As ‘Nyad’ Movie is Released, a Look a the Skepticism Remaining About Diana Nyad and Her Legacy

Endurance swimmer Diana Nyad performs Thursday, Feb. 19, 2015, during her one-woman play that re-creates her 111-mile swim from Cuba to Key West in a Key West, Fla., theater near the beach where she concluded the record-setting feat in September 2013.
Photo Courtesy: Rob O'Neal

The screening of the life story of open water swimmer Diana Nyad had a positive, uplifting showing.

Nyad, who had several ocean swims of considerable distances – and became the third person to swim from Cuba to Florida – is being played by four-time Oscar nominee Annette Bening in the film “Nyad,” being released on Netflix this fall after a sneak peak premier viewing last week.

But with some raising doubts about the validity of whether or not the swim was “assisted” and “ratified,” as well as Nyad’s history of exaggerations, there are some major concern within the sport of marathon swimming, despite the impressive feat.

Nyad is in the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame (IMSHOF) for her swims from Capri to Naples in Italy, across Lake Ontario and around Manhattan Island. Those swims were validated and ratified by IMSHOF, leading to her Hall of Fame induction.

Her Cuba to Florida swim had more question marks, many surrounding a 5 1/2 hour period of her swim where the official observer made no notations. Nyad did not follow English Channel rules that do not allow stinger suits or being touched by crew members from the boat in her fifth attempt at the 102-mile swim, unlike her other marathon swims which are undisputed, this one has not been ratified.

Part of that comes from the rules and governing bodies. Nyad did not swim English Channel rules because the Florida straits have sharks and box jellyfish to deal with – and their own set of rules. However, the rules were not clearly stated before she completed her swim, and there was no formal governing body in charge of Florida crossings until the following year, leaving even more questions.

According to, the swim could qualify as an Adventure Swim, that allows multiple swim caps and the body to be covered, but rules out shark cages, fins, westsuits, paddles and any form of floatation devices. Nyad did not use a shark cage nor is there any evidence she used any of the other banned items. But she did not announced it would be an “Adventure Swim” nor any other guidelines.

“She never hid anything,” said marathon expert Steven Munatones, who was on several of her attempts, though not on the final one. “She was very up front. We all knew she had a stinger suit on and a facemask on. We knew she used duct tape to close off any openings. Because she had failed so many times due to box jellyfish things. She knew every pore in her body needed to be protected. You can’t put that on by yourself. We knew she had to be touched to be putting on the suit. Those were the rules of engagement and she followed them. (Detractors) misunderstood the whole point of the thing. All the channels have different rules. Some channels have rules that say if you see a shark you can get out for 10 minutes. Then the swimmer has to make a choice. Other channels, that is forbidden.”

“It’s logical to conclude that Diana Nyad entered the water at 8:58.46 AM CDT (UTC -4) on August 31, 2013 from Marina Hemingway (23°05’06.4″N 82°30’14.5″W) on the shore of Havana, Cuba and exited the water at 1:54:18.6 PM EDT (UTC -4) on September 2, 2013 at Smathers Beach (24°33’03.6″N 81°46’24.6″W) on the shore of Key West, Florida. There is no known evidence that she exited the water or gained forward momentum from a support vessel or other object or person during the swim,” according to the OpenWaterSwimming report.

Nyad responded to detractors in a TV interview.

“We are ethical, honorable people,” Nyad said in an interview with Los Angeles TV station KABC. “We never ever touched a boat, got out on a boat, had any floatation of somebody holding me up. I was in the open ocean, and I swam all the way from the rocks of Cuba to the sands of Florida.”

But if she did so with a stinger suit, the swim would have to be classified as “assisted,” according to IMSHOF if it is a marathon swim, but as an “Adventure swim,” it still could be ratified.

An report claims that a World Open Water Swim Association review said any “touching was limited to applying sting stopper and assisting putting on the stinger suit. No touching of the vessel, no flotation or forward momentum in any of the above cases.”

Much of the issue of the swim comes from Nyad herself, who did not participate in the swim with the same transparency that the other swims had.

That doesn’t mean she didn’t swim all the way from Cuba to Florida, however.

Evan Morrison , a marathon swimmer, was one of the first skeptics, but also gave a balanced assessment. After her Cuba-Florida swim in 2013, Morrison, who helped start the Marathon Swimmers Federation in 2012, was quoted in The Miami Herald wondering if Nyad, then 64, was touched by her assistants in any way to aid the effort.

“I don’t believe Diana cheated,” Morrison said in the Herald article. “To remove the word ‘unassisted’ would not negate one of the greatest endurance feats in history.”

On Wednesday, he released his view on Nyad’s swim, supporting it as an “assisted swim.”

IMSHOF released this statement to Swimming World about the Cuba-Florida swim.

“Diana Nyad competed in the professional marathon circuit, winning two majors in 1974 Capri Naples (setting female speed record) and the female World Professional Marathon Swimming Federation championship title and in 1975 swam around Manhattan Island setting an overall speed record. On that basis she was inducted as an Honor Swimmer in the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame (IMSHOF) – Class of 1978. There were no questions/controversy about her completing these swims. She earned her Honor,” IMSHOF’s Ned Denison said. “Controversy has followed Diana’s Cuba-Florida swim claim in 2013. The IMSHOF does not ‘ratify’ swims. For the biographies on our website, nominations, Facebook page and Induction booklets, we generally rely on independent organizations with published rules to ratify but also include generally accepted (non-challenged) swim claims (where organizations do not exist).

“There were no published rules in place covering her Cuba to Florida swim. Her immediate claim of an ‘unassisted’ marathon swim was not valid and aspects of her swim continue to be challenged by well regarded individuals in the sport of marathon swimming. The IMSHOF website is not a place where we invite controversy. Therefore, the Cuba-Florida swim claim is not included in her biography on the IMSHOF website.

