5 Essential Learnings From Diana Nyad’s CVSHealth/Grow Further Interview, Part 1

In Diana Nyad’s first published interview since the World Open Water Swimming Association (WOWSA) issued its “Diana Nyad Cuba-Florida Swim 2013 Report,” Nyad mainly crows about her storytelling chops while sharing her sometimes reasonable, sometimes repugnant tale-telling tips.

Not exactly the Grow Further logo.

1. Nyad still claims she set a nonexistent record.

No surprise here. The WOWSA report arrives at two conclusions: First, Nyad probably completed her 2013 crossing under her own power. (For the record, I don’t believe she did.) Second, her crossing was never ratified. Though the report comes to no formal conclusion regarding a record, it describes the confusion Nyad created—and continues to augment—regarding her crossing’s rules and record-keeping. This chaos makes it impossible to determine precisely what she accomplished and what record she claims to have set.

In other words, as it stands now and will likely stand forever, Nyad set no record. However, that’s not something she’ll ever admit. The podcasters introduce her as “the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida. . . .  And the record is 110.86 miles and 52 hours and 54 minutes and 18 seconds.”

Nyad says nothing to set the record straight about her “record” nor about the two other swimmers—Walter Poenisch and Susie Maroney—who completed the crossing before Nyad’s final attempt. Nyad is well aware of both. Poenisch completed the swim in 1978, a month before Nyad’s first attempt. Before, during, and after Poenisch’s crossing, Nyad publicly slandered him, causing him to lose his sponsors and all but destroying his life. “Please let this serve as my retraction of any comments I may have made concerning . . . your 1978 Swim for Peace,” wrote Nyad in 1983 as part of the settlement of his suit against her. After Maroney completed the crossing in 1997, Nyad told the Associated Press, “I think she is awesome.”

2. To personalize your stories, talk about dead people.

Nyad wants us to think of her as a great storyteller. She loves it when people come up to her and say, “Wow, can you tell a story!” You may recall that Nyad once told an interviewer, “she wants her epitaph to read, ‘She was a master storyteller.’”  (That came two years after she said she wanted her epitaph to read, “You’ve never known a friend as loyal and as steadfast as Diana Nyad.” I  have no idea where she stands now on the epitaph question.)

It’s important to avoid clichés and to personalize your tales, she tells co-hosts Christy Muñoz and Ellie Galiatsatos, both senior managers at CVS. Nyad’s go-to personalization tip: talk about a dead relative. Since Grow Further’s primary audience is CVS employees, Nyad sets her first storytelling example in a business meeting. She cooks up a character named Margaret Shipman, whose boss wants to add pizzazz to a presentation. So he strip-mines his employee’s personal life. “Do you all know Margaret Shipman on my team?” he begins,

because if you don’t know Margaret, you need to. This is a person who’s raising three children on her own. Her husband died five years ago. . . . And it’s tough with those three kids whom she cares about. But who gets here first in the morning, who gets here at 6:25 every day? Who leaves the last at our project meetings every night?

Yes, it’s Margaret Shipman. Nyad says that when Shipman’s coworkers learn about her difficulties and how the team couldn’t have done without her, “everybody’s going to rise up and want to be that Margaret Shipman.”

I mean, who wouldn’t want to support three children on a single income and have to work so much that they never see them? But it makes sense to Nyad because she has no kids, no dead spouse, and no need to support anyone but herself. What’s more, as a descendent of the inventor of Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, a patent medicine sensation, she’s probably independently wealthy. But Margaret Shipman got praise,  adoration, and sympathy. To Diana Nyad, that’s what matters.

The tale ends with Shipman’s boss rewarding her for her work:  “Why don’t you take a few days off and be with your kids?” Paid, I hope, though Nyad doesn’t specify.

Later, she invents a new story for the cohosts.  “Let’s just make it up—you and your connection with your brother who’s died, and he was a big chess player. And you used to admire so much how quick he was with the chess board. . . .  And you wish you could have known him better.”

The general principle here involves trauma and Nyad’s expression of it in her own storytelling. Talking about her traumas engenders the sympathy and adoration she thirsts for. Talking about the traumas of others allows her to perform the empathy she lacks.

So, in Nyad’s speaking and writing, she seeks sympathy via her brother’s early and tragic death, sexual abuse that arguably never happened, and aquatic circuses she depicts as epic races against death. These spectacles feature ravenous sharks, killer jellyfish, and, if she lives long enough, unconquerable currents determined to drag her away from her goal.

To enact empathy, she exploits horrifying events that happened to others. Some she fabricates, like her entirely fictitious Holocaust survivor story. Others are true, like the murder of her neighbors’ son, which she divulged to a boatload of guests as those neighbors sat captive as Nyad delivered her cringe-inducing performance of concern. (Facebook Live, ~15:26)

3. Diana’s next-door neighbor built a treehouse.

Well, not exactly next door. That’s where Nyad first says he lives, but she quickly backtracks: “He wasn’t next door but down the street.” I suspect he wasn’t down the street, either. Nor was he in the city (Los Angeles) or anywhere in California. Great guy, though, this treehouse builder. He got the whole neighborhood involved. Got the kids away from video games and taught them about using reclaimed wood. And he even got himself away from smoking pot and dwelling on the job he’d just lost.

More importantly, he “built something that was photographed for the local press and whatnot.” For Nyad, if a tree falls in a forest—or a treehouse gets built anywhere—it only makes a sound if the local press and whatnot cover it.

