Just over a year ago, the New York Times issued a correction to an op-ed in which Diana Nyad accuses her high school swim coach, Jack Nelson, of sexual abuse:
An earlier version of this article incorrectly described an event associated with the initial assault on the author. It was a swim meet, not the state swimming championships.
The change gave the illusion that The Times had cleaned up Nyad’s mess. “We published a thorough correction,” editor Alicia Wittmeyer told journalist Irv Muchnick, “and don’t plan to comment beyond it.”
But the correction was far from thorough, leaving most of Nyad’s fabrications intact.
The Times may not care—“My Life After Sexual Assault” is, after all, an opinion piece. But when Nyad provides all the lurid details of that first episode of alleged abuse, she presents the event as fact, not opinion. The Times, then, has a responsibility to confirm that Nyad is telling the truth, especially when her ostensible facts involve unsubstantiated allegations against a real person.
That’s my real talent — more than being an athlete — is being a master storyteller. (“Diana Nyad: Find a Way,” via 24life.com)
And it turns out that looking into Nyad’s facts is not all that difficult. She sees herself as a storyteller par excellence, so she piles on those lurid details in the hopes of giving her stories an aura of truth. Those details simplify the job of checking Nyad’s work.
Laura Nyro—December 4, 1970 / January 29, 1971
I was 21 when I told someone the whole horrid saga for the first time. I took a weekend trip to Michigan to celebrate the birthday of my best friend from high school… (op-ed).
Nyad included more details in her 2015 memoir, Find a Way:
…I flew to Detroit to go to a Laura Nyro concert with my old high school swimming buddy Suzanne…” (p. 56).
Laura Nyro was struggling, barely able to sing above a whisper. “Does anybody have a cough drop?” she asked. An audience member handed one up to the stage, and Nyro placed it atop the piano for later. She fought on but, after thirty-six minutes, ended the concert, done in by a bad case of laryngitis.
That didn’t matter to the thousands of fans packed into the University of Detroit’s Memorial Building (present-day Calihan Hall). They didn’t care whether Nyro sang or whispered “Eli’s Comin’.” She was there, authentic and vulnerable. She was there, and that was everything. “Some of the softer notes,” wrote one reviewer, “were lost in a squeaky whisper but the audience was more than satisfied with her effort.”
The audience may have been satisfied, but Nyro wasn’t. So she returned two months later, giving the university another show entirely at her expense—paying for the venue, covering all production costs, charging nothing for tickets. On Friday, January 29, 1971, 7500 fans battled a blizzard to fill the Memorial Building and cheer the singer-poet.
Diana might have been one of those fans. If a 21-year-old Nyad heard Laura Nyro in Detroit, it had to be either at that show or the abbreviated one in December. Neither date was close to Suzanne’s May birthday, but Nyro played no other shows in Detroit while Nyad was that age.
The following year, Nyro played Detroit in February. By then, though, Nyad had turned 22 and was in Europe. She had flown to England by the beginning of September, then traveled on to Dijon, France, for a six-month study abroad program. (Trouble keeping track of the dates? Don’t worry—I’ve included a timeline below. )
But before she set off for Europe, Nyad had some races to swim. A letter she wrote after one of those races would show that, unless Diana Nyad is a psychopath—and even I hesitate to go that far—she lied about most if not all of her abuse story.
La Tuque—July 24-25, 1971
Le 24 heures de la Tuque, better known simply as La Tuque, would be the most grueling swim Diana had ever done. A 24-hour race involving teams of two swimmers each, the members of each pair would trade off from 3 pm on Saturday until 3 pm on Sunday, completing circuit after circuit of Lac Saint-Louis, a small, egg-shaped body of water in La Tuque, Quebec.
The first 24-hour competition took place in 1965. It continued yearly until 1981, though not always with the same format. By that time, however, interest had waned, and the race was no longer profitable, so le 24 heures called it a day.
But the 1971 version was a howling success. Tens of thousands of spectators lined the shores of the tiny lake, cheering all the athletes but paying particular attention to a young American, the only woman in the race. Not only could 21-year-old Diana Nyad hold her own against the men, but she had teamed up with Gaston Paré of Shawinigan, Quebec, thereby endearing herself all the more to the French-Canadians.
Nyad and Paré didn’t win—they finished third—but that didn’t matter to their fans. A local reporter gushed that Diana and Gaston had “prouvé de façon définitive maintenant qu’ils appartiennent à la catégorie des plus grands nageurs au monde”—“finally proved that they belong to the category of the greatest swimmers in the world.”
At a banquet after the race, Mrs. André Brassard, the wife of the president of the competition, presented a radiant Nyad with two-dozen flowers: twenty-two chrysanthemums in anticipation of her 22nd birthday, and two roses—making it twenty-four for the 24-heures de La Tuque.
