Ratification Infestation: Notes on WOWSA’s Retroactive Recognition of Diana Nyad’s Cuba-Florida Crossing

On August 14, 2019, almost six years after Diana Nyad walked ashore on Smathers Beach, the World Open Water Swimming Association (WOWSA) retroactively ratified Diana Nyad’s Cuba-Florida crossing. The actual change is meaningless, but the way it occurred has too many juicy bits to ignore.

Notification of the swim’s ratification arrived in the form of a late-night edit [1]  to part of Diana Nyad’s Openwaterpedia entry. Before the edit, it read:

Most of the questions raised by experienced marathon swimmers worldwide remain unanswered. As of 2019, the swim has not been ratified or authenticated by any official swimming governing body.

Then, on the night of the 14th, Steven Munatones, founder and head of WOWSA, snuck into the Openwaterpedia operating room and performed amateurish plastic surgery on that section. After he stapled together the last seam, the new version read:

Most of the questions raised by experienced marathon swimmers worldwide remain unanswered is a claim by the Marathon Swimmers Federation. As of 2019, the swim has not been ratified or authenticated by the Marathon Swimmers Federation,[2] but it has been long recognized since 2 September 2013 by the World Open Water Swimming Association that wrote the rules of the attempts and provided the onboard observers.

That WOWSA—or any organization for that matter—would wait six years, then claim to have “recognized” the crossing as of the day it ended…well, that’s absurd. Inadequate documentation, deceptive statements, and ongoing obfuscation all add up to a crossing that remains both unratified and unratifiable.

For the sake of argument, though, let’s overlook Steven’s irrational claim and take a moment to examine his handiwork.

“wrote the rules of the attempts”

No written rules for any of Nyad’s attempts have ever surfaced, notwithstanding statements like this one:

Munatones said he would be distributing copies of the “rules of engagement” for the Florida Straits to the media and the swimming community. (Reuters, 11 Sep 2013)

Six years later, we still have nothing to show.

If Munatones wanted to prove that he or WOWSA had composed a set of rules, then his Openwaterpedia operation provided the perfect opportunity.  Linking “the rules” to the rules would have tidied up at least one tiny corner of Nyad’s mess.

Instead, he added to the absurdity, linking “attempts” to the Openwaterpedia definition of “attempt,” as if that word required clarification. Let me attempt to offer Steven a word of advice: As a general rule, it’s a bad idea to assume that your readers are clueless.

For more on Nyad’s rules and lack thereof, please see “Disqualified.”

“provided the onboard observers”

I have found no evidence supporting Munatones’ claim that WOWSA had anything to do with Nyad’s observers other than to offer a few tips. Steven gave them advice via email and possibly phone. But nowhere in the many press accounts of Nyad’s swim or its aftermath will you find mention of WOWSA involvement.

If Steven/WOWSA had “provided the onboard observers,” then we have to ask: “What the hell was he thinking?” Neither of Nyad’s two observers—Janet Hinkle and Roger McVeigh—had any prior experience or training, something their inadequate record-keeping ultimately reflected. Bringing them along as observers guaranteed post-swim controversy.

Given their lack of experience, Hinkle and McVeigh would not have known this, at least in the beginning. Nyad and Munatones, however, would have known it from the start. They are responsible for dropping Janet Hinkle and Roger McVeigh into an impossible situation. Nyad and Munatones used Hinkle and McVeigh to make the swim appear legitimate. Their inexperience was a feature, not a bug.

Here’s the observer story as we knew it before August 14: Munatones had planned to be Nyad’s sole observer for an estimated 50-70 hour swim. If that’s not foolhardy enough, try this: Neither he nor Nyad had a backup plan in case Steven became unavailable. When it turned out at the last minute that Munatones had to be out of the country, he told Nyad “to get four people on our crew to keep a careful log.” Diana didn’t like that idea, so she called on two acquaintances instead: Hinkle and McVeigh (see “How to swim 110.4 miles,” ESPN Magazine, 10 Dec 2013).

