Extraordinary Proof: David Walsh, Lance, and Diana

From the moment Lance Armstrong began his post-cancer comeback, journalist David Walsh knew something wasn’t right. In 2016, he condensed his twelve-year pursuit of Armstrong into a 20-minute story for The Moth. He inadvertently tells Diana’s story too.

While most of the world reveled in Lance Armstrong’s miraculous return to cycling, Walsh asked himself, “How could it be that a man is transformed into a super champion by a two-year illness?”

We could ask the same of Diana: How could it be that a woman is transformed into a super champion by aging more than three decades?

As a matter of fact, just change the name and a few details, and Walsh’s Armstrong story is Nyad’s. Below are a few more examples from “Extraordinary Proof.”

The Power of the Human Spirit

He laid it out for me, who he was. He said he had this desire. It almost felt like a rage.

….And no matter what happened, he wasn’t going to quit.

And he looked at me, Lance did, and he said, “That’s not physical. This isn’t good legs, or lungs.” He said, “Man, this is heart. It’s soul. It’s just pure guts.”

Well, professionals and lay observers, core Teammates, close friends, and strangers can assess the long list of obstacles out there and deem them impossible to overcome, but they’re all forgetting the one key factor that surpasses all the rest. That’s the power of the human spirit. (Find a Way, p. 221)

And I listened to him. And I thought, “Wow, 21 years of age. We’re going to hear about this guy.”

It's a big planet, but that hasn't kept Nyad from staking a claim on the watery part. She'll crank it up again one of these days and you'll hear about it. Believe it. (Minneapolis Tribune10 Feb 1980)
S/he Would Never Cheat!

…this is the most life affirming story you’ve ever heard: guy back from cancer, winning the Tour de France.

People said, “But after all he’s been through, he would never go and take drugs, would he?”

And I thought, if he’s come back to make sure that he achieves what he wanted to achieve, it might very well be the thing he would do.

People say, “She didn’t cheat the first four times, so she wouldn’t cheat the fifth time, right?” But that’s precisely why she would cheat. She had to guarantee that she would be the first to complete “the greatest endurance feat in human history” (Phil. Inquirer, 10 Aug 1978).

Cheating would be an option if not a requirement. Diana warmed up with almost fifty years of duplicity. When she jumped into the sea off Havana and began stroking toward the U.S., she was ready.

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In 1999, Walsh wrote his first article about the post-cancer, newly super-human Lance Armstrong. “There are times in life,” says Walsh, “when it’s right to applaud a champion.” He continues:

There are other occasions when you’d be better advised to keep your arms by your sides. This is an occasion for keeping our arms by our sides, because what we need here is not acclamation of the new champion, but an inquiry.

Nyad’s crossing also warranted an inquiry, but we didn’t get one. To date, only two journalists have investigated any of Nyad’s claims: early on, Lori Gum examined how Nyad destroyed Walter Poenisch (26MB file); more recently,  Irv Muchnick examined Nyad’s specious abuse allegations. No one outside of the marathon swimming community has looked specifically at her Cuba-Florida claims.

“Daggers through the hearts of great spirits”

Of his first Armstrong comeback article, Walsh says:

That story got the most vitriolic, negative reaction to any story I’ve ever done in 38 years of journalism. Every reader who wrote or emailed disapproved of what I’d written. Kate Miller from Glasgow wrote me a letter that said, “Mr. Walsh, you have the worst cancer of all, cancer of the spirit.”

It fell to marathon swimmers themselves to address the problem and field the vitriol:

Nial Funchion to Evan Morrison, 6 Sep 2013:
Who gives a fuck about 'your sport,' your 'time,' your 'rules….' There will always be critics. They suck and hide and throw daggers through the hearts of great spirits.
Realswimmerfan to Mike Tyson, 9 Sep 2013:
You are just a bitter little nobody who has to rain on someone's parade because you have no parade of your own.
Extraordinary Proof

I wrote the story and thought what I’d written would be substantial proof, and that it would end for Lance. It didn’t work out like that through those early years. Lance said at one time – looked at me at a press conference – and said, “Mr. Walsh, extraordinary accusations must be followed up by extraordinary proof. And you haven’t come up with extraordinary proof.”

When I first posted the Nyad Fact Check site in 2017, I thought that it proved Nyad was a  fraud. After all of the lies and all of the hateful behavior toward other athletes—how could anyone take her seriously?

Almost three years later, I’m still slogging through the reeds. Meanwhile, Diana’s dreaming up a 10,000 swimmer, yacht-centered trek up the Atlantic coast. Thankfully (I guess), she never stops generating new material.

I kind of wondered, why was ordinary proof not enough? But I knew Lance was an icon to the cancer community. He was a demigod in the sports world. Different rules apply to him.

There were sponsors. There were race organizers. There were the sports authorities. There were television broadcasters. There were journalists. And pretty much all of them were looking the other way.

This was a story, a life-affirming story, so good that nobody wanted to consider it might be a fraud – even if the evidence was obvious.

Diana is an icon in many communities—including #MeToo; LGBTQ;  AARP; and Bill and Hillary C.  She’s a demigod in all but one tiny corner of the sports world. “Different rules apply to [her]” is a gross understatement. There are sponsors, event organizers, agents, PR reps, television broadcasters, journalists—all of them looking the other way.

Diana’s tale is an epic, life-affirming story, so magnificent that nobody wants to consider that she might be a fraud—even if the evidence is everywhere.

From the organizer of a 2018 presentation at a university in North Carolina, via email:

Thanks for reaching out to me about our upcoming program with Diana Nyad. We booked Diana through Creative Artists Agency (CAA) earlier this year. Prior to making the booking, we consulted with a half dozen speaker series who presented Diana in the 2013-2015 time frame. All were very pleased with the outcome of their events and none had concerns about the veracity of her claims. In a quick check this morning, none had any misgivings since that time.
Ordinary Truth

It all ended for Lance officially on October 22nd, 2012….

Afterwards, in the days and weeks and years that followed, people said, “You must feel vindicated about the way this turned out.”

And I said, “No, I don’t feel any sense of vindication.” Because I’d known from the very first that I was on the side of truth. And even in the darkest moments, that was enough.

Thank you very much.

T.B.D.

Walsh tells much more of the story in his book, Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong.

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