Diana’s Kaleidoscopic Convalescence

Diana Nyad knows the real reason she didn’t reach the Olympic trials in 1968, and it’s not the reason she has been trumpeting for the last forty years.

One of Diana Nyad’s favorite stories involves a debilitating illness—viral endocarditis—that kept her from qualifying for the 1968 Olympic trials. In her tale, she was practically a shoo-in to land a place on the U.S. squad, but fate and infection intervened:

In 1968 observers thought that Nyad was certain to make the Olympic team. “I was considered a ‘sure thing.’ The media considered it a tragic case when I didn’t make it. An attack of heart disease in the summer of 1967 slowed me down. I just wasn’t swimming fast enough to make the team. I was so disappointed, I stopped swimming. I went to India to meditate and do my drop-out thing for awhile. (Barnard Bulletin, 2 Feb 1976; complete issue here)

Actually, she got sick in the summer of 1966, but who’s counting?

Obviously, not Diana Nyad.

[L]ast summer she suffered a virus of the heart which put her out of the water for six weeks. (26 Apr 1967, Ft. Lauderdale News)

If she had gotten sick in 1967, her illness might have provided a reasonable excuse for missing the trials. Six weeks of downtime in 1966, though, would be a stretch.

So stretch she did. Beginning in the late 1970s, six weeks grew to months, then months to years.

But let’s start in the early seventies, back when Nyad was more inclined to tell the truth and when “viral endocarditis” wasn’t even a gleam in her eye. Here’s Nyad speaking to Dan Levin of Sports Illustrated in 1971:

“…I’d trade all of what I’m going to be for an Olympic gold medal. I just wasn’t fast enough, though.” It seems a strange admission, but it is honest, devoid of regret. (6 Dec 1971, “She Takes a Long Swim Off a Short Pier”)

Regret, however, did not remain absent for long. It began to appear, together with blame and lies, by 1974:

I didn’t make the 1968 Olympic team and I resented it because I worked so diligently for so many years. I became a fanatic about it. When I got on the “block” for 1968, for the Olympic trial, I knew I was going to make it because that’s the coaching philosophy, “where there’s a will, there’s a way….”

Note: Nyad couldn't have been getting "on the 'block'" for the trial because she never qualified for the trial. And there are no official trials for the trials. To qualify, a swimmer must meet a time standard.[1]

I became a recluse for almost eight months after I lost. It was a psychological shock for me. I came in fifth. I was only 600ths of a second behind third place. I was a poor sport. I packed my bag and took off for India for a month. (Military Life, Nov-Dec 1974, “In the Swim with Diana Nyad”)

Later, Nyad tells Nickie McWhorter of the Detroit Free Press that the race was even closer—she lost by 1/1600th of a second, not 1/600th. “‘It was eight years out of my life,’ she says…. ‘I felt cheated'” (11 Apr 1977, “All She Hears is Water, All She Hears is Fog.”)[2]

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In 1975, Nyad sends up a trial balloon, our first hint of imminent affliction. According to the Fort Lauderdale News:

She started as a distance freestyler. In ninth grade, she swam as a backstroker and qualified for the nationals. A heart virus made her miss them. (16 Nov 1975, “Diana’s Big Splash in the Big Apple”)

That’s the earliest example I’ve found of Nyad using sickness as an excuse for missing a big meet. But ninth grade? That would have been 1964, and Nyad would have been 14. She didn’t qualify for nationals in 1964. Nor did she qualify in 1965. A documented ailment that year may have hurt her chances to meet national qualifying times. That 1965 illness, though, was separate from the one in 1966 that she claims kept her from the trials.[3]

Finally, Nyad goes for broke and makes her illness—for the first time, it’s “endocarditis”—all-but-overlap with the 1968 Olympic trials:

By 16, Nyad was an Olympic caliber backstroker when she contracted endocarditis, a virus of the heart muscles and was bedridden for years. (19 May 1977, Minneapolis Star)

Nyad was never “Olympic caliber,” but that’s not her most absurd claim here. During those “years” that she ostensibly spent in bed, one can easily show that she spent plenty of time in and near swimming pools.[4]

No pigs were harmed in the writing of this post.

