Nyad Movie Mayday?

The Diana Nyad biopic may be in trouble. Statements the swimmer made in two recent presentations — and statements she hasn’t made on Facebook — signal cinematic distress.

“I’ve written a screenplay based on my life,” she says. “It’s kind of like Rocky. And the happy ending is the Cuba swim.” (Barry Bearak, “The Selling of Diana Nyad,” Miami Herald, 31 July 1978)

On March 4 of this year, after decades of longing for a biopic about herself, Diana Nyad announced that her fantasy had come true: big producers, big directors, and at least one big star, all lining up to turn her life — the version of it she makes public, anyway — into Nyad, the cinematic extravaganza she knows she deserves.

Six days later, on March 10, exactly two months ago, Nyad invited her fans to a Facebook Live chat: “The movie is real. Annette Bening. Wow! Tune in for a fun discussion NOW.” So, tune in they did, and no fixed number of exclamation points could contain their glee:

Diana, such an inspiration to all women!!

I am so happy your story of determination will be told!!!!

Diana is an example that Greatness is in ALL OF US.!!!!!

It’s impossible to overstate my excitement for this!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Since that day, Nyad has posted twice on Facebook: once to mark Earth Day and once to celebrate Mother’s Day. However, she hasn’t posted a word about the film. Her silence suggests that the movie has run into trouble. Had the project raced ahead under full sail, she’d have posted reports. Why, then, has she stopped mentioning the movie on Facebook?

If the production has run aground, it’s unlikely that Nyad or the filmmakers would tell us, particularly so soon after they first publicized its existence. We know, however, that shortly after that first announcement, some of Diana’s doubters began emailing the filmmakers. The skeptics asked the producers and co-directors to look beyond Nyad’s façade of respectability. The ensuing two-month-long silence suggests that the emails had some effect.

On the other hand, Nyad has spoken about the film elsewhere. But she did so in ways that suggest the film has encountered obstacles. In an April 14 keynote address, she sailed through her 45-minute presentation without mentioning the movie. Most of her usual nonsense was there, including the 9-year-old Florida champion who went on to conquer the Florida Straits, a feat previously attempted by “the greatest swimmers in the world” despite sharks, storms, and death-dealing jellyfish.*

*She added something new to the jelly fable: “Most people,” said Nyad, “with the touch of one tentacle of the box — it’s called the Irukandji syndrome — die instantaneously.” But stings from the box species inhabiting the Florida Straits don’t cause Irukandji syndrome. Nor, of course, do they kill “instantaneously.”

Just at the end, though, one of the hosts asks “one last quick question: You look a lot like Annette Bening, the actress. Is there some connection or some news you want to share with us?” Nyad responds with a catalog of the ways she has disseminated — and plans to continue disseminating — her Cuba-to-Florida tale:

Listen, I only wish I looked like Annette Bening. But, you know, I’m very lucky. My story, this Cuba-swim story has now — I wrote a memoir called Find a Way — it’s done fairly well around the world. As I mentioned, I did an Off-Broadway show with Bonnie on-stage with me last year. Um, uh, there’s a beautiful documentary film made, uh, by director-producer Timothy Wheeler, uh, called The Other Shore. It’s a, it’s a, it’s a majestic film. [Nyad’s hesitations may indicate indecision over whether to divulge that Wheeler is her nephew. She decides not to.] So, I’m gonna write a children’s book this year.

So, there are a number of different ways my story has been out there. And I’m so, uh, gratified, so honored, um, that there’s been some inspiration from what I’ve done and the way I’ve gone about it. But now it turns out that the feature film is going to be made.

She wraps up with a statement about the movie’s progress. This time, she betrays uncertainty about whether or not “the movie is REAL”:

And, um, I guess the film is underway. They’re hoping to shoot it this summer.

Her catalog of accomplishments and her non-commital declaration above suggest that she’s hedging. “Maybe it’ll get made, maybe it won’t,” Nyad could be saying, “but look at all this other cool stuff I already did.”

