check out how these Olympic snowboarders react when a competitor hits the jump of a lifetime and wins a gold medal.)
I had basically quit television, radio, and even public speaking—all income avenues—when earnest training started in 2009. (236)
KCRW would have been surprised to hear that. The station aired 46 episodes of The Score in 2009, beginning with "How NFL Parity Works" on January 9 and finishing with "Athlete of the Decade" on December 17. Nyad prepared 47 more episodes in 2010 and 10 in 2011.
Nor did she stop public speaking. Since she often presents at private, unpublicized functions, the following may represent a small fraction of her appearances:
After her first 24-hour training swim, Nyad says:
I proved I was ready for twenty-four hours, and that swim boosted my conditioning level another 50 percent, once I rested. (142)
Nyad provides no evidence to support this nonsensical claim.
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2010: H/T Wikileaks
Sure enough, on August 8, the nightmare we all dread becomes real. That elusive weather window comes and goes but we don't have the government permits. (151)
In desperation, I take a long shot and call a politically connected friend in D.C. It turns out Hilary Rosen is a colleague of Hillary Clinton's, the current secretary of state. The Treasury license we need falls under jurisdiction of the State Department. Much to our surprise, Hillary Clinton sends a message that she will intervene on our behalf. The license comes through within twenty-four hours. (151-52, my emphasis)
Thanks to Wikileaks, we know the exact timeline of Nyad's license acquisition. It bears little resemblance to her Find a Way version. The approval comes in July. Ten days elapse between Hillary Rosen's first message to Secretary Clinton and the Treasury Department's authorization. What's more, it all happens well before that "elusive weather window" closes:
For an informed and humorous take on Nyad's licensing magic, see "How to Really Expedite Your OFAC License Application," by Samuel Cutler, currently an associate at a Washington D.C. law firm specializing in international business law. Note that Cutler doesn't question Nyad's "twenty-four hours" fabrication. He's not alone—see, for example, the Miami Herald and the ExportLawBlog. I smell another Woozle.
Detail from the cover of Pooh Goes Visiting and Pooh and Piglet Nearly Catch a Woozle. Illustration by E. H. Shepard.
For the complete email trail, see "A Unique Request from Diana Nyad," courtesy of Wikileaks.
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2011: 2nd and 3rd Attempts
The Commodore* hosts a press conference at the marina. Big turnout. The Cubans have seen quite a few swimmers from around the world, going back more than sixty years now, jump off their famous shore, with their sights on The Other Shore, the United States. (177)
*José Miguel Escrich, formerly of the Cuban navy.
By the day of the press conference—August 7, 2011—the Cubans had seen a total of four solo attempts going back 33 years. Five Cuban men made an unsuccessful relay attempt in 1950, so Nyad tacks on another three decades.
Nyad began her attempt on the evening of the press conference. She stopped after swimming 28 hours and 42 minutes. She writes of this attempt:
One minute you're making an heroic effort. You're not one to ever quit. The next moment it's over. The reality is a lot to take in. I hate it. (187, my emphasis)
You may not be one ever to quit, but Diana Nyad is:
No one loves quitting, but there's nothing inherently wrong with it. However, there is something inherently wrong with saying you never quit, then quitting as often as Diana Nyad does.
But don't take it from me, take it from Doc Counsilman, possibly "the most influential figure in the history of swimming." He swam the English Channel at age 58, sometime in the middle of his 33 years as head swim coach at Indiana University. Here's what he says about Diana Nyad:
[Diana Nyad is] a very mediocre swimmer with a very good publicist. Most of her swims have been failures. For instance, she has attempted to swim the [English] Channel three times and has never finished. ( Sports Illustrated, 24 Sep 1979)
Physically, I am a better endurance athlete in my sixties than I was in my twenties. (201)
Theoretically, having better endurance in your sixties than in your twenties is possible if you've spent a lot of time in your twenties, thirties, forties, and fifties watching television and eating Hohos. However, if we consider Nyad's 1978 contention that she was "in the best physical shape of anybody on the face of the earth," and we add a dash of common sense, we can conclude that Nyad's spewing more nonsense.
The swim-tech company Finis will make me a custom stinger suit, this in accordance with the rules of marathon swimming. (199)
The "rules of marathon swimming," i.e., English Channel rules unless stipulated otherwise, do not allow stinger suits—or many of the other accessories Nyad adds make her fantasy come true.
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2012: 4th Attempt
Official observer Steve Munatones declares the situation a "life-or-death emergency" and orders the swim to stop temporarily. The lightning is now startling, it's so close. Steve says it will not be called a staged swim. Safety dictates my being pulled from the water onto one of the mother ships. (212, my emphasis)
No existing set of published marathon swimming rules allow a swim to continue after an hours-long stoppage and still be called a continuous marathon swim.
One might get away with calling it a staged swim, i.e., a swim completed in multiple legs, with the swimmer starting each leg at the exact spot they stopped the previous one. But Nyad didn't want a staged swim. She wouldn't accept anything less than a record-setting, continuous, unassisted crossing. "I don't want the record if they're going to call it assisted," she told the Miami Herald two weeks after her 2013 performance.
Finally, after almost five long hours out of the water, it is deemed safe enough to get back in. The worst is over. Bartlett directs the flotilla back to the precise GPS point where we stopped. (213, my emphasis)
According to log entries posted after the attempt, Nyad was out of the water for 7 hours and 20 minutes:
Diana Nyad stopped swimming at 12:13 am on Monday evening.
Diana Nyad started swimming again at 7:33 am on Monday morning.
Her lengthy stoppage is only one of many problems with that attempt. The most damning issue: she held onto and pushed off from Voyager, her guide boat. Grabbing the boat is a bright-line rule in marathon swimming, like stepping out of bounds in football or cutting the course in running. A legitimate marathon swim would have ended the moment Nyad grabbed Voyager.
We only know about this transgression because there's video that someone had the foresight to save before Nyad or a member of her team took it down.
I'm either a stubborn fool, obsessed with an irrational, quixotic Dream, or I'm a valiant warrior who will not let my faith be broken. (218)
She is neither. She's a serial liar and a con artist. That's why she had to succeed the fifth time. Later in Find a Way, she writes:
I won't be the fearful one who quits, and watches someone else one day make it across this magical ocean. I'd rather fail a fifth time. Maybe a sixth. Maybe the rest of my life, rather than quit. (250)
Five failures would have been plenty to show she was an irrational kook. That's why failure was not an option othe following summer.
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2013: Hello, Yellow Brick Road
One way to interpret Elton John and Bernie Taupin's "Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road": the singer/narrator wants to give up the trappings of fame and return to a simpler, more private life—in other words, to leave behind everything Diana Nyad craves. Her illegitimate 2013 crossing finally stamped her visa to the bigtime: a book deal, six-figure speaker fees, worldwide adoration, and now a movie. Her vision of the Yellow Brick Road on the final morning of the swim (p. 264) was both a hallucination and a premonition.