Perhaps realizing this conflict, Nyad grabbed her convalescence and wrestled it back to three months. But those months proved harder to hold onto than a greased pig. Watch as they refuse to be contained (parenthetical dates denote years of publication):

2 months in bed, 1 in the house (1978)

“I spent three months in strict bed rest…. When two months passed, I spent another month in more moderate bed rest, but still not going out of the house, much less exercising” (Other Shores, p. 19).

3 months in bed (1978)
“I stayed in bed every minute of every day for three months, the most significant experience of my early years” (Chicago Tribune; also see page 1 and page 3).

4 months on her back (1978)
“…an unexpected attack of endocarditis, an inflammation of the heart, put her on her back for four months and ended her dream of participation in the 1968 Olympics” (Parade Magazine).

4 months in the hospital, 6 more weeks in bed (1981)
“For four months she was in the hospital; for six more weeks on her back at home” (Ft. Lauderdale News and Sun-Sentinel, page 1 here).

1 year in bed (1981)
“An illness during her 16th summer was the turning point in Nyad’s life. Stricken with endocarditis, an inflammation of the heart, she was bedridden for a year” (Orlando Sentinel).

4 Months in a hospital, more time at home (1983)
“Confined to a hospital for four months with more recuperation ahead of her, her Olympic hopes were doomed” (Cincinnati Enquirer).

4 months on her back (1985)
“In 1966, about with viral endocarditis, a heart ailment, put Nyad flat on her back for four months…” (Clarion-Ledger).

3 months in bed (2015)
“Junior year I contracted a heart disease called endocarditis, which required three months of strict bed rest. This was the time my sweet little sister Liza and I carved out a forever bond” (Find a Way, p. 49).

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Why were the trials so important to Nyad that she would bury herself under a boatload of lies just to appear capable of meeting a time standard (or, in her versions, beating out one or two fellow athletes)? Because swimming in the Olympics was Diana’s original xTreme Dream. And why not? What young swimmer doesn’t have that same dream, imagining herself standing atop the awards platform, her national anthem playing, a medal (preferably gold) hanging around her neck?

Most of us don’t get there, and we move on. But Diana couldn’t. Just as with her Cuba-Florida fantasy, she believed that her hard work entitled her to the accolades, the adoration, the talk-show invites. It didn’t matter that she lacked the ability. She deserved it!

But Diana Nyad was never a world-class swimmer. Decent, yes, but not great. Yet she needs the public to see her as the best at everything: the first woman to swim around Manhattan, one of the few to live through almost-always-fatal jellyfish stings, the only person capable of swimming unassisted from Cuba to Florida, one of the greatest marathon swimmers—if not THE greatest—in history. (Just to be clear, all of those last four statements are completely false.)

“Not fast enough,” then, eventually became unacceptable; so she needed to formulate a credible, sympathy-arousing excuse for not reaching the trials. That’s why, decades after she fails to reach the trials, she remakes herself as an Olympic-caliber athlete with really bad luck.

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To recap: In the summer of 1966, Diana Nyad may have spent two to six weeks recuperating from an illness. She would have been out of bed by the beginning of August at the latest. The Olympic trials took place in August of 1968. If Nyad was the world-class swimmer she claims to have been, she had plenty of time to recover and qualify for the meet.

Let’s take a hint from Diana herself—that’s her below, lying on the diving board in February 1967—and meditate on that for a bit:

Results of a swim meet held approximately 7½ months after Nyad’s illness began. She won the 100 backstroke and swam the opening leg of Pine Crest’s winning medley relay team.

NOTES

  1. In at least two versions of her story—in her 2015 commencement speech to Lake Forest College and in the Military Life article cited above—she describes competing at the Olympic trials. At the trials, place does matter, but Nyad never swam in the trials. And nowhere does Nyad tell a version of this story in which she misses a time standard. In other words, she never describes what actually happened.
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  1. For more evidence of Diana Nyad’s flexibility with the truth, as well as her shamelessness, see also:

    Diana says she had a friend who missed qualifying in ’68 by 6/100ths of a second and committed suicide. (19 Dec 1976, Miami Herald, Marathon Woman, p. 4; see also pages 1, 2, 3)

    Tragic and terrible if true. However, given the similarity of Nyad’s other fictitious “600ths of a second” and “1  1600th of a second” assertions, I find this story impossible to believe.
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  1. Nationals-related articles:
  1. For example (all from 1967):

Take that, viral endocarditis!
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