“It has been 10+ years – we don’t anticipate any new statements/data concerning the swim to be forthcoming. One witness statement now, which would conflict with 5-10 previous witness statements, would not be proof.”

Some have claimed the attacks on Nyad stem from her sexuality. Some have claimed the attacks come from a history of ambiguity.

Nyad earned several awards after her swim from Cuba to Florida in 2013, including the ESPN Sports Science Newton Award from Outstanding New Limit, Cuba’s Order of Sporting Merit, the L.A. Sports Council’s Athlete of the Year and induction into the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame.

But Denison said rules in marathon swimming are important, especially when measuring distance.

“The movie promotion is 110 miles (177km) – probably based on the swim path. The sport, in the last two decades, has moved to a practice of distance defined as shortest straight line: 150 km Cuba to Florida, 154 km Havana to Florida and 164 km Havana to Key West, Florida and 207 km Havana to Little Duck Key, Florida. These define the goal – example if the swim rules state a swim from Havana to Key West, Florida it is 164 km – but to claim Cuba to Florida it is 150 km Cuba to Florida. Now – understand that there are lists for longest ocean swims – all set on straight line distances. And there are different definitions – example you MUST land in a specific spot – or any spot,” he said.

He said some of the issue with her swim is her ability to tell a story. It is something she acknowledges about herself in a recent LA Times piece.

“There’s braggadocio, which is more about attitude, and then there are misstatements,” Nyad told the LA Times. “I can look back and wish I had evolved in so many ways. Am I embarrassed to have inflated my own record when my record is pretty good on its own? Yes, it makes me cringe. Some of those statements are 45 years old — there wasn’t even an internet then. But I’m human and I like to think that I’ve lived a life that now makes me proud of who I am. …

“To me, it’s ancient history. And that doesn’t mean I’m proud of it. But I do believe that I’m bigger than that and I have lived an honorable life aside from all of that.”

Other people have attempted to show inconsistencies in her other swims.

“Diana is like a Trumpian figure in this space,” Elaine K. Howley, a marathon swimmer who also has covered the sport as a journalist, told the LA Times. “Whether you like her or not, she sucks up all of the oxygen in the room with her boastfulness and exaggeration and narcissism. There are conflicted feelings because finally this really cool, really hard sport we love is getting the feature movie that it deserves — and there are a lot of us who feel, like, really? You’re going to make it about her?”

When Nyad swam around Manhattan, the Daniel Slosberg site “The Diana Nyad Fact Check” claims Nyad said she was the first woman to ever accomplish the feat. In fact, she was the seventh.

But the statement in the Journal Herald that was linked by the site about the swim did not quote Nyad saying this, but the writer of the article making the statement. There are other instances of her claiming this achievement, however, which Nyad has said happened because she was misinformed and later regretted.

The site, which has been critical in its campaign against her, also tries to refute her claims to being the best open water swimmer of the 1970s (which in fairness is subjective) and that she won a national title and swam a world record, neither of which is accurate. But the written evidence of this data is from a speech and placed in article form that is linked to a pdf from the site.

However, she claimed to swim at the U.S. Olympic Trials, which there is no evidence of, but then later in the speech corrected herself saying when she was “attempting to make” the trials, and “failed.”

It is just one of the many questions surrounding her career, particularly the Cuba-Florida swim in 2013, the evidence points to her swimming the race without momentum help, but “assisted.” It has not been ratified, meaning it is not an official record of any kind, but as several marathon swimmers have stated, it is still an incredibly impressive feat.

A feat that has led to a major motion picture.

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Daniel Slosberg
Daniel Slosberg
9 months ago

“Ambiguity” is now my favorite euphemism for “lies,” as in “Some have claimed the attacks [on Nyad] come from a history of ambiguity.”

Yes, it becomes ambiguous when you cherry-pick the most ambiguous examples. For instance, for her Manhattan lie, you choose the 1981 article in which the writer doesn’t quote Nyad directly. You ignore all the times Nyad writes it herself — like in her 2015 memoir Find a Way — or says it on camera.

You do the same with her Olympics Trial lie: You include one ambiguous example and ignore all the unambiguous ones — like her Lake Forest College commencement address.

Sorry, but Nyad’s five-decade history of lies is unambiguous.
“Ambiguity” is now my favorite euphemism for “lies,” as in “Some have claimed the attacks [on Nyad] come from a history of ambiguity.”

Yes, it becomes ambiguous when you cherry-pick the most ambiguous examples. For instance, for her Manhattan lie, you choose the 1981 article in which the writer doesn’t quote Nyad directly. You ignore all the times Nyad writes it herself — like in her 2015 memoir Find a Way — or says it on camera.

You do the same with her Olympics Trial lie: You include one ambiguous example and ignore all the unambiguous ones — like her Lake Forest College commencement address.

Sorry, but Nyad’s five-decade history of lies is unambiguous.

Last edited 9 months ago by Daniel Slosberg
8 months ago

This reads like the perspective of bitter, jealous people. Only a man could turn the incredible lifetime accomplishments of a woman into a purely negative article. Shame on you Daniel Slosberg, whoever you are.

Sally Jackson
Sally Jackson
8 months ago
Reply to  Anon

Well, no, women are quite capable of being as nasty as men!

Bob Needham
Bob Needham
7 months ago
Reply to  Anon

You obviously don’t know anything about marathon swimming. Some of the greatest marathon swimmers, past and present, are woman, who play by the rules. Sarah Thomas is one great example. She swam a four way English Channel crossing. That’s 4 times across in a row. Keep in mind that Nyad attempted a single crossing 3 times in her 30’s and failed each time.

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