So hello yellow brick road
Bring on the praise and the love
I'm finally here in my penthouse
Looking down from above
My gear's in museums, and I've got a plaque
They publish my words in The Post
I've always known my future lies
Along the yellow brick road
Diana Nyad says that the Cuba–Florida swim was "my Olympics." If so, it was the first Olympics without rules, qualified officials, or accountability to anyone. Even if Nyad made it across under her own power—and there are few reasons to believe she did, while there are plenty to believe she didn’t—she did not complete a legitimate swim from Cuba to Florida.
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The rules of the sport are such that you may not receive any aid at any time, in either moving forward or in staying afloat. (74)
In a masterful piece of deception, Nyad substitutes a small subset of the rules for the whole. She calculates correctly that only experienced marathon swimmers would detect her sleight of hand.
She called her cherry-picked abridgment "the fair, just, ethical and agreed-upon rules of our sport." Below I've listed the actual agreed-upon rules of our sport. Commonly called English Channel (EC) rules, they provide the regulatory foundation for all marathon swims. If a swimmer or organization doesn't publish other guidelines—and Diana never did—it's assumed that EC rules prevail. I've condensed these rules from the website of the Channel Swimming Association, one of two major organizations that oversee English Channel swims.
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, "Mind Over Water," 1975).
After the 1970s, however, Nyad stops mentioning the sections she intends to ignore. Further, she expands the boundaries of other rules to include everything she wants to get away with but can't hide.
We decide I need what you might call full combat armor. . . . The swim-tech company Finis will make me a custom stinger suit, this in accordance with the rules of marathon swimming. (199)
I try a number of gloves, all of which make my hands very tired. It's hard to believe a thin latex glove can make swimming so much harder, but it takes me six months of constant training with the gloves—in the end a certain gauge of surgeon's latex—for my hands not to ache after a long swim. (199)
As for the feet, we wind up using a pair of Finis Lycra booties. . . . The rules of the sport forbid any aid in either moving forward or keeping afloat.
In this case, we are allowed to have a Handler wrap my wrists and ankles with duct tape, a task simply impossible for me to do on my own. But I can't exit the water for the wrapping, nor be propped up. I need to tread on my own steam. (199)
The Shark Team has been busy fashioning a mask out of one of their cotton hoodies . . . Bonnie is gingerly pulling on my Lycra booties and gloves, the rash guard . . . But none of this makeshift protection is against the rules. (21)
On the contrary, it's all against the rules.
Another rule Nyad ignores: a governing organization appoints the observers who then approve the cap and suit. But Nyad's swim had no governing organization, despite an outside offer to set one up in 2012. Steven Munatones claims that a murky organization called the Florida Straits Open Water Swimming Association (FOWSA) oversaw the swim. However, there's no whiff of such an organization until over a year after Nyad's crossing. That's when Munatones posts an entry for it on Openwaterpedia, a website he created and administers:
The Florida Straits Open Water Swimming Association (FOWSA) is a volunteer-run, international organization dedicated to the organization, sanctioning, promotion, recognition and celebration of open water swimmers and relays that attempt to cross the Florida Straits between Cuba and the U.S.A. or Cuba and Mexico. (20 Nov 2014)
Four years later, he added a "History" section that backdated FOWSA creation to 2010 and named Nyad specifically. That section now reads:
[FOWSA] was created in 2010 to propose the rules under which Diana Nyad attempted her crossings the Florida Straits and to authenticate the rules as written were followed.
(Neither Nyad nor Munatones published rules for any of her swims, so there was never anything to follow.)
Munatones also backdated a 2019 claim that another of his organizations, the World Open Water Swimming Association (WOWSA) chose the observers and ratified the Cuba–Florida crossing. Yet, we know that
After the crossing, Nyad told Reuters that
she was following "Florida Straits Rules" during her swim, written for her by Munatones . . . [who] would be distributing copies of the "rules of engagement" for the Florida Straits to the media and the swimming community.
Those rules never materialized.
"DON'T TOUCH HER! STAY BACK! SHE'LL BE DISQUALIFIED IF ANYBODY TOUCHES HER! STAY BACK!" (272)
Nyad's end-of-crossing performance mimicked a genuine marathon swim finish. But her crew members touched her multiple times during the endeavor. Under any existing set of marathon swimming rules, Nyad would have been disqualified long before she reached Key West.
Nyad knows that the cardinal rule of marathon swimming is Thou Shalt Not Touch. Marathon swimmers have followed this rule religiously since at least the 1920s. Gertrude Ederle held herself to the no-touching rule back in 1926 when she became the first woman to swim the English Channel. Her triumph required two attempts. The first ended when one of her crew members, thinking Ederle was in trouble, jumped into the water and grabbed her:
It was 3:58 P.M., and the instant [Egyptian marathon swimmer Ishak] Helmi touched her, the swim was over. (Young Woman and the Sea, 198)
Fifty-two years later, Penny Dean broke the overall English Channel record by over an hour. During her 1977 Catalina Channel double crossing, one of her handlers paddled over with a jar of Vaseline for her badly-chafed skin:
He told me to come closer and he would put it on. Shocked I said, "No way. If you touch me, I'll be disqualified." ( Just Try One More, 99)
Nyad had no such concerns while out of public view. But she made certain that no one touched her once the cameras started rolling:
My Team has jumped off the boats in advance, and they now form two human walls, to make sure nobody touches me with even an innocent brush of a shoulder or a finger until I am, as the rule states, "where no more sea water lies beyond." (272)
She reiterated this at her press conference the next day:
It was very important that no one touch me 'cause you're disqualified. After ALL that, somebody comes up and hugs you and says, 'great job.' DONE!
and then a week later with Ellen Degeneres:
But you can never touch the boat or get out on the boat or touch any other person. So you are in the sea on your own.
In a Facebook post she later deleted, Nyad wrote: "We did not break one rule. I never of course touched a boat or another person." However, the day after she spoke with Degeneres, Nyad changed her story: "I was touched, I agree with it." Had a crew member waded in at the finish, lifted Diana into their arms, and carried her to dry land, they would only have done publicly what Nyad had already done multiple times in mid-ocean privacy, i.e., broken the fundamental rule of marathon swimming.
So, when crew members yelled
DON'T TOUCH HER! STAY BACK! SHE'LL BE DISQUALIFIED IF ANYBODY TOUCHES HER! STAY BACK! (272)
and Key West police shielded her as she waded onto the beach, it was all for show. She gave a credible performance as a swimmer completing a legitimate 52-hour swim. But if Annette Bening wants to get it right, she should ignore Nyad and watch Sarah Thomas and Penny Palfrey instead.
I just don't pay much attention to parameters and restrictions and limiting definitions. My particular brand of "outsider" mentality started young. I remember observing my outlandishly dramatic father and my lovely but meek mother, at a very young age, and deciding that I was going to carve my own unique path, devise my own rules. (222, my emphasis)
And that's exactly what she did between August 31, 2013, and September 2, 2013, though only she knows what they are.
Above: Images from Nyad’s 2013 crossing. Each of the touches pictured — and many others from the endeavor — would have immediately disqualified a swimmer during a legitimate crossing.
