Nyad at the Ebell, part 1: The Best on Planet Earth

In a talk earlier this month, Diana Nyad declared that, in the 1970s, she “held all the major records on planet Earth.” With those words, she swept under the carpet all the genuinely great swimmers of that decade.

On Monday, October 7, 2019, Diana Nyad spoke at the Ebell Club of Los Angeles for its 125th Anniversary Opening Day Lunch. “Come and meet this extraordinary woman,” reads the Ebell site,

…and hear her story. On the 125th Anniversary of the Ebell, the courage, determination and resilience of Diana Nyad are an inspiration to us all. (Ebell of L.A.)

My son Noah and I attended. Afterward, I tried to write something about the event. Only after finishing, though, did I realize what I’d been writing about. After that realization, the tone felt inappropriate. I couldn’t bring myself, however, to scrap the whole thing, hence the following preamble.

PREAMBLE

The crux of Nyad’s presentation—as it is with much of her writing and public speaking—was her attempt to erase from history many of the great women swimmers of the past.

“I became, in the 1970s,” Diana told her mesmerized audience,

…the best ocean swimmer in the world. I held all the major records on planet Earth, out in the open sea.

But Diana Nyad never held a single major record “out in the open sea.” What’s more, she has never come close to being the best marathon swimmer of any decade. In other words, while speaking to members of an organization dedicated to the advancement and empowerment of women, Diana Nyad sought to obliterate the accomplishments of all of the genuinely great women swimmers of the 1970s—and of many decades before and since.

You won’t, of course, hear about any of those women from Diana.

You won’t hear about Lynne Cox, Tina Bischoff, Wendy Brook, Cindy Nicholas, and Penny Dean—the six women who set English Channel records during the 1970s. Nor will you hear that Nyad failed every time she tried to complete the preeminent marathon swim on the planet.

You won’t hear about Corrie Dixon-Ebbelaar or Sandra Bucha, the two great athletes who consistently trounced Nyad on the pro racing circuit.

And, because Nyad claims to be the first woman to circle Manhattan island, you won’t hear about the six great swimmers who preceded her—Ida Elionsky, Mille Gade, Lottie Schoemmell,  Lillian Garrick, Anne Priller Benoit, and Diane Struble.

What you will hear from Diana Nyad is that she was the greatest marathon swimmer in the world—despite all evidence to the contrary.

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I don’t blame you if you still don’t believe me. After all, Diana has been telling versions of this story for almost fifty years. You’d think that the truth would have caught up to her by now. So let’s take a closer look at all the major ocean swims of planet earth. If we define such swims as events of over ten miles that saw at least ten successes through 1979, we get the following list:

EVENT no. 0f  successes
during the ’70s
all successes
through 1979
English Channel 198 400
Catalina Channel 27 55
Cook Strait (New Zealand) 9 11
Bristol Channel (Great Britain) 5 11
Strait of Gibraltar (Spain – Morocco) 4 32

Diana Nyad never completed any of those swims.
She attempted only one, the English Channel.
She took three shots at it and didn’t get across a single time.

In fact, during her entire career, Nyad only completed two major swims that anyone would consider records. Neither swim, however, was “in the open sea.” In 1974, she swam Lake Ontario north to south, becoming the first person to do so. The following year, she became the 7th woman to swim around Manhattan, swimming the fastest time to date.

Detail from Other Shores, Nyad’s first memoir, in which she recognizes two of the women who preceded her around Manhattan.

Nyad relished the fame her record brought. The 7th-woman part, however, didn’t sit well with her. So, by 1981, she began claiming to be the first. She continues to spread this nonsense despite conclusive evidence that she knows the truth.

We can, then, add Nyad’s Manhattan Island swim to the long list of accomplishments that she steals from other women and claims as her own.

1978 press release in which Nyad claims to have been named World Champion all five years that she raced professionally. She won the crown once—in 1974—on points.

END PREAMBLE

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What Brings You Here Today?

My son Noah and I pulled up across the street from the Wilshire Ebell, a “magnificent Italian Renaissance-style complex” that sits on Wilshire Boulevard about 4 miles west of downtown Los Angeles. We walked across the street and through the Ebell’s arched entryway into an older L.A.—grassy interior courtyard, burbling fountain, large rooms with antique furniture resting on age-darkened wood floors.

Concerned that Diana might recognize me, I hoped to maintain a low profile. As we walked the pathway toward the grand front hall, the impossibility of remaining incognito became obvious. According to its website, the Ebell Club is “an educational and philanthropic organization founded by women, for women.” Of the 175 or so people in the audience, I counted four men, the two of us included. Noah and I stood out like chicken nuggets at a PETA picnic.