During an exchange of emails about the Openwaterpedia edit, I told Steven that, given the evidence, WOWSA could not have “provided” the observers. So he excised “provided,” but not because it was wrong. “Janet and Roger were representing WOWSA as observers in her swim,” he maintained. “That was quite clear.” Continued Steven:

They were not representing anyone else. I thought “provided” was an appropriate word. But since you are hell bent on this, I changed the word to”approved.”

And that’s how the entry stands as of August 21.

“…has been long recognized since 2 September 2013 by the World Open Water Swimming Association”

Until August 14, 2019, no one mentioned that WOWSA oversaw, sanctioned, considered ratifying, or in any other way presided over Diana Nyad’s 2013 Cuba-Florida fiasco. Nor has Steven/WOWSA offered any documentation or proof that WOWSA governed the swim.

On the other hand, plenty of documentation confirms that nobody—including the principal players—knew about WOWSA’s ostensible involvement.

Nyad didn’t know:

[I]t takes them awhile to vet records…. We had two independent observers over there—Janet Hinkle and Roger McVeigh…. They took copious, accurate notes. [A]t some point, the Swimming Hall of Fame or the Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame will call them and say, ‘let’s sit down with you,’ and, you know, ‘did she ever get out on the boat, did she ever put on a pair of fins.’ You know, and all the things that they observed will go…it takes awhile to have records declared…. (Press Conference, 41:45, or partial transcript)

John Bartlett, the man Nyad calls her “genius” navigator, didn’t know:

The data collected by Bartlett and two observers will be submitted to three open-water swimming associations and the Guinness World Records for verification, Bartlett said. (“Nyad Team Responds to Skeptics,” 8 Aug 2013)

And Steven himself apparently didn’t know:

When Sir Edmund Hillary climbed Mount Everest, there was no official record because he was the first to do it. Diana’s swim was also off-the-grid, with no organization regulating it. The classification of her record may not be resolved. (“Cuba-to-Florida swim was ‘squeaky clean,’” Miami Herald, 17 Sep 2013)

One could argue that Munatones didn’t mean an umbrella group like WOWSA or the MSF, but rather a Florida Strait-specific organization. A handful of experienced marathon swimmers offered to set up just such a group in the months before Nyad’s 2012 attempt. Nyad ignored them. The effort went nowhere.

Still, you’d expect that at some time before or during the swim, Steven would mention WOWSA’s participation. But he did not. Instead, he waited for six years, then took a rusty scalpel to Nyad’s Openwaterpedia entry and declared that WOWSA had been lurking in the maintenance closet all along.

After the crossing, of course, Munatones actively attempted to staunch the bleeding. He touted Nyad to journalists. He jousted with her skeptics. He coordinated a teleconference/whitewash that Nyad later falsely declared had cleared her name.

Through it all, he never once mentioned WOWSA involvement.

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No one knows for certain why Steven waited until the middle of August, 2019, to decide that WOWSA had ratified Nyad’s crossing. Some speculate that it was Cameron Bellamy’s imminent Florida Strait attempt, later put on indefinite hold courtesy of the U.S. government.

Steven may also have finally realized that no knight in briny armour would ride to Diana’s rescue. Shortly before he altered Nyad’s Openwaterpedia entry, Steven solicited help from the International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF). In an August 10 email, Steven told me that…

[Nyad’s] records, data and information – including written testimonials from those on her escort boat – have been delivered to the International Swimming Hall of Fame.  This information all stands to scrutiny in my experience – that is why I submitted it to the Hall of Fame.  If I did not think so, I would not have submitted it.

Whatever Steven sent to the ISHOF, its representatives either disagreed with him or didn’t understand his request. Either way, the knight never left the castle. So Steven grabbed the reins and rode out to save Diana.

He could have ridden much sooner. He appears to have made up his mind about the crossing well before Nyad set foot on land. “Diana Nyad is tantalizing close,” he wrote,

…to realizing her life-long dream of swimming from Cuba to Florida across the Gulf Stream and Strait of Florida.