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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 waited until the last minute, then recruited two fans who had no training or experience whatsoever.
Nyad had initially lined up Steven Munatones as her sole observer for the planned 60-plus hours of swimming. Why just one observer for a swim that would require a minimum of two? Because Munatones was the only experienced observer Nyad could trust to look the other way. He was the only observer on Nyad's 2012 boat-grabbing attempt. When asked whether he documented the incident, his reply was a tour de force of evasion.
I believe an Observer's Report is a private document between a swimmer and the organization that governs the swim. I am not trying to hide anything, because I am not disagreeing with the statements that are made (e.g., touching boat, touching handler). I am simply telling you that when I was out there, I documented what I saw and experienced. (Marathon Swimmers Forum, 23 Aug 2012)
(Again, note that no organization officially governed Nyad's swim.)
According to a crew member I spoke with 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. You can also see how two inexperienced, untrained acquaintances would do in a pinch.
Steve Munatones . . . has counseled us on how to keep accurate logs of observation every minute, from my first stroke to my last step. To that end, we have brought two independent observers, Janet Hinkle and Roger McVeigh, with us. (252)
Munatones, a highly experienced observer himself, would never recommend keeping minute-by-minute logs. See, for instance, this observer report template from WOWSA, an organization he founded. The template asks for hourly reports.
Steve says many swims are officiated by even the swimmer's family members, all okay as long as they keep careful logs. (252)
That's true. However, Hinkle and McVeigh did not keep careful logs. Hinkle seems to have tried, but McVeigh's logs contain multiple hours-long gaps as if other duties kept him busy. As to family members being okay, that's not the point. The point is that Nyad's observers didn't know what they were doing—which is why she brought them along in the first place.
Above: Chart comparing observer entry timing 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 made irregular entries and left lengthy gaps.
Below: Chart showing observer shifts during Nyad's swim.
Our two observers (neither part of our Team, neither relatives of mine) will tag-team, one on Voyager at all times, the other resting on a mother ship for the next shift. The fleet will sail out of Key West just before dusk Thursday, August 29, for the fifteen or so hour trip to Cuba. (252)
Translation: "Everything's cool because I didn't pick relatives. Chill out, and move along."
When Munatones proved unavailable, Nyad called Hinkle and McVeigh. She made those calls early on the day the flotilla left for Cuba. She had lined up no backup for a swim she estimated would take 60-plus hours. A legitimate record attempt would have had at least two knowledgeable observers and one backup observer for that length of time.
Observers are responsible for making sure the swimmer follows the rules. Since Nyad's swim had no rules, what did her observers watch for? In unprecedented statements appended to their logs, Janet Hinkle and Roger McVeigh allude to Nyad's abridged version of the marathon swimmer's rulebook:
During all my shifts and time aboard Voyager (approximately 31.5 hours of her 53 hours of swim time), I never saw Diana receive any assistance in floating or in propelling forward, never used any snorkel or fins, she never left the water (always swimming forward or treading water), and she never hung on or touched any boat or kayak or person (with the exception of doctors taking her pulse and handlers/Dr. Angel applying sting stopper and lubricant to relieve chafing).
We know that crew members helped Nyad put on and take off her jellyfish suit, so that last statement is false.
Diana did not leave the water. She was never buoyed up or supported in any way. She never held onto the boat or kayak or anything that would have assisted her through the water.
Hinkle can't know any of those things because:
Given the inadequate record-keeping, Nyad can't prove that she completed the swim under her own power. What's more, the available documentation strongly suggests that she didn't.
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In the middle of the second night, a storm hits Nyad's flotilla. It lasts 80-90 minutes.* Nyad tells us that she remained all but motionless during the storm. Yet, her GPS readings show her maintaining a constant speed on a beeline toward Key West. She couldn't have done this while swimming under her own power.
*Variations among the statements of Nyad and her crew make it impossible to determine the exact time and duration of the storm. Neither observer logged a word between 10:45 p.m., around the time the storm began, and 1:37 a.m., when Janet Hinkle took over as observer. Nyad says the storm lasted 80 minutes (16:55 in her post-swim press conference—partial transcript here) or 90 minutes (Find a Way, 262). McVeigh says the storm began at about 10:45 and lasted a couple of hours. Crew member Candace Hogan says it began at 11. Nyad has said the storm started at midnight.
Between 10 and 11 p.m.—the hour before the storm—Nyad's in trouble:
I can no longer concentrate. I forget where we are and what we're doing. It was nice and calm for a while, but now it's very bumpy. When I hear the whistle for a feeding, I can't seem to make it to the Handler's platform. I dog-paddle. Hard. But I can't get there. Then I put my head down and swim a few strokes of freestyle toward Voyager. Hard. But I'm still not there, and I hear Bonnie and Pauline and Lois Ann, with her southern accent, calling me to get over there. (262)
Then the storm hits. Nyad explained "storm protocol" earlier:
In heavy winds, the goal of our little band of me and the Shark Divers out there on our own isn't really to make forward progress. It is to stay safe until the storm passes and we're able to regroup with the flotilla again. (211-12)
[The storm lasts about 90 minutes, during which Diana treads water and swims a bit of breaststroke.] "Bonnie: You guys are going to go off for a while, until we get through the worst of it. Just tread water. Swim some breaststroke if you need to keep warm." (262)
Nyad tells Tavis Smiley later that she "just tread water" while waiting out the storm. So, for 80 to 90 minutes in the middle of night two, Nyad all but stops swimming. Her GPS coordinates should reflect this, but they don't. They show her motoring straight toward Key West at 3 mph.
The storm is over, and we're about to resume the mission. It takes me a bit to catch on to what we're doing. Bonnie coaxes me. I alternate freestyle with breaststroke for a while. When I lose track and mistakenly swim up behind Voyager and disappear under her two pontoons, coming dangerously close to being shredded by the rear engine blades, Bonnie puts a halt to the action. (263)
I'm at a new low. I am swimming but barely. (264)
Janet Hinkle took over as observer about an hour after the storm passed. Curiously, she had no idea they'd invoked storm protocol. Her log entries from the next few hours describe a swimmer hanging on by a thread. Some snippets:
Diana appears a bit delirious. She is bobbing in the water. I sense a lot of stress. Diana is back stroking. Diana switched to breast stroke . . . she then stopped and asked: "Are we there?" Several stops and starts - switching from breast stroke to free style . . .
And then Nyad tells us that the Gulf Stream is pushing her eastward, while the GPS data continues to show a straight-line course to Key West:
I am drifting in and out of hallucinations these early-morning hours of Monday, September 2. The paddlers, each shift of two, are now yelling out at me to go "LEFT, LEFT, LEFT!" I am drifting far out to the right of Voyager, sometimes as many as a hundred yards away from the boat. The Handlers, Divers, and Kayakers are frustrated at my being so far from the boat, for safety reasons. But it's also simple logic that I am swimming way over to the east and then struggling to swim way back over to the west, time and time again, instead of staying on top of the streamer and heading north, toward our destination. (267-68, my emphasis)
Sometimes I just can't understand why the paddlers are so insistent on yelling "LEFT!" (268)
Buco knows he's incurred my wrath, but he doesn't care. Hours of their yelling "LEFT!" has not kept me from zigzagging far right, back left, far right, back left again. (268)
Nyad tells us that the Gulf Stream is carrying her toward the Bahamas, and she can't maintain her course. Yet, her position data shows her zipping straight toward Key West. That would be impossible for a spent swimmer taking long breaks, stopping and starting and stopping again. Simple logic.
