Countless articles and websites hawk variations of “Back in the 1970s, DIANA NYAD was the greatest long-distance swimmer in the world” (LiveTalks LA ). You can find other iterations broadcast widely over online and print media: TED, Woman Fails in Attempt…, Nyad’s website, etc.
We can trace this fiction back to two sources: Diana Nyad and her publicists. To paraphrase the great swim coach Doc Counsilman in “Go For the Gold, Doc,” Nyad was a mediocre swimmer who conned the public into thinking she was a great one.
In the seventies, Diana Nyad completed some fine swims: In 1975, she became the seventh woman to swim around Manhattan Island, setting the overall record in the process; and in 1979, she set a distance record by swimming from the Bahamas to Florida (102 miles, current and wind-aided, in 27½ hours).
In 1974 Nyad finished #1 in the standings of the World Professional Marathon Swimming Federation (WPMSF). Nyad didn’t win a race that year, receiving the title on points, so her victory caused an uproar. Some members of the Federation felt that Nyad did not deserve the crown. These swimmers channeled their wrath onto Dennis Matuch, that year’s WPMSF president. Matuch described the brouhaha in “When is a World Champion Not a World Champion” (from the January 1975 issue of Swimming World magazine):
I was accused of partiality and dishonesty. How could a swimmer who had two sixths, one tenth, one 14th, one 21st, and one 13th place (Diana Nyad) beat out a swimmer who had one first, two seconds, and a third (Sandra Bucha) for the world’s championship?
In Nyad’s other four seasons on the pro swimming circuit, she placed 2nd twice and 3rd three times (results here). In 1976, Nyad attempted the English Channel three times without success, something she’d rather we forget. In 1978, she made the first of her four or five (depending on who’s counting) unsuccessful Cuba-to-Florida attempts.
Below I’ve condensed a passionate, well-researched list from writer and marathon swimmer Elaine Howley (via the Marathon Swimmers Forum). I left off some of the great swimmers Elaine includes, and I wrung out the writing to leave mainly numbers; you should treat yourself to the original.
A main reason Nyad can get away with her absurd claims: the difficulty of gathering and collating marathon swimming data. Thankfully, Elaine and others have swum to the rescue:
Nyad loves to use De Nijs as a foil and to denigrate her in the process. But De Nijs was the far better swimmer.
1971—Swims Catalina Channel at age 14.
1972—Breaks English Channel record.
1973—Breaks English Channel record again.
1974—Breaks Catalina Channel record.
1975—First woman to swim New Zealand’s Cook Strait.
…and that’s just the first half of the first decade of her astounding (and ongoing) career. For more, see this timeline of Lynne Cox’s swims.
1976—Sets a Catalina Channel record that still stands.
1977—Sets a Catalina Channel two-way record that still stands.
1978—English Channel in 7:40, over an hour faster than anyone in history.
Dean’s overall record stood for 16 years. It took 28 years for another woman to swim faster. The only person to hold an English Channel solo record longer than Penny was Matthew Webb, EC swimmer #1.
1979—Women’s WPMSF champion. The 2nd place swimmer trailed Dean by more than 1000 points.
Dean went on to coach other marathon swimmers, including Chad Hundeby, the fellow who, in 1995, finally lowered Penny’s record.
1974—Lake Ontario at age 16
1976—English Channel twice
1977—First woman to complete an English Channel double, beating the previous overall record by almost 10 hours. Ten hours!
1979—English Channel double, breaking her own record
1979—English Channel twice
“[As] a feminist all my life,” Nyad wrote, “I take both joy and pride in honoring all great women athletes of all eras.” Since many of the great marathoners of the seventies were women, Nyad’s decade-of-dominance claim provides another example (c.f. Manhattan) of Nyad stealing glory from much more deserving female athletes. I’m going to take a wild guess and say that doesn’t qualify as a feminist act.
Nyad doesn’t limit her claim to a single gender, so let’s add…
1968—first of 34 lifetime English Channel crossings
1970—English Channel double, only the third person to complete it
1970—North Channel (Ireland to Scotland, 22 miles)
1971—first person to swim around the Isle of Wight (56 miles/35 hrs. 10min)
1975 —pulled from water after 52 hours on 3rd leg of EC triple crossing attempt
1976—Loch Ness/EC twice
1970-1979—Sixteen English Channel crossings (19 lifetime)
Given the great athletes above, it’s impossible to say who was the best marathon swimmer of the 1970s. One thing we can say, though: Diana Nyad didn’t make the finals.
And she knew it all along.
After Nyad won that 1974 WPMSF championship on points, she wrote a letter to Sandra Bucha’s parents. Bucha had beaten Nyad every time they raced each other that season. Alongside Nyad’s typical nonsense, the letter contains one true thing:
At the close of the 1974 season there is absolutely no professional swimmer or anyone knowledgeable about the sport who can deny that Sandy Bucha is the best female to date.
And from the Miami Herald, 31 July 1978:
There are greater swimmers in the world. But I’m the one with charisma. I have the asset of being articulate. I can get out of the water and make people interested in my story.
So why do people believe Nyad when she makes her outrageous and demonstrably false claims? Because marathon swimming receives, for all practical purposes, no attention, press or otherwise, from anyone outside the sport. Someone like Nyad—skilled at hype, aching for adoration—can complete a few swims, say she’s the greatest, and everyone will believe her. Why would anyone in their right mind go to such lengths to lie about a sport to which only a handful of people pay attention?
After decades of deception, Nyad has desensitized us to her fabrications. When, in 2013, she claimed to accomplish the impossible—contending that she swam, at 64 years of age, the 110 miles from Cuba to Florida in a nearly straight line, during which she tread water for 1 ½ hours at 3 mph, etc.—we all took her and her publicists at their word.
Well, all of us except “this one guy in Ireland” and a few others.