More recently, she addressed the film in an episode of the Fail It Forward podcast. This time, though, she omits the catalog but inflates her resume as if to compensate for her dream’s implosion. “I’ve had many things in my life,” she begins, “a PhD; recently, the screenplay of my life, that movie, is getting made now.” (17:14)

Diana Nyad does not have a PhD. She does not have a master’s degree. Rather, she has a BA from Lake Forest University. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course — unless you’re Diana Nyad, for whom no amount of external validation will ever be enough.

The Fail It Forward interview may mark the first time Diana claimed to be “Dr. Nyad” on camera. But it was not the first time she awarded herself an advanced degree: “A master’s degree in comparative literature from New York University hasn’t hurt Diana’s ability to jump in and command a conversation,” wrote Deborah Deasy in the Pittsburgh Press in 1981. “She is now the 14th-ranked squash player in the country, holds a PhD in comparative literature and can order a meal in four different languages,” wrote Steve Hummer of the Fort Lauderdale News in 1978.

In other words, Diana Nyad has been a pathological liar for a long time. For her,  “academic freedom” means “the liberty to claim any degree at any time, whether I earned it or not.”

But the resume padding doesn’t end with academics. Later in the interview, Nyad adds one or two more fictitious achievements:

So from a child, age nine, Cuban revolution happened for me, I was buzzing with — not the English Channel and not the Catalina Island swim and not the Manhattan Island swim. I did some of those, I held the records for some of those. But I was fascinated with this Cuba thing. (24:30)

Of the swims Nyad names, she only completed Manhattan. So, holding records in “some of those” would be impossible. Not to mention that Nyad didn’t begin competitive swimming until she was 11 or 12. And she didn’t consider swimming from Cuba to Florida until she was 27 years old: in her first memoir, 1978’s Other Shores, she writes about wanting to accomplish a feat “unprecedented in the world of sports” and settling on the Cuba swim in 1977. (She may also have wanted to find an endeavor that would help her forget her English Channel failures of the year before.)

So, assuming “this Cuba thing” means “swimming across the Florida Straits,” her entire statement is a load of hooey.

So, why these particular lies right now? My theory: Having finally sailed within sight of the magical island on which her dream becomes real, Nyad must now feel helpless. Unlike the Cuba-Florida crossing — the other fantasy that remained unreachable for decades — Nyad has no control over this one. She can’t fabricate a happy ending. If the movie runs aground and breaks up, there’s nothing she can do.

But the public version of Diana, the fierce warrior who never gives up, cannot betray any sense of helplessness or vulnerability. So, she helps herself to a doctorate and a channel or two, demonstrating that Diana Nyad is, after all, still in charge.

Um, but I’ll tell you the truth, I, I, I hate to put it this way, but I think I have, um, you know, what you might call a, a lack of respect for the limitations that society has put upon us. (15:30)

Who’s going to tell me I can’t — I can’t do this, that, this, that. And on the other hand, I’ve had many things in my life: a PhD . . . (17:09)

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In 2017, the city of Key West agreed to place a Diana Nyad statue at Smathers Beach. They held a competition to find a sculptor, they named a winner, and then Nyad went all giddy: “I’m gonna get a beach chair and sit in the shadow of it,” she said in The Swimmer. “And I’m gonna try to talk people, as they go by, into believing that’s really me. And for a dollar, I’ll take a selfie with everybody” (1:17:45).

But the sponsoring organization, Equal Visibility Everywhere (EVE), couldn’t raise enough money to complete the project, so it quietly disappeared. EVE also sought to create a Florida State Historical marker to honor Diana. That venture foundered in 2018 after Fort Lauderdale city administrators withdrew their support.

And the movie? It may still be afloat, but the omens foretell a quiet and unheralded end like those of the statue and the marker.

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Someday, someone will produce a great film about the remarkable Diana Nyad, daughter of a patent medicine heiress and a Greek con artist, a mediocre athlete who convinced the world that she was the greatest long-distance swimmer on the planet. But any film based on the stories she tells the public can’t be that movie. Over the last five decades, Diana Nyad has built herself into the most successful fraud in the history of marathon swimming. Only the truth can do justice to such an achievement.

Update 20 Apr 2022: Edited final paragraph for readability.

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