Given Nyad’s statements and the available data, she could not have swum from Cuba to Florida under her own power.
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I was criticized and questioned for a couple of days by a band of marathon swimmers, their incredulity piqued, I guess, at someone actually achieving this supposedly unachievable feat. (278)
Nyad implies that the heretics stopped asking questions shortly after the crossing. In fact, the skepticism continues. See, for instance, the reaction when she announced her biopic on Facebook last March. Though most responses came from true believers, quite a few did not. Of the latter, most came from experienced marathon swimmers. Some examples:
I posted all the data evidence online, along with the minute-by-minute logs from the two independent observers. (278)
As I mentioned earlier, Nyad never published the original logs. The transcriptions she uploaded contain multiple gaps of over an hour, including one of over 5½ hours and another of almost 6½ hours.
And then I locked those GPS trackers in a bank vault, to ensure that the history will survive long after I and the forty-four who accompanied me and bore witness to the swim are gone.
Data on GPS trackers disappears after about a month, so locking up the trackers to preserve history would be pointless. Not to mention that Nyad borrowed the trackers. If she still has them, she should give them back.
John's is an impressive mind, and his empirical proof of our course satisfied all but a couple of what they call online "haters." (278)
The stock video service Pond5 recently posted two clips from the call. Nyad's demeanor and peevishness suggest that minds weren't changing. (See clip #1, clip #2.) Bartlett's "proof" satisfied few if any on the call, Nyad's personal attacks of the doubters notwithstanding. Most marathon swimmers remain skeptical.
There is no keeping a secret among forty-four people. (278)
This is one of Nyad's favorite straw men. Keeping a secret among 44 people wouldn't be necessary for two reasons:
The only people who actually see me in the pitch-black night are the two Kayakers on duty. (9)
It's pitch-black. I hear [the four shark-divers] around me, but I don't see anything. Not one face, even though they're right there, just a couple of feet to all sides of me. (262)
We use no lights of any kind at night. Lights attract jellyfish, and bait fish, and then sharks. With no moonlight, the situation we are facing tonight, you literally cannot see your own outstretched hand. (8)
Those LEDs were not meant to aid visibility but to give Nyad something to follow. For instance, see this video from the last night of the crossing. Even from the guide boat, it's almost impossible to see the swimmer.
This swim was a noble quest and a matter of indisputable ethics to each one of us. (278)
Those are lovely words that may be true for most of the crew, but not for all and certainly not for Nyad.
We sleep easily, consciences clear that I swam across fair and square, shore to shore. (278)
Nyad can't know how all her crew members sleep. I suspect that some have tossed and turned a bit since Diana's dubious triumph.
I will forever keep the note John wrote me just a few weeks before he died. I've stowed it in the bank vault with his GPS trackers. That's how much it means to me. (283)
Since the trackers were borrowed and so likely not in the vault (if such a vault exists), it's hard to say what that means about Bartlett's letter (if such a letter exists).
Above: clip from Diana Nyad's September 10, 2013, teleconference. She becomes petulant after a conferee suggests she should have taken measures to avoid skepticism.
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Everything is Connected
After the crossing, many images disappeared from Nyad's blog. She also purged her YouTube channel. Some video survived elsewhere, like Dr. Yanagihara's nighttime footage at Vimeo. Scattered photos remain on sites like ESPN, HuffPost, and Key West Real Estate Now!
Nyad's HuffPost article, "Cuba: 3 Weeks Later," includes the image below. It shows Bonnie on the left and a jelly-suited Diana (presumably) in the water. The LED-lit streamer should be drifting away from Nyad, not directly towards her. So, the image gives us two things:
Around seven a.m., the whistle stops me and I drag all the jellyfish gear off. (258)
Crew member Dawn Blomgren took the photo at 7:20 a.m. on Sunday, September 1, the second day of the swim. The observer on duty, Roger McVeigh, noted that Nyad removed her jellyfish suit and mask, then got back to swimming at 7:40. We can assume that her break began no later than 7:20, so it lasted at least 20 minutes. That's unimaginably long, more so given Nyad's statements that the current dragged her east almost every time she stopped. (Cf. Penny Dean, during her record English Channel swim: "The stop was about a minute in length; a little too long" [Just Try One More, p. 150].)
In the photo, Nyad treads water to the right of Voyager. A boom projects from the same side, just outside the top of the frame. However, you can see the string of streamer-attached LEDs suspended from the boom.
Lucky for us, someone forgot to turn off the lights. The glowing streamer dips into the water and appears to divide—easier to see in this larger version of the image. The left line coming directly at the viewer is probably a reflection. The right line intersects/connects with a second rope hanging from the boom, then changes direction. It courses toward and behind Nyad, then curls around her back where it likely attaches (see detail below).
According to McVeigh's log, Voyager's heading changed to 270 degrees at 7:33 a.m. (Navigator John Bartlett doesn't report the change until 8:25 .) Bartlett's chart—which disappeared from Nyad's blog but remains available via the Internet Archive—shows the Gulf Stream running 2.3-2.8 knots in nearly the opposite direction. So, Voyager was heading west against a current heading east-northeast:
Nyad and her lights should be moving easterly with the Gulf Stream, away from Voyager. Instead, Diana remains glued to her guide boat, appearing to bring the laws of physics to their knees.
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Doing It in Private
Nyad often insists that she doesn't care how many people notice her endeavors. As with other Nyad claims, repetition signals deception. Of her 1975 Manhattan circumnavigation, she writes:
Before we'd started the first attempt, we'd had no indication that this swim would be a big deal to the public. . . .
But I was grounded enough even at that young age to realize that it's the fundamental challenge that motivates an athlete, not what we might get from success. . . .
My motivations in doing the Manhattan swim were high-minded. (66)
In fact, gaining public recognition and adoration motivate everything Nyad does. Just after the Manhattan swim, Nyad told a reporter that "the day to day motivations are fame and fortune" (Fort Lauderdale News and Sun Sentinel, 16 Nov 1975). At some point, however, she realized that admitting it appeared unseemly, so she began telling a different story:
None of us had reason to imagine [the Cuba] swim would be anything more than a private enterprise . . . I couldn't be concerned with whether the public or the media would get excited about my personal Dream . . . (121)
I was ready to accept only five people greeting me on the other side. (253)
But Diana Nyad does not do private. In 1976, she took a film crew to England to document what turned out to be multiple English Channel failures. What's more, her Xtreme Dream Team roster at the end of Find a Way includes at least 3 people in advertising, 7 in PR, and 17 in other media-related fields.
