Something Phoney This Way Comes: Diana Nyad Takes Wondrium

Diana brought her Marathon Swimming Medicine Show to the online learning company Wondrium. It promised a fact-checked, vetted program. Did it deliver?

Last month, an ad for Wondrium began appearing in my Facebook feed. “Stop wasting your time fact-checking,” it admonished. Sit back, listen to “over 8,000 hours of carefully vetted content,” and learn, learn, learn.

Wondrium began life as The Great Courses in 1990. A year ago, it renamed itself to reflect its move beyond academic presentations and into other areas like self-improvement. On June 2, its 5-part “Achieve Your Potential”  series debuted. Scientist and educator Crystal Dilworth hosts all five, including Diana’s installment, “Never Give Up.”

I should have ignored Nyad’s advice and given up before it was too late. But Wondrium’s ad gave me hope. Maybe Wondrium would do what Nyad’s publisher didn’t; what the producers of the Nyad biopic didn’t; and what everyone else who has ever presented a Nyad program didn’t.

Sadly, Wondrium didn’t either. A doctorate in molecular neuroscience could not prepare Crystal Dilworth to discover the real Diana Nyad. “Never Give Up” has become one more grift on Nyad’s road to sports-fraud glory, a proposed route that passes a star-anchored biopic, a book introducing her fraud to children, and finishes at the foot of a Diana Nyad statue in Key West.

Diana Nyad wants to revive her statue project.
Screenshot from one of Diana Nyad’s biopic-related Facebook posts. She tries to recruit former Monroe County (Florida) Commissioner Heather Carruthers to help resuscitate the Diana Nyad statue.

Of course, none of this was Dr. Dilworth’s fault. Wondrium plopped her into an impossible situation. She probably knows little or nothing about marathon swimming and had no control over the script or choice of guests. It never would have occurred to her that the new series might include a serial liar. 

Just two minutes into the program, Nyad launches into one of her favorite untrue tales: Her step-father, Aristotle Z. Nyad, invites her into the den on her 5th birthday. He opens Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary and proudly reads one meaning of “naiad”: “girl or woman champion swimmer.” But that definition has never appeared in Webster’s or anywhere else except Diana’s presentations.

Curiously, a legitimate definition pops up onscreen during the story. Maybe that’s what “fact-checking” means to Wondrium. If so, it’s the first and last time it happens.

Screenshot from Wondrium’s “Diana Nyad: Never Give Up.” A genuine “naiad” definition appears onscreen while Nyad gives her false one.

For the rest of the program, Diana revisits many of her standard fabrications. (I list them here in the interest of brevity.) However, she does offer a few surprises. Here’s what I found:

What Happened to the Trials?

Diana has always told her Olympic Trials tale in one of two ways: either she’s at an unnamed meet and fails to qualify for the trials, or she’s at the trials themselves and fails to qualify for the Olympics. Never before has she told the trials story without mentioning the trials.

That changed with her Wondrium program. So, when she looks up at the non-existent electronic scoreboard and says, “I didn’t make it” (6:24), an astute listener might well ask: “Didn’t make what?”

Working Her Core: Diana Hints at How She Managed the Cuba-Florida Fraud

When skeptics confront Nyad with facts about her swim, she frequently argues that 44 people—the count she settled on for her crew—wouldn’t lie. In the Wondrium program, she inadvertently reveals why that number is a red herring:

There are 44 people on this team. Mostly, there’s about 20 people on the core, then the others fill in on boats close by to take care of that team. (23:00)

Her actual “core,” the number of people necessary to pull off the Cuba-Florida fraud, is probably closer to 10. Since numbers and facts lose stability around Diana, you never know—she may get there. See, for instance, how

The Unforgiven: Nyad’s First Cuba-Florida Navigator

Forty-four years ago, Diana hired experienced sailor and America’s Cup competitor Rich du Moulin to navigate her first Cuba-Florida attempt. Du Moulin had little to do with the fiasco that followed. Winds blowing up to 18 knots generated huge waves. The design of Nyad’s shark cage magnified those waves within its walls, wreaking havoc on the swimmer. The wind, waves, and currents pushed Nyad west, away from Florida. And then her press boat began sinking after its water pump failed. “It seemed that Diana had spent months of planning and publicity gathering,” Newsweek reported, “not to mention about $150,000 [~$658,000 today] of her sponsors’ cash—only to achieve the ultimate in slapdash organization.”

But Nyad would rather find fault than accept it, so she still blames her first pilot. On the way to praising John Bartlett, her 2013 navigator, she belittles du Moulin:

So you wind up with a navigator [like Bartlett] who doesn’t come from the America’s Cup sailing of Rhode Island. (11:36)

She never mentions du Moulin by name, but she doesn’t have to. Newport, Rhode Island, hosted the America’s Cup race from 1930 through 1983. Du Moulin first crewed an entry in 1967.

Recurring Themes

Trauma

Forget “Achieve Your Potential”—Nyad’s program should initiate a new series called “Exploit Your Trauma (And Others’) To Win Admiration.” “And by the way,” she says, “[marathon swimming’s] an easy sport to click off all the horrendous things that you go through and you feel” (29:28). And off she goes, clickety-click:

    • Sharks!
      Florida Straits sharks are “very intelligent,” according to Nyad. “They don’t want to come eat you whole. Now they will come take a leg.” (9:50)
    • The Gulf Stream!
      During “that short little two and a half minutes that you’re stopped you’re not pushing north, you’re getting dragged east” (11:30). But Nyad took breaks of up to 20 minutes or longer—and she stopped swimming for 80 or 90 minutes during a storm—yet her GPS readings, taken every 10–15 minutes, show no eastward deviations. (Here’s the course from her blog via public radio station KPCC. Here’s a finer-grained chart created from all her GPS readings.)
    • Box jellies!
      “There are 1000s of species of jellyfish, but the only one that will kill you almost instantly is the box jellyfish” (16:41). Not true. Most people survive box jelly stings, even those stung by the much more toxic Australian ones. Most of what Nyad says about box jellies is nonsense.

