Update, 13 Oct 2018: Added two new articles regarding DN’s doctoral deception.
Update, 23 Sep 2019: Added new article, “A Tale of Two Swimmers,” about Nyad’s 1978 Cuba-Florida attempt, her fabrications about having permission to make the swim, and her despicable treatment of Walter Poenisch.
Diana Nyad loves to tell stories. She loves to tell stories about big things (“I was the first woman to swim around Manhattan”) and little things (“Margie and I…started eating all our dinners in Miami at Benihana”) and all sorts of things in between.
You’ll find a theme here and throughout all of Nyad’s deceptions: she will say or do whatever she thinks will enhance her public image. She will distort the truth, ignore the rules, slander other swimmers, and denigrate or disregard the achievements of other marathoners while claiming those achievements as her own. It’s all okay in her book as long as it furthers her cause: the deification of Diana Nyad.
Inspired by the New York Times’s catalog of the fictions of another disingenuous public figure, I’ve compiled a list of all the lies in Nyad’s 2015 memoir, FIND A WAY.
Oops, that’s a lie. I don’t know enough to spot and ferret out all the fabrications in FIND A WAY. Nor does the DNFC investigations unit have the funds to feed further ferrets. I hope, however, that the following list gives you a sense of Ms. Nyad’s métier.
p. 16 “The experts…did report the box [jellyfish] usually delivers a fatal sting.”
p. 27 “[Aris] claimed to speak seventeen languages.”
That’s up by ten from 2005.
p. 36 “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.”
Lucy Winslow, Nyad’s great great grandmother, came from Maine. She didn’t move to New York until sometime between 1850 and 1855. And she was not a physician. See census data.
p. 36 “[Nyad’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….”
Artist, yes; businessman, maybe; college professor, no. See more census data.
p. 39 Of William Sneed, Lucy’s first husband and Diana’s biological father: “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….”
Lucy Sneed’s name did not change until she remarried.
p. 41 “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.’”
p. 44 “It wasn’t long before I was the best back-stroker in the state of Florida….”
She was never the best backstroker in Florida.
NOTE: This is a favorite motif of Nyad’s. In 1978, she wrote that her coach, Jack Nelson, “…helped me improve enough within that first year to become the best in the state of Florida at both the 100-meter and 200-meter backstroke” (OTHER SHORES, p. 17).
p. 45 “Age fourteen. The big state championships were at our school that summer.”
Nyad’s school, Pine Crest in Fort Lauderdale, did not host the championships that year . They took place in Gainesville, over 300 miles away. This fabrication introduces Nyad’s sexual abuse allegations against her coach, Jack Nelson. I address these—and Nyad’s questionable assertions surrounding them—here: Addressing Diana’s Op-Ed.
p. 51 “It was my last 100-meter backstroke…. Top three would go on to compete for a coveted spot on the Mexico City team….”
To reach the Olympic trials, a swimmer must meet a time standard. Place means nothing.
p. 53 “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.”
This assumes qualification-by-place, which doesn’t happen.
In her 2015 Lake Forest College commencement address,
Nyad makes up a story about swimming in the Olympic trials.
Early ’70s: The Pro Swimming Circuit
p. 58-59 “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.”
p. 60 “…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.”
Counsilman actually said that Nyad was “a very mediocre swimmer with a very good publicist.”
p. 60 “ The swims ranged from ten to twenty-five miles. This colorful cast of burly marathoners and skinny me….”
That’s Sandra Bucha in the photo on the right—a great pro swimmer who trounced Nyad every time they raced. Nyad never mentions her in FIND A WAY. Bucha clearly doesn’t have an ounce of burliness to her name.
“She spoke to a man who had completed the swim in 1961.” (Sports Illustrated, Oct 20, 1975)
p. 63 “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….”
Nyad knew that other women had swum around Manhattan, the most recent having done so in 1959.
p. 64 “When I came back to New York City that fall [of 1975], still working on the degree in comparative literature….”
Nyad didn’t enroll in the fall of 1975 or any time thereafter. See also p. 68, “Suddenly, after the Manhattan swim, a PhD in comparative literature seemed irrelevant.”