She again acknowledged her real motivations just before her first Cuba–Florida attempt:
I want to be known as the very best at something and have a reputation for that. I didn't say be the best because I've been that for eight years. I said be known as the best. I feel that pressure very strong. (Miami News, 16 Jun 1978)
Nyad was never the best marathon swimmer of any year, much less eight. But she feeds on adoration, so she must convince the public that she's the best the world has ever seen. A reception party of only five would devastate her:
I hear the voices. They are screaming. I take a look around. Many of them are crying. I pull off my cap and goggles, to see and hear better. It's a high like none I've ever known. (272-73)
[The Cuba swim is] so obviously the greatest endurance feat in history. . . . I want the American public to appreciate this. . . . NBC has bought the exclusive rights. Everybody will cover this swim. (Ms. Magazine, Aug 1978)
If I get to the Florida coast, that will be one of the most historic moments in sports. . . . It is certainly going to be bigger than Gertrude Ederle finishing the English Channel. (Helen Dudar, "Diana Nyad's Magnificent Obsession," Village Voice, 26 June 1978.)
So, when she says, "for that journey-versus-destination debate, to my mind it's all about the journey" (276), it's not, but telling the truth would betray too much about the real Diana Nyad.
Above: Elated fellow swimmers Ishak Helmi and Louis Timson carry the first Queen of the Channel to her hotel in Dover (from The Illustrated London News, 14 Aug 1926). Cf. the absence of fellow marathon swimmers at the finish of Nyad's Cuba–Florida crossing.
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In 1997, a terrific Australian swimmer named Susie Maroney did go from Cuba to Florida in a cage. I don't for a moment denigrate Susie's achievement. (81)
Nyad brings up Maroney for one reason: to denigrate her. Nyad rarely names other swimmers unless she intends to belittle them. Sometimes she attacks them explicitly—like the way she goes after six-time World Champion Judith de Nijs of Holland. More often, though, she attacks them implicitly, like she does Maroney. Among Maroney's accomplishments: three English Channel crossings—her first as a 15-year-old in 1990, followed by a record-breaking two-way the following year; and four Manhattan swims, all faster than Nyad's. But you won't learn any of that by reading Find a Way. What you will learn about Maroney is that she used a shark cage for her Cuba to Florida swim. And that, according to Nyad, is tantamount to cheating, even though she had no problem with using one in 1978.
Speaking of 1978, Nyad never mentions Walter Poenisch, who successfully completed the Cuba–Florida crossing that year. Before and after his swim, Nyad denigrated and slandered him, causing him to lose all his sponsors. According to Faye Poenisch, Walter's wife, Nyad destroyed her husband's life. The Poenisches sued Nyad and won an out-of-court settlement and a written retraction. For more, see "Walter Poenisch."
Diana's minimalist non-retraction retraction to Walter Poenisch. Pieced together from a Faye Poenisch television interview.
Cold water terrifies Nyad, so she makes excuses and invents reasons why it shouldn't matter.
I was never built for cold water. And even the best cold-water swimmers couldn't go the outrageous fifty to sixty hours this Cuba Swim would demand in anything but tropical temperatures. (123)
Before Nyad's Cuba crossing, two swimmers—Canada's Vicki Keith and Croatia's Veljko Rogošić—completed three swims of over 50 hours in water at least 10°F below Nyad's tropical temperatures (85°F-87°F). Diana worked as a sports commentator during the 1980s, not to mention that she had considered attempting the same swims Vicki Keith completed, so it's hard to believe Nyad didn't know about Keith's accomplishments:
[Note: In 1974, V.S. Kumar Anandan of Sri Lanka completed the first two-way crossing of the Palk Strait-from Sri Lanka to India and back-in 51 hours. Palk Strait water temperatures appear similar to those Nyad prefers.]
Since 2013, two swimmers have completed four swims of well over 50 hours in water significantly colder than the Florida Straits:
[15 hours is] a swim duration that most marathon swimmers will never do in their lifetimes. (125)
Hundreds of marathon swimmers have swum over 15 hours, usually in much colder water than Diana can tolerate. Looking at the English Channel alone, where the water temperature during the swim season ranges from 15°C-18°C (59°F-65°F), 776 solo crossings have taken 15 hours or more (through 2019). The LongSwims Database list's 146 swims that lasted 24 hours or longer, the vast majority in cold water.
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Box Jelly Jubilee
[The experts] did report the box usually delivers a fatal sting. (16)
They did not, and it does not. I communicated with several experts, including Dr. Angel Yanagihara, Nyad's personal jellyfish guru. None agreed with Nyad's assertion. Only a tiny percentage of stings prove fatal. See "Not a Tentacle to Stand On."
Nyad follows her box statement with, "More people have died from the box than from shark bites." That statement's true but close to meaningless. About 10 people per year die from shark bites worldwide. Dogs, tapeworms, and cows kill considerably more people than sharks do.
We never encountered the deadly box jellyfish in the 1970s. But we were to learn three decades later, when attacked by the box, that they in fact had been sighted in those waters going back all the way to the 1800s. (82)
Box jellies had not been reported in the Florida Straits all the way back to the 1800s. On the other hand, the deadly Australian one had been sighted off Australia by the 1880s.
That's where Dr. Angel Yanagihara enters our story. Angel has dedicated her illustrious career to the study of the box jellyfish, and she is now considered the world's leading expert. (196)
According to the jellyfish experts I spoke with, Dr. Yanagihara is an expert diver knowledgeable about box jellies, but she is not considered the world's leading box jelly authority. See "Jelly Experts."
Dr. Angel Yanagihara says of box jellyfish that "[o]ver thirty species are known worldwide. (196)
True! But in 2017, Nyad bumps it up to "thousands."
After I was stung in 2011, someone sent me a YouTube video of an Australian reporter standing in knee-high water. The woman begins her report and is stung right there on camera. She screams in pain, tumbles into the shallow surf. The cameraman leaves his post, and you can hear him yelling into his phone for emergency help as she wails. Well, that woman died. It was the box and she never even made it to the hospital. (197)
There is no such video. I asked a jellyfish expert from Australia about this. "In the words of a scientist," he told me in an email, "that's bullshit. I know of all the deaths in Australia that have occurred in the last 20 odd years and there has been no death as described."
You can find many YouTube clips of people stung by box jellies. The survival rate in those videos remains close to 100%.
Many people stung away from shore by the box do not make it back to land before they die. (197)
As untrue now as it was a few paragraphs ago. Also, Australian box jellyfish are much more lethal than either of the two species found in the Florida Straits, speaking of which:
And, by the way, there are at least twenty-nine other box species that we could potentially encounter that surface other evenings, or even in the daytime. (197)
Only two box jelly species have been found in or near the straits: Chiropsalmus quadrumanus, a.k.a. four-handed box jellyfish; and Tripedalia cystophora. For more, see "Box Jellies in the Gulf of Mexico?"
