Anatomy of a 1978 Nyad Press Release

A press release Diana Nyad issued just before her first Cuba-Florida attempt confirms her breathtakingly flexible approach to the truth.

Just before her first Cuba-Florida attempt, Diana Nyad and her PR firm, the Kalmus Corporation, sent out a press release in the hopes of rounding up some sponsors.

Nyad wanted potential backers to know that she was one of the greatest marathon swimmers on the planet. You can imagine, then, that she and her PR crew had to lie through their teeth get creative. And that’s just what they did.

I’ll take Nyad’s claims one at a time. As we go through the document, though, please bear in mind that while she was sowing these fabrications about herself, she was also busy broadcasting lies about Walter Poenisch. As Poenisch prepared for his ultimately successful Cuba-Florida attempt, Nyad demolished his reputation, proclaiming to anyone who would listen that Poenisch was the liar and the fraud. And almost everyone believed her—because she was Diana Nyad.

Her duplicity cost Poenisch his sponsors, his spirit, and his good name. It cost Nyad nothing—until 1983 when Poenisch and his wife won an out-of-court settlement against Nyad and two other defendants.

But the lawsuit didn’t dampen Diana’s duplicity. Bees will buzz, dogs will bark, jellyfish will sting—and Diana Nyad will make stuff up about the amazingness of Diana Nyad.

And so, onward!

DIANA NYAD
WORLD CHAMPION MARATHON SWIMMER
(Swam on the professional circuit for five years from 1970 through 1975 and was world champion all five years….)

Nyad was named world champion once.
Nyad did swim the circuit from 1970 through 1975, but the World Professional Marathon Swimming Federation (WPMSF)  named her world champion only in 1974.

Here are the women’s champions whom Nyad pretends don’t exist (see Open Water Boek 2008, p. 59):

1970  Judith van Berkel-de Nijs (Netherlands)
1971  Shadia El Rageb (Egypt)
1972  Shadia El Rageb (Egypt)
1973  Corrie Dixon-Ebbelaar (Netherlands)
1974  Nyad [1]
1975  Angela Marchetti (Argentina)

The five-years-a-champion tale repeats a familiar pattern: Nyad diminishes, denies, or ignores the accomplishments of other women, then claims those accomplishments as her own. We’ll see this throughout.

The Swims (not in order)
You can find complete results for most of the following events in these spreadsheets: results by year | results by race.

Lake Michigan
00010 miles
000(Successfully completed four times,
000but no record)


Nyad completed this race twice.
The Chicago Lakefront Festival marathon—ten miles in Lake Michigan—happened only three times in the years from 1970 to 1975. Nyad swam in two of those races, finishing behind Sandra Bucha and Corrie Dixon both times.


Lac St. Jean in Quebec
00025 miles
000(Successfully completed four times,
000but no record)


Nyad completed Lac St. Jean three times in five attempts.
She finished second among the women in all three. Sandra Bucha beat her by over an hour in ’74 and over three hours in ’75.


Saguenay River in Quebec
00027 miles
000(Successfully completed four times,
000but no record)


Out of her three attempts, Nyad completed this race once.


Lake Ontario
00010 miles in 4 hours, 22 min.
000(World Record, but since broken)

Almost true.

[Additional alternative facts from Diana] And, oh my god, it was a cold day. And it was a long day—37 hours and 38 minutes across Lake Ontario. And I finished third among the men that day, and Judith de Nijs announced her retirement that night.
—“Beachbody 2014 Summit” (Part 1 of 2)

In the Lake Ontario/Hamilton race of 1970, Nyad finished in 4 hours and 23 minutes, placing tenth overall, and twelve minutes ahead of  Judith de Nijs. Nyad went on to use this victory to denigrate the great Dutch athlete and five-time world champion. Nyad caricatured her as someone who “[appeared] to me more of a tight end than a swimmer…. Of course, the beach didn’t tremble with each of her heavy strides. It just seemed that way.” (Find a Way, p. 59)

Nyad later claimed that, after she beat de Nijs at Hamilton, “de Nijs never swam again” (Esquire,Mind Over Water,” 1 Oct 1975).

But the next week, de Nijs swam 19 miles in 9:32.20 to win at Lac St-Jean. She took off the next season to have a baby, then got back in the water in 1972. She continued to compete until at least 2013 when she won the 70-74 women’s division of the Dutch open-water swimming championships (Open Water Boek 2015, as Judith van Berkel-de Nijs, p. 69).