A few days after Nyad’s La Tuque triumph—on or about July 29, 1971, and less than a month before she turned 22—the young athlete composed a note to her former coach, Jack Nelson:
I’ve been in four marathon swims now, and after each one I’ve heard the winner say he’d never do it again. I said the same thing, and now, four days later, I’m planning to enter another very soon. These swims have a deep-felt effect on me. I need to share them with someone who is capable of understanding. (Quoted in “She Takes a Long Swim Off a Short Pier,” Sports Illustrated, 6 Dec 1971)
So here’s the problem: If Nyad were 21 when she celebrated with Suzanne, she had to tell her friend about the alleged abuse before La Tuque. But Nyad wrote the note to Nelson shortly after La Tuque and well after she would have unburdened herself to her pal.
Could Nyad have been wrong about the timing? Like most of Nyad’s stories, her abuse tale changes from telling to telling, but one aspect remains nearly fixed: her age when she first told Suzanne about the alleged assaults. With only two exceptions that I know of, Nyad is always 21 years old, the year 1971, when she travels to Michigan “and every heinous detail, every recounted word, came spewing forth.” Two examples:
In other words, Nyad’s story, as she most often tells it, cannot be true.
Here’s a more thorough timeline:
22 Aug—Nyad turns 21.
4 Dec—Laura Nyro gives an abbreviated concert in Detroit.
29 Jan—Laura Nyro gives a full concert in Detroit.
May—Suzanne turns 22
17 Jul—Nyad swims in Chicoutimi, Quebec (Swimming World, WPMSF)
24- 25 Jul—Nyad swims in 24-hour race at La Tuque, Quebec
(“Long Swim Victory…,” “Paré et Nyad: révélation…“)
29 Jul (approx.) — Nyad writes to Nelson
7 Aug—Nyad swims at lac St-Jean/Roberval, Quebec
22 Aug—Nyad turns 22
Sometime between late August and September 5—Nyad flies to England to attempt the English Channel. She has a September 8-20 swim window but needs to be in Dijon, France, by the 14th. (See “Diana Nyad to Attempt English Channel Swim,” “Diana’s Channel Crossing Foiled…,” Swimming World)
14 Sep—Nyad begins her studies in Dijon.
One could argue that Diana might have had an abrupt change of heart after writing to Nelson, then stole off to Michigan and Florida before flying to England. That seems unlikely, though, especially given the affection she heaps on Nelson six years later. We’ll get to that shortly.
In Find a Way, Nyad sets the clock ahead a few years. She writes that the Michigan trip occurred sometime after she (Nyad) returned to New York for grad school. This places the event no earlier than 1973, with Diana no younger than 23. (Find a Way, pp. 56-58).
For the second exception, Nyad splits the difference:
Although Nyad says she confided in an older friend about a year after the incidents, it was five years later when Nyad, then 22, told her story to a former Pine Crest teammate. (“Jack & Diana,” 14 June 2007)
But no Laura Nyro concert fits the bill for either exception. After Nyro played Detroit in February of 1972, she didn’t return to the city for more than twenty years.
Nyad (and The Times) Once Told Another Story
In 1978, Julia Whedon profiled Nyad for the New York Times. Part of Whedon’s piece addresses Nyad’s just-published memoir, Other Shores:
“Nelson explained to me that I had two assets common to all world‐class swimmers,” Diana states in her book. “First, I had the genetic ability…. And second, I had the psychological hunger…. Coach Nelson has subsequently told interviewers that I was the hardest worker he ever had.” (“Marathon Woman,” 18 Jun 1978)
In all of Other Shores, Nyad hurls only superlatives at her former coach. You’ll search the book forever without finding a hint of abuse. The same goes for “Marathon Woman.” Nyad regaled Whedon with the usual tall tales, but the abuse story was not yet one of them.
I don’t know when Nyad first spun the yarn that she eventually concocted about Jack Nelson—but it wasn’t in the early seventies. The late eighties is a possibility, though. According to a 2007 piece in New Times, a South Florida alternative weekly,
[i]n 1989, Nyad appeared on a live TV talk show with the caption “Raped by Coach” beneath her name. Intensely angry still, she recounted Nelson’s abuse… (“Jack & Diana,” 14 June 2007).
I haven’t been able to locate a copy of that appearance. The earliest example I can find of Nyad going public with her allegations comes from almost a decade later. In May of 1998, an article in the Tampa Bay Times briefly addresses Nyad’s allegation. A few months later, however, the Atlanta Constitution tells the story we have come to know:
Nyad said she was resting at the house of her coach in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on the day of the state high school swim meet…. (“Some male coaches pay too much attention,” 23 Sep 1998)
But we have also come to know that that part of the story is not true, at least according to the New York Times. One thing, though, that we know is true: You don’t have to be Joycelyn Elders to diagnose Diana’s allergy to honesty. With that in mind, I hope that The Times will get to work fact-checking the rest of Nyad’s op-ed.