I thought, “will this be the time I die out there?” (23:19)

No again. With a medical team, a flotilla of five boats, and all the precautions she took to overcome the dangers of her swim, she was more likely to die driving to the Straits than swimming in them.

Concerned, perhaps, that her own voluntary traumas would seem superficial, she introduces involuntary ones of others: a couple parenting a severely disabled child “in heartbreaking circumstances” (19:59), and a friend dying young of cancer. “She had three kids,” Nyad says, “a wonderful husband, parents, the whole thing. . . . It was more elevating—her grace—in realizing it was the end, there was no more fight to do.” (26:44) [need better quote]

Terribly sad, but what is her dying friend doing in a talk about marathon swimming? See below.

Instant Hypocrisy: Add Water and Serve

When Nyad insists she doesn’t want to sound some way or do something, rest assured she’ll sound that way or do that thing soon if she hasn’t already. Here’s what she says after the disabled child and dying friend stories:

So, I never compare myself to someone who’s going to war, or someone who is in that type of a parenthood. (21:28)

So again, let me not compare myself to someone, you know, about to pass away. (27:56)

Except that she just did. By describing those people in this context, she implicitly does compare and even liken her elective, swimming-related difficulties to their uninvited trauma. Diana has a distressing habit of using proximity to imply these kinds of false equivalencies. See, for instance, her Holocaust story.

In another form of Nyad’s instant hypocrisy, she’ll say she doesn’t want to sound boastful, then immediately boast:

And I don’t want to be the one who sounds too braggartly, but you go interview [my medical team]. And they will tell you that the reason I survived those stings—I shouldn’t have, I should have died that night—was on will. (19:10)

Again, almost everyone stung by the box jellyfish survives. Nyad’s medical team made the odds of a fatal sting nearly zero.

Here are two similar examples from other programs:

When I leave these speeches I do—I don’t mean this in some braggartly way—we’re together in this. I’m in it with these people in these audiences. And they stand up in a standing ovation. (RelationShift Experience podcast, 19 July 2017, 42:40)

I don’t want to sound too braggartly, but I think that, on August 13th of this year, standing on the Cuba coast about to set off, that I was in the best physical shape of anybody on the face of the earth for that day. (PBS interview, Oct 1978—clip/full program)

Every Con Artist’s Dream

Nyad’s quest for fame and adoration motivates everything she does. She acknowledged this early in her career:

I would not deny that the day to day motivations are fame and fortune. . . . I want very much to be recognized. (Ft. Lauderdale News, 16 Nov 1975)

People show her that she’s worthy by giving up money, time, and dreams to focus solely on her. She also loves for people to shed tears over her accomplishments.

In the Wondrium program, she repeats her “no one got paid” mantra (22:39), but she bolsters it with other examples of people giving things up. Her brother and sister “gave up their dreams, because mine was so big” (4:57). Her unpaid “team” gave “their knowledge and their hearts” because they were all so invested and inspired by her mission (12:27). And her fans gave her their tears. “I stood on that beach for those 1000s of people. They were crying. . . because they saw an individual and a team who . . . refused to give up” (26:23).

A word about her team. She often includes them—says “we did it” instead of “I did it”—not to show her generosity, as she wants you to think, but to make her narcissism palatable. No one could stomach it undiluted, so she pretends her exploits are not all about her.

What’s more, with all those loyal fans and steadfast crew members believing in her, how could she possibly be a fraud? (Said EVERY OTHER CON ARTIST WHO EVER LIVED!) Sorry for shouting.

Diana’s Epitaph(s)

On my gravestone, the two things that I would like said about me, first would be “she was the best friend anybody ever had.” If Bonnie and Candice and Nina, the three closest people in my life, stand up as they do at certain toasts and say, “You don’t know what a friend is, until you’ve had Diana as your best friend. . . .” The second thing is . . . I am a good storyteller. (36:56)

For someone who doesn’t want a gravestone— “I am not going to have a headstone,” she told the Orlando Sentinel in 2016, “because I don’t believe in burials”—Diana talks a lot about gravestones. In previous presentations, she has said that she wanted either the “best friend” or “good storyteller” inscription. Until Wondrium, she never asked for both. That will make a crowded, boastful headstone for someone who denies wanting to sound “braggartly” and didn’t want a headstone in the first place.

Moreover, in a program meant to help people achieve their potential, what kind of narcissist crows about friends toasting her magnificence and wanting that magnificence carved in granite? Perhaps one who also declares that people “need to hear” her fabrication-riddled stories (26:42, 40:50) and clothes her relatively minor difficulties in the borrowed robes of genuine tragedy.

Lady MacBeth (Anna Netrebko) offers a toast
Lady Macbeth (Anna Netrebko) offers a toast. From a 2014 New York Metropolitan Opera performance of Verdi’s Macbeth. Via The New York Times.

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NOTES

  1. h/t Ned Boyer for the borrowed robes.
  2. I emailed members of the Wondrium production crew and executive team to ask how they vetted/fact-checked Nyad’s program. No one responded. However, I did hear from Paige Burger, a producer with Wondrium’s partner, Garden Creative. Burger wrote that she’d discuss it with her team and get back to me “shortly.” That was June 6. I haven’t heard from her since.

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