Here are two other things Nyad would rather you not know:

  • The 20-year-old Nyad entered just two races that season, completing only Hamilton. De Nijs, 28, swam a full schedule. In the month before Hamilton, she swam races of 12 and 22 miles, winning both. After Hamilton, she won the race at Lac St-Jean.
  • When the WPMSF tallied the points at the end of the 1970 season, Judith de Nijs had earned her sixth world title. Floridian Stella Taylor ranked second. Diana Nyad, world champion marathon swimmer, finished third.

 


La Tuque, Quebec
00024 hour two-person team race
000(Held the World Record three years in a row)


Nyad completed La Tuque in three of five attempts.
Assuming there was such a thing as a La Tuque World Record, Nyad set it once and held it for one more year.

In 1971, Nyad set a women’s record of 85 circuits. In 1972, Nyad swam 83 circuits. No other woman surpassed that, so she still held the record, though the press release implies that she lowered it each year.

In 1973, Dutch swimmer Corrie Dixon set a new record, circling Lac St. Louis 96 times. Nyad couldn’t finish the race that year because she hit her head on a floating dock. She had to withdraw, forcing her teammate to abandon the race as well.

In 1974, Nyad dropped out again, overcome with exhaustion at about 17 hours. But her partner that year, Marcello Guiscardo, was having none of it. He swam the last seven hours solo, despite Nyad’s pleas—after a nice snooze at the hospital—to let her back in the water.

That same year, Sandra Bucha teamed up with John Kinsella to set an overall record of 194 circuits. Bucha contributed 100. True to form, Nyad rarely mentions Bucha or Dixon. However, she did refer to them once in Esquire:

Sandra Bucha has beaten me a couple of times in individual swims. I’ve been beaten by Corrie Dixon. They were better than me on those days. (Mind Over Water,” 1 Oct 1975)

Those days? Nyad never finished anywhere close to Bucha, and Dixon beat Nyad in all but one race they contested.


Parana River in Argentina
00026 miles in 8 hours, 22 minutes
000(Set World Record in February of 1974.
000Not officially recognized)


Again, almost true.
Diana was the first woman to finish. Neither Dixon nor Bucha swam this race. And nowhere else except in this press release will you see Nyad’s time called a “world record.” The competitors swam downriver all the way, so a world record would be meaningless.


Capri to Naples
00022 miles in 8 hours, 11 minutes
000World Record set in July, 1974

Nyad won this race too!
Bucha and Dixon wouldn’t join the tour until the next event. Again, however, no mention of a world record anywhere but the press release.


Lake Ontario, North to South
00032 miles in 18 hours, 20 minutes
000World Record set in August, 1974
000Swim never attempted before or since
000by male or female


True again!
Nyad intended to do a double but cut short the attempt two hours after the turnaround. Nonetheless, Nyad was put out that the Canadians didn’t offer her some sort of prize.


Manhattan Island, New York
00028 miles in 7 hours, 57 minutes
000World Record set in October, 1975


True!

Nyad became the fastest person—and the seventh woman—to circle Manhattan. But that wasn’t enough for Diana. By 1981, she had begun claiming to be the first female—one more example of her denying the accomplishments of other women in order to focus the spotlight on herself.

The Ghost Swims: North Sea & Australia

North Sea
00067 miles in 40 hours, 3 minutes
000no record


They got that right—there is “no record” of this swim.
Nyad first hints at this endeavor, to the best of my knowledge, in 1977:

Nyad is the best women’s marathon swimmer in the world. She has swum in the bitter cold water of the English Channel, the North Sea and Lake Ontario. (St. Louis Post Dispatch, 6 Apr 1977)

That allusion gradually inflates until it becomes…

…the longest race of her career, a 67-mile trip in the North Sea down the Dutch coast. It took 40 hours and 3 minutes. She remembers almost nothing about it except for the start and the finish. (“Diana Nyad’s Magnificent Obsession,” p. 4, 26 June 1978)

No surprise there, given the likelihood that it never happened. Nyad doesn’t mention any such race in either of her two memoirs. In Other Shores (1978), she details her three English Channel failures, after which she writes of a forty-hour swim “in the frozen North Sea.” This juxtaposition leads me to think that she boiled down the carcasses of her English Channel failures, then cooked them up into “the longest race of her career.”

The equation looks like this:

0000003 x (21-mile failed EC crossing) = 67-mile North Sea triumph

In Nyadian mathematics, that makes complete sense, more so given the geographic proximity of both sides of the expression.

Eventually, we get a date: 1974. So Diana fantasized one helluva year. But she didn’t stop there:

Great Barrier Reef to Australian Coast
00050 miles in 24 hours, 3 minutes
000World Record set in January, 1974


Sorry, but no record of this one either.