Update, 13 Oct 2018: A 1978 article in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin (via the NY Times) reports that Nyad is “no longer” working on her doctorate, while a 1979 article in the Fort Myers News-Press states that she’s nearing its completion.
p. 66 “My motivations in doing the Manhattan swim were high-minded….”
Just after the Manhattan swim, Nyad said: “…[T]he day to day motivations are fame and fortune….”
p. 66 “I was the first woman to swim around Manhattan….”
1978: Cuba, take 1
p. 71 “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.”
A lie-by-omission: Nyad ignores her three failed English Channel attempts while simultaneously feigning respect and belittling those who succeeded where she could not.
p. 78 “…nautical-miles measurement, used only for large ships.”
Nautical miles are a standard measure of distance used by seafaring people all over the world. Her own crew uses them. Nyad prefers statute miles because they make her swims seem longer, e.g. 110 statute miles = 96 nautical miles.
p. 83 “…Finally, in late May, the Cuban minister of sport sent word through Washington that we were cleared….”
Cuba did not clear Nyad until August. She probably lied about this to avoid talking about Walter Poenisch. See also Steve Sonsky’s “A Tale of Two Swimmers” (Miami Herald, 26 June 1978) for how Find a Way is far from the only place Nyad lied about receiving permission from Cuba.
NOTE: Walter Poenisch completed the Cuba swim in July of 1978. Nyad and her supporters slandered him in the press, causing him to lose most of his sponsors. Poenisch and his wife sued Nyad and won. For more, see Apology to Walter Poenisch.
p. 83 “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.”
According to Nyad herself, Mr. Aoki didn’t come through with the cash. See page 2, column 1 of the linked article.
p. 83 “Margie and I also started eating all our dinners in Miami at Benihana.”
Given the above, this wouldn’t be true.
p. 87 “I don’t utter one negative word the rest of the way.”
Nyad was “…screaming at her trainers as they insisted she abandon the…crossing.”
p. 90 “The press boat, a big yacht with a slew of photographers leaning over the railings, looms high above….”
According to Jim Leljedal, who was along on the swim as a reporter for radio station WINZ: “There was no ‘press boat’ per se, unless she was referring to one of the boats that accompanied her. 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.”
Cuba again…and again and again and again
p. 117 “The Dream was still alive for me now, at age sixty, but I hadn’t swum a stroke in thirty years.”
p. 121 “None of us had reason to imagine this swim would be anything more than a private enterprise.”
Diana Nyad doesn’t do private:
“…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’s “Diana Nyad’s Magnificent Obsession,” Village Voice, 26 June, 1978. More here.)
p. 177 “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.”
The Cubans have seen five individuals and a relay.
p. 196 “Dr. Angel Yanagihara…is now considered the world’s leading expert [on box jellyfish].”
p. 197 “Now we know for sure that it was the box that stung me and Jon Rose on that September 2011 crossing. We have seen the pictures of this transparent blue creature….”
Box jellyfish are clear, not blue. Portuguese Men O’War stung Nyad in 2011.
From CNN’s “Jellyfish, currents cut short Cuba-to-Florida swim.”
p. 197 “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.”
There is no such video. 
p. 197 “Many people stung away from shore by the box do not make it back to land before they die.”
As untrue now as it was at the beginning of this list.
p. 198 “The swim-tech company Finis will make me a custom stinger suit, this in accordance with the rules of marathon swimming….”
There are no marathon swimming rules that would allow a custom stinger suit. 
p. 244 The Everest Lie: “[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.”
Chloë McCardel never issued any such statements. She did say that swimming the English Channel is like climbing Mt. Everest, a more accurate analogy.
NOTE: Only one swimmer equates the Cuba swim with Mount Everest: p. 4 “This is a swimmer’s Mount Everest….” p. 71 “[Cuba to Florida] is the Mount Everest of ocean swimming.”
p. 252 “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….”
No observers would be required to make log entries every minute. Steve Munatones, a highly experienced and respected observer himself, would not counsel such a thing.
p. 253 “I was ready to accept only five people greeting me on the other side.”
Nyad would NEVER accept five people greeting her on the other side.