There is high drama in the lab. To prove the efficacy of her compound, that these freshly caught jellies will sting, Angel then takes another and, without blinking, lays it on her bare left arm. A medical team stands by. She is stung instantly. The video shows bright red inflammation on the skin, in the outline of the jelly's bell and tentacles. She records her pain scores for ninety seconds, until the pain is not bearable (rockets to a 10 out of 10). The symptoms of spinal paralysis and pulmonary compromise accelerate. She quickly uses her own Sting No More on the sting site and records the pain scale each thirty seconds until it falls below a 2 on the scale. (198)
High drama, indeed. Since Dr. Yanagihara did nothing about the sting for 90 seconds, we can toss much of what Nyad says about box jellies into the toxic waste bin.
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Give that Flying Squid a Hand
The giant squid migration south down the California coast had reached the tip of Baja. Thousands of four-foot squid were feeding in a massive frenzy, literally grabbing birds out of the air. I found my fisherman, who told me his buddy had lost his hand to a squid the day prior. (121-22)
Giant squid grow to over 40 feet and only live in the deep ocean. Nyad seems to be talking about jumbo squid, a.k.a. Humboldt squid. However, neither species grabs birds out of the air, literally or otherwise. The jumbo squid is part of the flying squid family, some members of which propel themselves out of the water to evade predators—in other words, not to eat but rather to not be eaten.
I can't say one way or the other about that poor guy's hand, but it smells fishy.
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Nyad says she sings songs and counts to pass the time during her swims. And she knows precisely how long it takes her to sing, for instance, 210 times through The Beatles' "Ticket to Ride" ("seven hours on the nose") or 1000 times through Janis Joplin's "Me and Bobby McGee" ("nine hours and 45 minutes . . . to the second").
As any pig groomer will tell you, it's all hogwash. But don't take my word for it—let's do the math!
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It takes a certain mind-set to withstand the monotony and the isolation of singing the Beatles' "Ticket to Ride" 210 times, starting note to finishing note. That's 210 times, hearing nothing, seeing nothing from the outside world. In my head, singing "Ticket to Ride" to myself. At the last note of the 210th version, I will hit seven hours on the nose. (73)
The original "Ticket to Ride" single lasts 3 minutes and 10 seconds. Singing it 210 times would take 11 hours and 5 minutes. Singing the shortest version on iTunes (2:26) would lop off a few hours but still come in at 8 hours, 31 minutes.
Could she be singing an even shorter version? In a 2014 presentation, Nyad uses a different song to describe the process. She insists that she sings precisely what the artist recorded:
So if I take a song like Janis Joplin's version of Bobby McGee, okay? So if I sing that song, and I hear it exactly the way Janis sang it with her voice, her breaths, the guitar strums exactly the way I know it . . . if I get to 1000 Bobby McGee's just like that, it will be to the second nine hours and 45 minutes.
Joplin's version of "Me and Bobby McGee" lasts 4 minutes and 33 seconds. Singing it 1000 times would take more than 75 hours. To put it another way, if Diana sings "Me and Bobby McGee" 1000 times in 9 hours and 45 minutes, she needs to get through it once every 35 seconds.
At the beginning of attempt #5, Nyad gets into some Joe Cocker:
It's not calm, but the waves are rolling from behind me. I'm pretty happy. I'm into five hundred repetitions of Joe Cocker's "The Letter." I hear his rasp. (255)
Five hundred times through Cocker's shortest "Letter" (4:10) would take Nyad 34 hours and 43 minutes. Since she doesn't give a total time, she's technically not lying. However, she says she doesn't sing at night (see "Numbers" below). Go figure.
Here's one more example, this time via an infamous press release from the swim-gear company, FINIS:
The partnership between FINIS and Nyad revolves around the use of FINIS underwater MP3 devices that she used while completing her swim from Florida to Cuba. Nyad tells the story of listening to John Lennon's "Imagine" over and over again on her trek, saying that she knows when she's listened to the song a thousand times, it's been nine hours and forty-five minutes exactly. (my emphasis)
Listening to "Imagine" 1000 times would take 51 hours and 50 minutes, not to mention that using an MP3 device flouts any extant set of rules governing unassisted marathon swims. FINIS ultimately changed the press release, and some sites incorporated the company's changes. However, the sites don't acknowledge correcting their articles:
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If you think 75 hours was a long time, Diana was just getting started.
I count all night, rather than sing. . . . Six thousand strokes in English, one count every four times the left hand enters the water. Then six thousand backward in English. Then the same progression in German. Then Spanish, then French. (183)
Counting to 6000 forward and backward in four languages in the manner she describes—one count per four left-hand entries, which means one count per eight strokes—would take 128 hours. That would give her plenty of time to swim from Havana to Florida and back:
= (6,000 counts up + 6,000 counts down) ∗ 4 languages
= 12,000 counts ∗ 4 languages
= 48,000 counts
= 48,000 counts ∗ (8 strokes/count)
= 384,000 strokes
= 384,000 strokes ∗ (1 minute/50 strokes)
= (384,000/50) minutes
= 7680 minutes
= 128 hours
Note: I am grateful to KimH, whose "Me and Bobby McGee" calculations revealed an unexplored universe of Nyadic nonsense, and to JenA, who spotted a problem with "Imagine" way back in 2016. She also helped with the computations above.
I come to the Spanish each progression, I am actually transported to a passionate attitude, pronouncing "ochenta y cinco" as if I'm standing enraptured in front of a magical Chagall. (133)
Marc Chagall was born Moyshe Shagal/Movsha Shagalov to a Hassidic Jewish family in what's now Belarus. Yiddish and Russian were his first two tongues. He could read Hebrew and speak what he called "mauvais francais" ("bad French"), but he did not speak Spanish. So, восемьдесят пять or פינף און אַכציק or quatre-vingt-cinq, but not ochenta y cinco.
Cow with Parasol, Marc Chagall, 1946
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I'm turning my head some fifty-two times a minute to breathe. (18)
Better I should engage in the moment, just keep working, turning my head like a programmed robot, fifty-two times a minute, toward Voyager. (23)
This video shows Nyad breathing to the left every time her right arm enters the water, i.e., every two strokes. So, if she takes 52 strokes per minute, she turns her head at half that rate: 26 times per minute. No trained swimmer breathes every stroke.
Later, she cranks the absurdity knob to 11:
head turning some sixty times per minute. (73)
So, she would have to be breathing on both sides, every single stroke, while throwing in five or ten extra breaths somewhere in between. Or, she'd have to swim 120 strokes per minute—two strokes per second—an unsustainable rate for more than a minute or two (though advantageous for speed-singing "Me and Bobby McGee").
By comparison, when Australia's Emma McKeon set the Olympic record of 51.96 seconds for the 100-meter freestyle in Tokyo last summer, she swam around 90 strokes per minute. Toward the end of the Olympic 10K, winner Ana Marcela Cunha of Brazil held about 80 strokes per minute. In this clip, Nyad's cruising at about 54.