While the media will extensively cover her tremendous effort over her estimated 53-54 hour solo swim, what is most impressive to us is how she ultimately overcame her daily doubts, punishing practices, scathing sunburns, numerous nightmares, and financial fears that Nyad faced over the last several years. (originally posted on Daily News of Open Water Swimming, 2 Sep 2013; also available here.)

Steven’s temporal fluidity throughout the post makes it impossible to tell whether he wrote it during or after Nyad’s crossing. One thing is sure, though: Steven made up his mind before the finish but wants us to think otherwise.

In the same post, Munatones describes something else that he knew before Nyad shuffled ashore:

Not everyone was in her camp and a few never will be. She faced derision from coaches and marathon swimmers; she faced numerous no-thank-yous from sponsors. She often faced disbelief and reluctance. She regularly faced suspicion and incredulity.

And he wasn’t the only one who knew that questions would arise. Here’s part of a text message I received from a member of Nyad’s team:

[D]uring preparation for the swim it was a forgone conclusion amongst the seasoned crew members that there were lots of active skeptics in the past and for sure there would be in the future especially if she were successful. (20 Feb 2018)

Diana, of course, knew too. Some time within the two weeks after the crossing, Diana sent around a message warning her crew to beware of doubters. I haven’t seen that email—it’s in the top five on my Diana Nyad wish list—but one of her crew members wrote about it:

I just got a copy of Diana’s Check in e-mail to the Team…. I am of course stunned, but not in the least surprised at the spate of naysayers who have come from the wood-work to attempt to soil Diana’s history making crossing from Cuba to Key West.  I have researched some of the people making the racket and have come to the conclusion they are a bit petty and small minded.  I expect this from those types of people. (John Lewis, 17 Sep 2013)

Which leaves us with a question that “those types of people” have been asking for six years:

For the most important swim of her life, why didn’t Diana Nyad make an effort to secure qualified observers, generate adequate documentation, and assure transparency? (Paraphrase of Donal Buckley’s statement on LoneSwimmer blog, 4 Oct 2013)

Steven and Diana each have decades of marathon swimming experience. They knew that trained observers, good documentation, and transparency would minimize doubt. But they also knew that competent, experienced observers would have demanded pre-determined rules and would have held her to them. They would not have overlooked the many transgressions of which her inexperienced team may or may not have been aware.

So Diana Nyad chose to organize a swim that maximized doubt but minimized her chances of failure. Naive observers and no rules—the perfect prescription for making a sick crossing appear fit as a fiddle.


NOTES

  1. I am indebted to Evan Morrison, cofounder of the Marathon Swimmers Federation, for keeping an eye on Nyad’s page and pointing out the edit.
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    [Update, 21 Sep 2019: Morrison pointed out via Facebook that Donal Buckley, the other MSF cofounder, wrote the text that Munatones doctored on the 14th. Buckley began making the changes in March of 2014, “after MSF Forum members complained that the Nyad Openwaterpedia page (written by Steve) was too one-sided and Steve locked it to editing by anyone other than himself.” Before Steven gave Donal permission to change Nyad’s page, it read in part: “She finally realized her Xtreme Dream of swimming 103 miles on her fifth attempt from Havana, Cuba to Streamer’s Beach, Florida on 2 September 2013 after 52 hours 54 minutes in the Straits of Florida.” (“Diana Nyad,” 8 Mar 2014)]     RETURN
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  2. The Marathon Swimmers Federation (MSF) has made no claims one way or the other about Nyad’s swim, though many participants in its online forums have. The MSF does govern swims; but, as far as I can tell, it has never governed one without having been asked to do so. Nor has it ever overseen a swim retroactively. In all likelihood, Munatones uses the MSF as a foil because of activity in its online forums. After Nyad’s 2013 crossing, those forums became the epicenter of Nyad skepticism. (Full disclosure: The MSF also hosts marathon swimming-oriented blogs, including this one.)     RETURN

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