The Real Clever & Complicated Life Of Diana Nyad

Nyad, the movie, is inspirational. Nyad’s story isn’t so simple in real life. 

Diana Nyad used her one wild and precious life to be the first to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage. The accomplishment didn’t come easy. Nyad first attempted the 110 mile Havana to Key West swim in 1978, at the age of 28, when she succumbed to winds and currents after 41 hours. Decades later at age 60, she was stirred to revisit the dream, beckoned by a Mary Oliver poem: “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” 

 The quest continued. Her second attempt at age 62 in 2011 was thwarted by an allergic reaction to a medication. One month later, life-threatening man-of-wars stings took her out at the 67-mile mark. Tumultuous weather derailed the fourth try in 2012.

But Nyad was not one to give up. She had one try left in her. A fifth and final attempt.

Sound like the makings of an epic film? Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin thought so, and directed the recent Netflix biopic Nyad, with Annette Benning as Diana Nyad. Benning convincingly pulls off Nyad’s bravado, determination and her signature wild-eyed expressions. The actor trained intensively for the role and incredibly, swam 4-5 hours a day during filming. Jodie Foster channels former racquetball champion Bonnie Stoll, Nyad’s devoted “longtime friend”, prior lover and coach. The camera refreshingly paints both actors, in their 60’s, with honest lighting that respects the beauty of faces washed by sun, salt and decades of life lived with gusto.

On Labor Day, Sept. 2, 2013, 52 hours and 54 minutes after she cast her vision from Cuban shores to the distant horizon, Nyad makes her way through crystal water as hundreds cheer her from the Key West shore. Bonnie Stoll and crew – navigator, John Bartlett (Rhys Ifans) and boat captain Dee Brady (Karly Rothenberg) – get a cinematic assist and appear suddenly on land to greet Nyad at the finish. “I’m right here, Babe,” Stoll encourages Nyad’s transition from strokes to staggering steps. “You got it.” The swimmer’s ankles clear water, and the best friends collapse into each other’s arms.

But Nyad’s inspirational story isn’t so simple in real life. 

As a relatively new open water swimmer (albeit a shore-hugger), I am surrounded by hard core athletes – a welcoming, supportive, non-judgmental community. I have observed that they take great care to play by the rules to ensure a level playing field – and so they can enjoy a success honestly and honorably earned. These include people who have braved the English Channel, ice water with temps of less than 31°F, and occasional sewage overflow in Manhattan’s waterways.

So it came as a surprise – long before Julia Cox’s fingers grazed the keyboard to adapt Nyad’s memoir to the screen – that I began to learn that many elite athletes had long ago soured on Nyad due to false claims she had made about her achievements. 

Nyad falsely stated, both on camera and in her 2015 memoir, that she was the first woman to swim around Manhattan, effectively erasing the six women who actually DID swim around Manhattan before her. On multiple occasions, she said she came in 6th in the 100m at the 1968 Olympic trials. She even recounts seeing her name on the “electronic scoreboard” at Long Beach. (Spoiler alert: there was no electronic scoreboard at the time; the trials were in Los Angeles…and she wasn’t even there). Busted, the motivational speaker later told the Los Angeles Times: “Am I embarrassed to have inflated my own record when my record is pretty good on its own? Yes, it makes me cringe.”

The filmmakers sail past the long list of controversies. As if anticipating cries that Nyad failed to follow the protocol of not being touched by another which would have disqualified her swim from ratification (had she actually established rules and standards prior to her swim, which she failed to do), the filmmakers take pains to have Bonnie Stoll hold back the crowd for the finale. “Don’t touch her,” Bonnie repeatedly cries out. “Nobody touches her or she’ll be disqualified.”

But what’s most troublesome are Nyad’s real-life attempts to denigrate the accomplishments of other swimmers an afront to the ethos of a marathon swimming community known to encourage and lift each other up. Walter Poenisch was the first to swim from Havana to the Florida Keys in 1976. She called him a “gimmick” and “a cheat”.

Poenisch used fins and a shark cage. Nyad used shark divers who operated an “electric shark shield”, and brandished long poles with tennis balls on the tips to bop the creatures on the nose if necessary. She also wore a customized silicone mask over the face – the perfect accessory for intimate encounters with venomous box jellyfish.

Nyad is clever. Nyad is also complicated. 

Expect some real-life footage, montages of exhaustion-induced hallucinations and flashbacks to life events, that range from her father’s motivational reminder – her name means ‘water nymph’ – to disturbing abuse by her swimming coach as a young woman.

Also expect a good time. Nyad’s queer leanings get established in a fun scene in which Stoll cajoles Nyad into approaching a woman at the swimmer’s surprise birthday party. The catch: Nyad must show some interest in someone other than herself in conversation. 

Nyad discussed coming out as a lesbian in an interview with Larry King when she was 21, Nyad also had a 10-year relationship with TV exec Nina Lederman. Woody Allen asked her on a date after her appearance on “Saturday Night Live” (sadly, not the first perv to seek her company) and most curiously, the internet reports she’s actually married to some guy named Bart Springtime. Today, the motivational speaker is quiet about her romantic life. Nyad’s love life is as mysterious as the 9 hours of official observer entries that don’t exist for her historic swim – an absence of logs that will forever evoke speculation as to whether she was sleeping on deck during that portion, pulled by rope or hanging on the stern for dear life.

In an open letter, one OWS administrator makes a case for a truce – a call to “embrace the interest” that the film brings to the sport. 

The Guinness Book of World Records revoked her record after the World Open Water Swimming Association again refused to ratify it due to incomplete documentation, conflicting reports from the crew, departure from established standards, and Nyad’s suggestion that she had followed the rules of an organization that did not exist at the time of her swim. 

What makes for a champion? Arguably, the ability to grab failure by the balls and squeeze out a lesson or two. Nyad might add, the ability to squeeze out a good story.

What Do You Think?

2 comments on “The Real Clever & Complicated Life Of Diana Nyad

  • Margaret,

    “Real Clever…” was a breath of fresh, salty air. It’s rare to find someone who knows even one marathon swimmer, much less a bunch of them. And you listened to them — thank you!

    However, I take issue with one thing: Nyad isn’t complicated. Her half-century history of exaggerations, lies, and self-aggrandizement at the expense of others makes her seem so. But she’s no more complex than other serial liars like Donald Trump, George Santos, or anyone else who thinks anything they say is true simply because they said it.

    Keep on swimming!


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