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A Very Naughty Buoy
(By the way, it irks the heck out of me that for many years and to this day there is a big buoy in Key West at the GPS southernmost tip of the United States where millions of people from all over the world have posed for snapshots. On this buoy there is an arrow, pointing toward Havana, with 90 MILES painted in bold black. Well, that 90 is a nautical-miles measurement, used only for large ships. . . . And the accurate measurement from that southernmost point in Key West to the closest point in Havana is 103 miles. I have made a friendly yet sincere proclamation to the City Commission of Key West that, if they don't officially change that buoy, I'm going to go stealth in the middle of the night, commit a misdemeanor, and paint it over myself. They tell me the change is under official consideration.) (78, my emphasis)
Nyad's right: lots of people do visit this cement buoy. However, those visitors expect to see "90 Miles to CUBA," which is why Key West city commissioners are unlikely to change it. They've repainted the buoy twice since Diana's crossing, once in 2017 to repair damage from Hurricane Irma and again this year after two vandals burned a dry Christmas tree next to it. Yet the buoy still reads "90 Miles to CUBA." And not in bold black—those words have been gold ever since Danny Acosta first painted them in 1983.
Nautical miles, by the way, are a standard measure of distance used by seafaring people all over the world, including Nyad's crew. She prefers statute miles because they make her swims sound longer.
→ Also, there's no arrow.
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Odds & Ends
Well, in the meantime I had swum around Manhattan and the turnout for the Barnard team was huge. The bleachers were jammed, the deck crowded with young college women, never before interested in joining the swim team, now excited to have this somewhat famous character as their coach. (76-77)
According to a member of Nyad's Barnard team, there were no bleachers beside their tiny pool, nor was the deck packed with admirers.
The Synagogue Story
Nyad takes advantage of the tragic death of Jon Munsberg, a Pine Crest teammate, to belittle her former coach:
A kid on our team drowned holding his breath underwater in his apartment pool . . . Our whole team went to the funeral. Coach wailed throughout the service, much louder and more dramatically than even the boy's mother. The entire synagogue was taken aback. (48)
Munsberg was Roman Catholic—the funeral notices for his father and grandmother both list services at Nativity Catholic Church in Hollywood, Florida. (Also see Munsberg's obituary.) If this episode happened at all, it's unlikely it happened in a synagogue.
I never earned my PhD. But I don't regret those years of study, those dialogues about the philosophies and the writings of Europe's great nineteenth-century authors.
Awards for The Other Shore
Timothy Wheeler, Nyad's nephew, made a movie about his aunt:
Tim's 'little bit of home video' turned into an award-winning Showtime documentary, The Other Shore. (280)
Never Paid a Dime
Again, repetition signals deception.
None of these friends ever got paid a dime. They were in it. All in. They were true Teammates, and I will never forget the magnitude of their sacrifices. (167)
After her August 2011 failure:
Not one of these Teammates was paid a dime. (189)
Gearing up for 2013:
Nobody gets paid. (234)
Why stop there?
Not one person on this team through all the years ever got paid a dime. (How to Be Superhuman, 31:20)
Not one of these team members has ever been paid a dime for years now. (The Swimmer, 5:22)
[F]or each of the five attempts we made, not one team member was paid a dime. They did receive expenses. (Diana Nyad: My Ocean)
Three days after Nyad finished her crossing, kayaker Darlene Meadows told the Naples Daily News, a community paper in Southwest Florida, that
she got the paid staff position with Nyad's Extreme Dream Team after filling out an application and submitting her credentials.
Beyond Meadows, who else? For his unabashed support, I suspect Nyad paid Steven Munatones even though he ultimately didn't make the trip. I also presume she paid others a tad more than expenses. See "Chasing The Swimmer, part 2: Key West s Diana Nyad."
Today I'm listed in all those books where people live out the meaning of their names, a phenomenon referred to by the term "aptonym." (41)
This feels like one of Nyad's spur-of-the-moment lies, like "The New York Times gave us a glowing review" or "I've had many things in my life: a PhD. . . ." I could only find one book of aptonyms: Wacky News Names. The author mentions Nyad in his introduction but only to explain why he doesn't include her later.
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Never Give Up on Your Dreams
Nyad describes the scene shortly after she finished her 2013 Cuba–Florida crossing:
I was propped on a stretcher under a palm tree for a little bit, an IV inserted into a vein, to at least share a few minutes with the good people who had waited for our arrival. (276)
She had suffered greatly, but she was now with her people, and she saw that they were good. Her anointment began the next day:
I beheld a semicircle of ABC, NBC, CBS, ESPN, FOX, foreign outlets, et al. Hillary Clinton wrote, "Feels like I swim with sharks, but you actually did it!" Hillary also sent me a handwritten note, signed "Onward!" President Obama tweeted: "Congratulations @DianaNyad. Never give up on your dreams. (277)
Her dream had come true—everybody loved her:
The media, representing their viewers and listeners and readers, also understood that this was not a sporting event. The public understood every fiber of the story. They tuned in for the implicit underlying life credos that kept inspiring me to chase this Dream for so very long. (277)
Well, not the whole public. A few people lacked the enzymes necessary to digest all that roughage. Even before Nyad stumbled ashore at Smathers Beach, a small minority—mainly experienced marathon swimmers—knew that her "implicit underlying life credos" included selfishness, lying, disparaging fellow athletes, and ignoring rules while claiming she followed them to a tee.
Nyad's credos also included fraud. What else can you call a book deal, biopic, and six-figure appearance fees, all based on a crooked swim and a lifetime of lies?
I've been living out loud the Henry David Thoreau saying: "What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals." (284)
Zig Ziglar said that, not Thoreau.
The quest of the Cuba Swim squared up my value system. It ushered me down a grueling path toward becoming a person I can truly admire. I am not defined by transient fame, or by childhood sexual abuse, or by world records. (285)
Specious abuse allegations and unverifiable world records remain Diana Nyad's weapons of choice in her crusade against obscurity and her quest for fame. Significant squaring remains necessary.
No face which we can give to a matter
will stead us so well at last as the truth.
This alone wears well.
Henry David Thoreau, Walden
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How We Know Diana Will Lie About Anything
The final three sections address Nyad's Holocaust story, sexual orientation tales, and abuse allegations. If you'd rather not read these sections, please skip ahead to the brief postscript.
I include these sections for two reasons:
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The Holocaust Survivor
On this magical day, swimming strong and fast from St. Maarten to Anguilla and back, perhaps echoing Ed Viesturs's exhilaration on Everest, out in the bluest of all blues, I traveled back to one of the most significant evenings of my life. (134)
Nyad goes on to say that the evening's significance grew out of a chance meeting with a Holocaust survivor. Diana's "magical day" then segues into a horrific tale of a girl who endured 2½ years of sexual abuse at Dachau, a Nazi concentration camp in Germany, beginning when she was three years old.
Nyad fabricated the whole story.
Dr. Barbara Distel directed Dachau's memorial site from 1975 until she retired in 2008. I asked her about Nyad's tale. "The description [Nyad gives] refers to Auschwitz," said Distel. "The way she tells it is completely fictional."