Ebell historic photo via Demigoddess Chronicle’s review of “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry.”

We spotted the check-in table and joined the line. While we waited, Noah asked if I’d prepared an answer in case anyone asked why we were there. I’d thought about it but hadn’t settled on a response.

Laurie Schecter, the events coordinator, was working the queue. She stopped beside us just before we reached the front. “Sorry for the wait,” she said. “So, what brings you here today?”

“I, uh…I’m a former marathon swimmer,” I replied,  “and I’ve followed Diana Nyad’s career for a long time.”

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Why was I really there? Because I’m a former marathon swimmer, and I’ve followed Diana Nyad’s career for a long time.

And I wanted to see how Diana works her magic in front of a live audience. How does she convince a roomful of successful, influential, intelligent people to believe her nonsense? Having investigated her claims for over three years, and having unearthed one lie after another after another, I hoped to leave with a better sense of how she works her con.

And maybe she’d ad-lib some new lies on the spot. Or, even better, perhaps she’d surprise us with some treasures she saves for live audiences—a kind of Diana Nyad Private Reserve.

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We chose an empty table near the far back corner. By the time lunch started, eight women had joined us, three of them recognizable actresses. I’m not going to name them, because I don’t want to embarrass anybody—other than Diana, of course, but that’s probably impossible.

I will say that directly opposite me sat an actress who co-starred in one of my favorite films of all time. It involves time travel and whales. In my notebook, I wrote down my favorite line from the movie. I added an arrow pointing across the table, then showed it to Noah surreptitiously. I needed him to know that only feet separated us from cinema royalty.

While we waited for dessert, the actress in question leaned across the table. She wanted to talk to me!

“So, why are you guys here?” she asked.

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I did eventually tell two people the whole story: Lilly and Anne (not their real names), the two women sitting directly to my left. When Nyad finished her program, Lilly turned to me and asked, “So did she lie?”

“Yes. Mostly, she told her usual ones, but she added a few gems—like how, in the seventies, she held all the major records in the open sea.”

“I didn’t hear her say that,” she responded. So I pointed to where I’d written it down in my notebook. “But I didn’t hear it,” she repeated. She couldn’t believe that Nyad might have spent the last hour lying to us.

Anne had a different take. She grew up in New York, her father a New York City cop. “He taught me,” she said, “not to believe everything people say.” She got that Nyad was somehow off. “I’ve heard other athletes speak,” she said. “They all showed some humility.” She left it there.

I couldn’t, so added, “And Nyad showed none.” Anne nodded.

Lilly’s credulity made sense, though. Like most of the people in the room, she knew little about Nyad and probably less about marathon swimming. She was hearing all of Nyad’s slick stories for the first time.

But I’d heard them all before. “The box jellyfish…emits the most potent venom on Earth. Most people die instantaneously.” Ah, that one again. “I hadn’t swum a stroke in 30 years.” And that one. “And my mother was French.” That one too. So I listened for the new things—like “all the major records on planet earth.” Or like the glowing review that, according to Ms. Nyad, the New York Times gave her recent show. “There was no review,” I told Lilly.

She took out her phone to check. A few minutes later, I asked her if she’d found it. “No, but she wrote an op-ed.”

Yes, that she did, and it will come up in part two. First, though, let’s uncork a bottle of that Diana Nyad Private Reserve and get to work.

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About Those Records…

I became, in the 1970s, the best ocean swimmer in the world. I held all the major records on planet Earth, out in the open sea.

One could write a book about the selfishness and dishonesty of that statement. We could start by naming all the great swimmers—particularly the female swimmers—Nyad’s declaration erases from history.

For now, though, let’s just look at a single swim, the majorest of major marathons: the English Channel. If Nyad held “all the major records on planet Earth,” the EC would have to be among them.

In the 1970s, four great swimmers broke the women’s English Channel record. Three of them bettered the overall mark. Another great athlete became the first woman to complete a 2-way crossing.

Here’s a list of all the English Channel records that women set in the 1970s: [1]

  • 197200Lynne Cox (15 years old, women’s record-9:57).
  • 197300Lynne Cox again (women’s record-9:36).
  • 197600Tina Bischoff (overall record-9:03).
  • 197600Wendy Brook (overall record-8:56).
  • 197700Cindy Nicholas (first two-way by a woman-19:55).
    Nicholas broke this record by over ten hours. In other words, she went over ten hours faster than the fastest man. Nicholas eventually completed 19 English Channel crossings over her career.
  • 197800Penny Dean (breaks overall record-7:40).
    Dean’s overall record stood for 16 years, her women’s record for 28. No one has held an English Channel record longer than Penny Dean except for Captain Matthew Webb, the first person to swim the Channel. 