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. (FIND A WAY, pp. 272-73)
…People have spent the whole day waiting. From a mile out I can hear clapping and screaming…. They share with me the most extreme moment of all—for after the pain, the cold, the hours, the distance, after the fatigue and the loneliness, after all this comes my emergence. AND MY EMERGENCE IS WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT. (Esquire, “Mind Over Water,” Oct 1975.)
p. 262 [During a storm that lasts about 90 minutes, Diana treads water, 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.”
Nyad has said elsewhere that she “just tread water.” However, her GPS shows that during the storm she traveled straight toward Key West at 3 mph.
p. 278 “[Bartlett’s] empirical proof of our course satisfied all but a couple of what they call online ‘haters.’”
The majority of experienced marathon swimmers still doubt that Nyad swam all the way under her own power.
p. 278 “I swam across fair and square, shore to shore.”
p. 280 “Tim’s ‘little bit of home video’ turned into an award-winning Showtime documentary, The Other Shore.”
p. 285 “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…. ”
Significant squaring remains necessary. Transient fame remains the defining force. Please See above.
Half-truths, Exaggerations, and other nonsense
p. 15 “…I remember standing on that Fort Lauderdale beach at age nine with my mother. ‘Where is Cuba, Mom?’ …And 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.'”
Diana’s mom would be pointing at the Bahamas.
p. 121 “…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.”
Squid don’t grab birds out of the air, literally or otherwise. One species propels itself out of the water—not to eat but rather to not be eaten.
p. 196 Dr. Angel Yanagihara says of box jellyfish that “[o]ver thirty species are known worldwide.”
True, but Nyad sees Dr. Y. and raises her thousands.
p. 199 “Steve tells us we are literally writing the safety standards for swimming in the life-or-death environment of the box jelly.”
Nyad never wrote down or declared any rules before the swim. Having done so would have fended off at least some of the skepticism. Nor did she declare any after.
“Maybe some readers will find inspiration in Nyad’s triumphs over adversity. In ‘Find a Way,’ though, Nyad’s ambitions don’t come across as triumphant so much as needy.”— Jennifer Kay
p. 94 “Hard-earned security evolved me from desperately needing to convince people that I was special to simply living a special life.”
See FIND A WAY, one person’s desperate attempt to convince EVERYONE that she’s special.)
I suspect that, for Nyad, facts constitute an irritating and unnecessary imposition. Limiting herself to facts would be like limiting herself to rules, another unnecessary burden.
In the second part of this series, we’ll look at why Diana Nyad feels justified in ignoring facts and rules. For Nyad, acquisition of fame, adoration, glory, and cash trumps all else.
1. “In the words of a scientist,” a jellyfish expert told me via email, “that’s bullshit!” He continued in a subsequent message:
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%. [return]
2. Unless otherwise agreed upon and written down ahead of time, legitimate swims follow English Channel (EC) rules. Nyad knows these rules as well as anyone:
A legal marathon may be undertaken only in a regular racing suit, cap, goggles, and grease—no flotation devices, no insulating suit. (Esquire, “Mind Over Water,” 1975.)
This will be a legitimate marathon, nonstop without touching a boat, people or cage (except accidental brushing with leg or shoulder), and with no external aids, such as flippers, wet suits, flotation devices or drugs. (OTHER SHORES, p. 162)
A few swims do have alternative rules—decided on ahead of time and always with EC rules as their foundation.
Why would she do this after declaring that Cuba-to-Florida was the most important swim of her life? “I can postulate,” wrote Donal Buckley shortly after Nyad’s crossing, “that any prior disclosure of any rules at all was still too limiting to what she had planned.”
Nyad must have calculated that when “what they call online ‘haters'” marched out with their sandwich boards and placards, few outside of the sport would notice. [return]
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οὕτως ἀταλαίπωρος τοῖς πολλοῖς ἡ ζήτησις τῆς ἀληθείας,
καὶ ἐπὶ τὰ ἑτοῖμα μᾶλλον τρέπονται
So little pains do the many take in the investigation of truth,
accepting readily the first story that comes to hand.
– Thucydides (via Konstantinos Plakidas)