Given the dearth of information for the last two swims, I’ve invited a guest commentator to help shed some light on them. Just before Nyad attempted Cuba-Florida ’78, Dennis Matuch, then president of the WPMSF, spoke with the Miami Herald.  A great marathon swimmer himself and International Swimming Hall of Fame honoree, Matuch had been Nyad’s comrade and confidante while she raced on the pro circuit.[2] At some point, though, he must have begun to think that something was wrong. He told the Herald:

The longest swim she’s ever done is 32 miles. We’re talking a distance here of over 100 miles. You can’t go from grade school to college. Diana Nyad can keep up a 2½-mile-an-hour pace for maybe 10 hours…It would be at least a 50-hour swim. There’s no way. She can’t handle it. (“A Tale of Two Swimmers,” 26 June 1978)

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Help!

Once, while swimming in the Red Sea, Nyad had been near a woman whose leg was severed by a shark. (“Diana’s Life is Going Swimmingly,” Detroit Free Press, 20 Nov 1981)

You’d expect Nyad to mention important races and severed legs in her books. Other than the Nile swim, however, Nyad mentions none of the following events in Other Shores or Find a Way. Nor can I find independent documentation—information that did not come directly or indirectly from Nyad or her PR people—for any of them.

Nile River at Cairo
00010 miles
000(Successfully completed four times, but no record)

So far, I’ve only found results for three Nile swims between 1970 and 1975. Nyad swam in one of them.

She has swum…the Nile, 13 times. (“Diana’s Life…“)


Suez Canal
00025 miles
000(Successfully completed three times, but no record)

I’ve found a results list for only one Suez race, but it does not list Nyad.

She has swum the Suez Canal, dodging an occasional mine…. (“Diana’s Life…“)


Red Sea at Beirut, Lebanon
00028 miles in 9 hours, 53 minutes
000World Record, but since broken

Nothing but that dubious episode with a big fish.


West Coast of Mexico to Guaymas
00032 Miles

I’ve found results for one year—1971—but they don’t include Nyad.


St. Thomas to Virgin Islands
00031 miles in 9 hours, 35 minutes
000World record set in March, 1975
000Swim had not been attempted by anyone before.

Again, nothing.

I want to assure you, however, that we at the Diana Nyad Fact Check Annex take pride in our impartiality. So we’re going to hold our noses and our judgment regarding all of the latter swims.

Maybe you can help: If you have a tip regarding any of the races in the press release, please send it to the following address, which we have set it aside solely for burning issues:

jellybox@nyadfactcheck.com

DNFC detectives will follow up every tip, no matter how small—because you never know where the tiniest touch of a tentacle might lead.

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Should it matter that Diana Nyad circulated a fiction-filled press release almost half a century ago? Yes, because it gives a clear, early example of a behavior that continues into the present.

“It’s true I used to lie,” she told an interviewer in 1976…

Only to impress myself. I would tell ta cab driver a lie—anybody.
I don’t have to do that anymore.”
(“What Makes Diana Nyad Swim? An Absolutely Killing Ambition,” 2 Feb 1976)

In other words, “I’m a compulsive liar, but I’ve changed.”

So the real question becomes, should we believe a compulsive liar who tells us that she has stopped lying?

Facebook post from 6 Sep 2013

NOTES

  1. The WPMSF’s baroque point system allowed Nyad to win the 1974 championship despite being the third fastest female swimmer that year. Corrie Dixon and Sandra Bucha beat Nyad every time they met in ’74, but Diana swam more races. See “When is a world champion not a world champion?” (Swimming World, Jan 1975)      RETURN 
  2. See, for example, this 1974 series of five letters. Four went from Nyad to Matuch. The fifth, Nyad’s smarmy note to Sandra Bucha’s parents,  Nyad attempt to justify her unmerited 1974 world championship. Some excerpts:

For the sake of history and perhaps something like poetic justice, in 1970 and 1971 I was by far the best female marathoner that the sport had then encountered….

At the close of the 1974 season there is absolutely no professional swimmer or anyone knowledgeable about the sport who deny that Sandy Bucha is the best female to date….

…[T]here is an irony that you may not understand and that is that I feel I deserve the world championship at least once. (4 Dec 1974)

A gracious and less egotistical athlete might have said to Sandra Bucha, “you deserved this award more than I, so it’s yours.”  Instead, Nyad glommed onto her unearned honor like a ten-ton limpet, then claimed four more of the same.

“Just to keep the record straight,” she wrote to Matuch shortly after writing Sandra’s parents,

I am sending you a copy of this letter to Bucha. As you might notice it is exaggerated and very kiss-ass which they don’t deserve but Sandy might so it’s OK. (14 Dec 1974)

RETURN

 

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