Wendy Brook in a 1977 ad for Bovril meat extract paste.

You may notice two things about the names on that list: First, you’ll never hear a single one cross Diana’s lips; second, Nyad isn’t among them. Not for lack of trying, though—she jetted to England in the summer of ’76, intending to be the first woman to complete a 2-way. She made three attempts and didn’t get across once.

What did she do then, this paragon of persistence who proclaimed to planet Earth, “Never ever give up”?

She gave up. And she never ever tried again.

Fish Fulfillment

Of her Off-Broadway production, “The Swimmer,” Nyad declared:

It went well…. The New York Times gave us a glowing review.

The New York Times did not review “The Swimmer.” Nyad must have been devastated—in the Diana Nyad ecosystem, a tree does not fall in a forest unless the New York Times covers its descent. So far, the sum total of media recognition for “The Swimmer” is Emma Brockes’ opinion piece in The Guardian:

It was like listening to a one-woman version of the Iliad, an almost too perfect literalisation of inspirational metaphor.

Age is Just a Bunch of Numbers

Detail from 7 Oct 1975 New York Times article.

Nyad began her program with a brief video. The voiceover begins:

Diana Nyad started as a competitive swimmer at just seven. By 22, she took a dip and made a huge splash swimming 28 miles around the island of Manhattan.

But every source I know of—even Diana herself—says that she started swimming competitively three years later. “From those early childhood days—that first day in the pool at age ten” (Find a Way, p. 43).

And Nyad circled Manhattan when she was 26, in 1975. Every newspaper that covered the swim confirms this.

Or at least I thought they did. It turns out that every newspaper, including the New York Times, says Nyad was 25. They had no reason, of course, to doubt Diana or her press people, or to check her birthdate: 22 August 1949. That makes her 26—not 25, not 22—when she circled Manhattan.

It Was NEVER About Cuba

Speaking of lies that are more trouble than they’re worth, Nyad adds a bonus year to her 1970s Cuba-Florida attempts:

I marched down to that Havana shore at 28 years of age….
Forty-two hours later, we didn’t make it.

The next year, the winds blew out of the east for 92 consecutive days…. We lost the warm-water window, had to pack it all up.

Come back and train the next year—can you imagine?
…1980, we were stymied by visas. Training again the entire year. And now we can’t get into Cuba….

But that middle one—the 92 consecutive days of bad weather—didn’t happen:

Or at least that’s what she tells us in Find a Way:

Closing in on July [1979], the worst news comes through to us. We are denied entry to Cuba…. We can’t let all this training poof into thin air, so we hash out our immediate options and settle on a Bahamas-to-Florida crossing…. (p. 90)

It’s time to say good-bye to swimming, for good this time. Wide World of Sports has come knocking….  (p. 91)

But wait—contemporary sources described her planning that 1980 swim:

Marathon swimmer Diana Nyad, who swam 89 miles from Bimini to Florida earlier this year, said Tuesday her planned 100-mile swim from Cuba to Florida next spring will be her last…. (Windsor Star, 24 Oct 1979)

Or maybe one in Greece:

“I don’t care if it’s the Aegean Sea or another Cuba to Florida run or what it is. It’s got to be 100 miles of open ocean water, from land to land.” (Minneapolis Tribune, 10 Feb 1980) [Ed: Shortly after making her “planet Earth” statement, Nyad told the audience that all of her records paled before her one great dream. “But it was always about Cuba for me,” she declared. Guess not.]

Or definitely one in Greece:

She wants to do 100 miles in that swim, tentatively scheduled for September 1981, in the Aegean Sea near Greece. (South Bend Tribune, 14 Mar 1980)

Okay, I give up. God knows what Nyad was thinking, though Diana probably bamboozled Her too.

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One thing’s certain, though. Wide World of Sports did come knocking, and Nyad let them in. When ABC covered their first triathlon on January 10, 1980, Diana was there—in Hawaii—as a Wide World of Sports commentator.

I am sure of this because I was there too. We met briefly and chatted a bit, [2] after which I didn’t see Nyad again until we crossed paths at the Ebell Club.

Pushing 60: Age Isn’t Just a Number After All

After deciding to revisit the Cuba-Florida crossing as a senior citizen, Nyad declares:

Unlikely, maybe, at age 60. But I found, not so, I was better at sixty than at twenty-eight — far better in every way, including physically.

