Commentary by Nathan Jendrick
I was on vacation with my family in Hawaii when Diana Nyad, the 64-year-old ultra-endurance swimmer, completed her swim from Cuba to Florida after more than 52 hours in the water. Open water swimming being a pretty popular thing in the islands made it rather captivating breaking news even in the generally blissful, slow-paced paradise. My first thought was, “Wow. Give that woman a high-five and a coffee.”
I didn’t think about the rules she followed to make the swim happen or the unknown-to-me sanctity of marathon swims, only that this woman did something incredible that was clearly very meaningful to her and would be very meaningful to many others. Acknowledgment by people that included no less than the President of the United States highlights how prolific this feat truly was.
Yet, a few days later after returning home and catching up on news surrounding the swimming world, I found what I felt was a pretty privative attitude by some toward Nyad’s accomplishment. People, rather than celebrating the fact someone walked into water in Cuba and didn’t come back out until Florida, were essentially discrediting this swim because certain rules weren’t followed. Rules that as far as I know no one said Diana Nyad was trying to follow in the first place.
A large criticism has been that she didn’t follow English Channel rules. I get that. And since she didn’t, no one should dare let her say that she did. But given that she isn’t saying, “I swam from Cuba to Florida under English Channel rules,” and instead, “I just swam from Cuba to Florida, baby!” (yes, yes I know I’m paraphrasing) I don’t see why this is an issue. We’re stepping away from the point here which is that a 64-year-old woman, you know, just swam non-stop from Cuba to Florida.
So I had to ask myself, why is this an issue?
I realized upon some more reading that there is a differing of opinion pertaining to whether her swim was really “unassisted” or not. In My Mind, an “unassisted swim” is making it from start to finish without someone dragging you along. If someone smears some chap stick on you or helps you put a suit on that prevents jellyfish from ruining your swim (again, in her case) I’m fine with that. Yes, it’s not accepted under English Channel rules. But as long as we aren’t saying she did this under those rules, we’re still good. It still fits my personal thoughts on unassisted swimming because the swimming portions of this whole endeavor were entirely her doing.
I know there will always be detractors. There are still groups–albeit small groups–of people who will tell you that Michael Jordan isn’t the best basketball player of all time. That Wayne Gretzky isn’t the best hockey player of all time. That, believe it or not, Michael Phelps isn’t the greatest swimmer of all time. And generally these arguments come about to, “Well, it was a different era. The rules weren’t the same.”
So you get arguments and, occasionally, fun, spirited discussions. But because those athletes compete in sports that are so much bigger than swimming, it doesn’t detract from the overall greatness of these athletes or the accomplishments they have achieved.
We don’t have that luxury in swimming. The community is too small. Pool swimming or open water, it doesn’t matter, we have to support the good things that come from any water sport in order to grow this sport and, more importantly, this gateway to good health and wellness. Attacking Diana Nyad is not going to help.
I don’t mind people disagreeing with her or even, to an extent, the credit she is being given–people disagree with me all the time, and it’s just fine–but if that’s going to happen it needs to stay in context. Attacking her for not following rules she never set out to follow in the first place, and in some cases doing it rather viciously, help no one.
It was pointed out to me that this whole ordeal has become the issue that it has because of how Nyad has responded to the criticism. I feel though that she had no choice. She was put in a rather untenable position because no one had done what she had done before and so there’s no label for it. When people say she didn’t “follow the rules,” the general public assumes the worst.
But what rules are we talking about? She has to respond, but because there’s no historical basis for doing so, it can come off defensive.
I’d love to see the issue put to rest. She didn’t follow what some in the ultra-endurance swimming community feels are a generally accepted set of rules. For those who want to push that point in a civil manner–which is a majority of those opposed, thankfully–I applaud you.
For those keyboard warriors on some of the message boards I’ve read that have stooped to using foul language and personal attacks toward this woman, I won’t bother to try and express my disappointment.
In general though, what I think is best for swimming and for the inspiration this achievement has conjured up in people of all ages, is to celebrate that a woman completed a swim, without a shark cage, that no one had done before.
She wasn’t dragged, she didn’t ride in a boat, she swam and she swam and she swam. And it was an incredible achievement no matter how you slice it.
Cheers to you, Diana Nyad.