Nyad cobbles together her Holocaust tale from familiar details that few would think to dispute. Here are three of those elements and how they expose Nyad's story as fraudulent:
Nyad concludes this egregious lie with:
Yes, it's true. At age sixty, I've let go of the rage. At sixty, in every way, including as an athlete. I am at the prime of my life. (136)
She may be in the prime of her life, but she still can't tell the truth.
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For years, a fundamental tenet of Nyad hagiography has been her fearlessness. "She's always had an impressive ability to ignore what other people think," wrote The Guardian's Carole Cadwalladr in 2016. "She came out as gay in her early 20s," continued Cadwalladr, "and she's never had any issues about it or tried in any way to hide it."
In fact, Nyad bamboozled Cadwalladr as she has millions of others. Nyad has little ability to ignore what other people think. Her thirst for adoration motivates everything she does. She kept quiet about her sexual orientation until she calculated that openness would no longer hurt her career.
Of course, that's not the story she tells:
As for me, being gay was never a struggle. Coming out at twenty-one, the relief of finally knowing why I wasn't interested in boys, set me free. It happened in one instant . . . at this party when I was twenty-one, I was slow dancing with a real woman for the first time. And I never looked back.
From that first dance, I was simply, entirely comfortable in my gay sexuality. . . . I could never be happy, wildly successful or otherwise, being anything other than my true self. (41)
Diana turned 21 in 1970. The following quotes come from 1981 when Diana was 32:
She sometimes envies her boyfriend, who is easygoing and "looks like he's going to heaven when he sleeps."
Home from a demanding week of her 27-city book promotion tour, Nyad crawled into bed recently, totally exhausted. She awoke several hours later, about 3 a.m., tiptoed into the next room to study videotapes of herself from recent TV appearances and was scribbling notes when her boyfriend appeared in the doorway. "He just looked at me," Nyad says, "with total incredulity, just couldn't understand. Then he went back to bed." (The Philadelphia Inquirer)
She shares a cluttered place on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with her boyfriend of six years, a writer. (Orlando Sentinel Star)
In 1992, Nyad's relationship with Nina Lederman ended. Here's how Diana describes it in Find a Way:
The unraveling started with all that time spent away, in New York and globe-trotting, when Nina and I were making our home in Los Angeles. It's of course not that simple. Dissecting the end of a marriage always reveals a complex web of issues. But our physical separation was the beginning of the end. (104)
Here's how she described it to a journalist at the time:
I am at the end of a nine-year relationship. It was a marriage really, filled with honesty and truth. . . . He and I did a lot of our growing up together. (Illinois Daily Herald, 24 Aug 1992)
I do a lot of public speaking and I often say to my boyfriend, "Come on. Come with me. We'll have a couple days of fun." No matter where I am going, he listens to who the group is and then says, "You go ahead. You go on your own. I'll see you when you get home." But then I was on the speaker phone the other day and I said to the woman who was organizing this event, "What is the group like? What do they do?" Then another question I came around to was, "What is the ratio of men to women?" She said, "Oh, that's probably about 99 to 1 men to women." My boyfriend said, "I'm coming." (Laughter)
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Nyad's abuse allegations against her high school coach, Jack Nelson, begin with the location of the first attack:
Age fourteen. The big state championships were at our school that summer. (45)
But Nyad's school, Pine Crest in Fort Lauderdale, didn't host the championships when Diana was 14. That year, 1964, they took place in Gainesville, over 300 miles away.*
*In August 2018, the NY Times issued a correction to a critical paragraph of Nyad's November 2017 editorial, "My Life After Sexual Assault." They changed the time and location of the first episode of the alleged abuse. In the original version, Nyad gave the same location she gives in Find a Way. It read:
That summer, our school hosted the state championships. It was a big deal, and I was a star in the middle of it all. In between the afternoon preliminaries and the night finals, bursting with confidence, I went over to Coach's house for a nap.
The corrected version now reads:
That summer, on the day of a swim meet, I went over to Coach's house for a nap.
The Times left all of the other fabrications intact.
Nyad's allegations have changed drastically since she began making them about 30 years ago. Depending on the version she tells,
I lost my race that night. (46)
Nyad won that night, her first ever state-level victory.
It was during that time, my early twenties, that I flew to Detroit to go to a Laura Nyro concert with my old high school swimming buddy Suzanne, the "not a fingernail better" philosopher. We later became groupies, following her concert to concert, sometimes taking two-day LSD trips with her and her cronies. (56)
As with Nyad's Holocaust lie, the way she tells her abuse story can't be true. No Laura Nyro concert comes close to fitting Nyad's timeline. For details, please see "New Evidence that Diana Nyad Fabricated Her Abuse Story."
Suzanne and I quickly ferreted out several other girl swimmers of our era who had been violated by this coach. (57)
No one has ever come forward to support Nyad's accusations. I contacted Suzanne to confirm Nyad's allegations, but she wouldn't speak with me.
Intermittently, Suzanne and I pursued justice against him for years, decades. He was fired from our high school after we returned to tell the principal what he'd done to us. With lawyers from all sides in the room, Suzanne's and my reports corroborated each other to the nth degree, in separate statements given in separate quarters, so the principal gave him half an hour to clear his office. (57)
This would have happened in 1971. A December 1971 Sports Illustrated profile of Nyad emphasizes her closeness to Nelson and how he functioned as a father figure to her. The article includes no hint that Nyad held any animosity towards him, much less that she had recently gotten him fired. Nelson remained at Pine Crest until 1975. A former Pine Crest swimmer who started school there in 1974 told me that Nyad continued visiting Nelson at his office for as long as he remained at the school.
In 2004, at a Hall of Fame evening where I was honored, a minimum of four hundred people approached me to ask when something was going to be done about this guy. (57-58)
The International Swimming Hall of Fame presented Nyad with the 2002 Al Schoenfield Media Award in a room with a maximum seating capacity of about 125 (see photos of the venue here). So Nyad's 400 minimum is grossly exaggerated at best, though probably entirely false. What's more, Nyad doesn't specify the honor, leaving readers to presume that the Hall of Fame inducted her as an Honor Swimmer. It didn't then, and it hasn't since.
I want to believe all women. In Diana's case, though, how are we supposed to know what to believe?
For more detail on Nyad's abuse allegations, please see:
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For her maverick open-water performance of the 1970s, Diana Nyad was known as the world's greatest long-distance swimmer.
Find a Way (paperback edition), publisher's blurb, v
She became known as the greatest but never came close to being the greatest. The public and the media believed she was great because everyone said she was, no one more loudly and consistently than she does. Over the half-century Diana Nyad has been trumpeting her name to anyone who will listen, the genuinely great open water swimmers have kept on swimming, sharing their knowledge and love of the sport with others, and celebrating their peers' accomplishments. No happy dances when fellow athletes have to abandon their dreams. No building careers atop Everests of lies.
I certainly hope that all of you out there know of my pedigree for many years in this sport. I have always upheld the highest ideals. It is the champions who achieve under the purest circumstances whom I respect.....and I have always, proudly, fallen into that category.
blog post (since deleted), 20 Jul 2012
Illustration by E. H. Shepard, via The Folio Society.