“That’s wrong,” said Lilly.

I’ve heard and read that claim from Nyad many times but never thought to question it. Thank you, Lilly—of course it’s wrong. As with many of Nyad’s fabrications, though, I’d heard it so often and for so long that bark had grown around it and hidden it from doubt. Add another one to the “nonsense” column.

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So why bother pointing out these sometimes insignificant fabrications? Because they show that Diana Nyad is a compulsive liar and that we have to question everything she says.

Diana’s Authentic Story

Some say that, because Nyad is a storyteller, we should cut her some slack. That would be fine—if her lies didn’t hurt people and if she told the truth about not telling the truth.

Nyad ended the program with the unequivocal proclamation:

…and that was my authentic story.

But it was not her authentic story. It was Diana’s fantasy—the same fantasy, in rough outline, that she has trafficked in for decades. If Diana Nyad told her authentic story, she’d have to acknowledge the many great women swimmers whom she desperately wants you to forget—the athletes who pummeled her in the water but lacked her lust for adoration and fame; she’d have to mention the man whose life she destroyed because he swam from Cuba to Florida first; and she’d have to admit that she’s a compulsive liar and the greatest fraud in the history of marathon swimming.

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In the next post, I’ll tackle Nyad’s remaining Ebell inventions: John Bartlett’s thumbs, the Misery Compromise, and ¡Cuba Siempre! We’ll also look at Diana’s most recent fantasy: 10,000 people swimming from Miami to New York, with Richard Branson’s yacht providing support.


NOTES

1. In her absurd planet Earth claim, Nyad does not discriminate gender-wise. I left out the males, though, because, with only one exception, the women’s EC records in the 1970s are all faster than the men’s. See English Channel Records.
RETURN

2. Nyad said that, after retiring on her 30th birthday (which would have been in 1979, not 1980), she began “traveling the world, following the best athletes in the world pursue their excellence.”

It was during that era of Nyad’s career—she a journalist, I on the scent of excellence—that our paths crossed. I hope that you’ll indulge me in a personal story.

In May of 1979, Sports Illustrated published Barry McDermott’s “Ironman,” the article that introduced to the world a new kind of race: triathlon. It combined a 2.5-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26-mile run, one right after the other. McDermott wrote that it began in 1978, with a second in 1979.

After reading the article, I knew that I had to be there for #3. I’d gone 40 miles in the ocean two years before and was still in decent shape, so the swim would be a piece of cake. Then I’d just have to stay upright for the bike and the marathon. I’d never run more than about 500 yards, but how hard could it be?

(That last is an example of something that has served me well over the years. I call it constructive ignorance. Anyway, take lots of running, lots of biking, plenty of swimming, and insert here. Et voilà, we’re off to Hawaii!)

Oops, we all forgot our wetsuits.

On the morning of January 10, 1980, one hundred and ten of us ran into the sea for the start of the Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon III. I left the water tied for second behind Dave Scott, the eventual winner. Motorcycle cops led the way as we cycled out of Honolulu—this was back when they still held the race on Oahu.

It was also back when you could bring your own support crew. So, when I got a flat a few miles out of town, I figured, “no problem, my crew’s got a spare wheel, and they’re right behind me.” Except that they weren’t. Seeing that I was doing so well, they’d left to find hamburgers.

I carried a spare tire, though, so changed it as my competitors rode past. I pumped up the tire, jumped back on my bike, and pedaled away.

Some time afterward, an ABC Wide World of Sports vehicle pulled even with me. Someone stuck a microphone out the window and began asking questions. I recognized the voice immediately: Diana Nyad. I can’t remember what she said exactly, but she opened with something like, “What happened? You did so well in the swim.”

By the end of the bike leg, I’d fallen to about 12th place. During the so-called run, I began to question certain beliefs—in particular, the one about my ability to remain upright all the way back to the finish.

Maybe it was the siren song of Oreos and beer—more likely, though, it was the support and camaraderie of my fellow racers—but eventually, I made it back on foot, finishing 46th out of the 95 who completed the event.

More memorable than the finish, though, was my encounter with the best-known marathon swimmer on planet earth. Or the U.S., at least. Diana wouldn’t remember me, of course. To her, I was just one more guy wearing a Morris the Cat t-shirt while pursuing excellence.
RETURN

Somewhere on the island of Oahu, 10 Jan 1978.

 

One thought on “Nyad at the Ebell, part 1: The Best on Planet Earth”

  1. And Walter Poenisch (First to swim from Cuba to Florida) was finally duly awarded Honor Swimmer in the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame this year.

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