I suspect Nyad saw an article or video about someone like Michael Scaglione, the Georgia dad who converted his quarantine treehouse project into a business, Firefly Forts. However, I welcome contradictory evidence. So, if you know of a treehouse in Nyad’s neighborhood, please send links to press clippings or other coverage (i.e., the whatnot). An address would be great, too. That way, I can post a treehouse selfie with my correction. Maybe I’ll even wear the jellyfish shirt I bought for the Nyad biopic premiere.

Firefly Forts’ recently-finished project for Carrie Underwood and her family.
4. Salt your stories with allusions to classic literature.

This will show your erudition. It’s enough to just mention the book—you don’t have to read it. Case in point: Othello. Nyad ostensibly brings it up to exemplify a favorite storytelling technique. “I don’t know if you remember,” she asks the cohosts, “there’s a phrase from Othello that goes, ‘in medias res.’” Nyad pronounces “medias res” as the Spanish for “half kings” or something to do with nylons. (Correct pronunciation of the Latin here.) Then she translates: “In Latin, that’s ‘in the middle of the storm.’”

Except it means in the middle of “things,” not “the storm.” Not to mention that it doesn’t appear in Othello.

However, the in medias res narrative technique does, and Nyad wants to tell us about it: “So, Othello starts, the storm is raging and, whoop, you’re in it.” Wrong again. Act I starts in the middle of a thing—a conversation between the villainous Iago and his dupe, Roderigo—but there’s no storm. Act II, on the other hand, begins in medias tempestas. And it’s a big one. “The wind hath spoke aloud at land,” says Montano, governor of Cyprus, in Act II, Scene I, “A fuller blast ne’er shook our battlements.”

So, maybe Diana actually did set a record: Four errors about Othello in 38 words. That’s what I call razing the bard. Whoop, whoop.

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The preceding Othello discussion may give the impression that I know a lot about Shakespeare, which I don’t. However, I do know a lot about Diana Nyad, including that she lies about practically everything. So, if something sounds wrong—like “there’s a phrase from Othello that goes, ‘in medias res’”—I’ll find a full-text version of Othello and search for it. And then I’ll look for the storm, and then I’ll look for whatever else sounded fishy.

Speaking of sounding fishy, Nyad tells a story about documentarian Bud Greenspan, who specialized in films about the Olympics. Her tale about Greenspan and a pistol shooter—“I think he was from Hungary,” she says—sounded wrong. But this time Diana surprised me. Though she fabricates most of the story’s details and forgets others (like his name and nationality), the foundation of her tale is true and remarkable. In 1938, a military training accident shattered Hungarian shooter Károly Takács’ right hand, the one he shot with. After the war, he secretly trained for three years before the 1948 London Olympics, then surprises everyone—though no one more than the favorite, Carlos Enrique Díaz Sáenz Valiente of Argentina—when he took gold shooting with his left hand.

The story obviously needs no embellishment, but that has never stopped Diana: “He lost his hand fighting in World War II.” Sources differ on whether or not he lost the hand, but they’re unanimous that the war began in 1939, a year after Takács’ injury. Nyad also says he won an Olympic gold medal before the war. He didn’t—at the time, only commissioned officers in the Hungarian army could compete, and he was a sergeant. However, he won a second gold medal at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.

Greenspan also gets a Nyad makeover. She gives him a job as a newspaper reporter, though he worked for a radio station in 1948. Most of the rest of what she says about him is probably nonsense, but it’s hard to check. But Greenspan’s thoughts about storytelling aren’t. George Solomon, then of the Washington Post, wrote about them in his article, “ABC: Plenty of Show, An Excess of Tell.” ABC provided great pictures, Greenspan told him, but their commentators talked too much. “It would be like sitting down at a Beethoven concert and having someone come into the audience and telling you, ‘Listen to this guy, he can really play.’”

One of those providing concert commentary for ABC was Diana Nyad. She had begun working for the network in 1980, raring to become known as one of the greatest in her new field. “By the time the Los Angeles Olympics roll around,” she told the Baltimore Sun in 1981, “I want to be recognized as one of the best broadcasters in television.” That didn’t happen. Here’s Solomon again in “Excess of Tell”: “Marathon swimmer Diana Nyad has hardly distinguished herself conducting postrace interviews, even making Mark Spitz sound almost agreeable.”

Other journalists were less diplomatic:

    • “Diana Nyad has been horrendous with post-race interviews. She never seems to know what to ask” (Leo Zainea, Austin American-Statesman).
    • “Try as they might, ABC’s lesser lights, including such 15-watt bulbs as Gordon Maddux, Cathy Rigby McCoy and Diana Nyad, couldn’t sink the show with their biased commentary and shallow interviews” (William Taaffe, Sports Illustrated).

Coincidentally, back in 1967, George Solomon wrote the first article dedicated entirely to Nyad: “Diana Nyad: Pool-Shaped Heart.”  Nyad grew up in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, where Solomon, just a few years out of college, was writing wrote for the Ft. Lauderdale News. That job would lead to his decades-long stint at the Washington Post and his founding of the University of Maryland’s Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism. He directed the program until he retired in 2020.

I called him in 2019 to ask about that first Nyad piece. Did he recall anything about her? Did he get any sense that she was already the serial liar she is today? After all, the article’s “out of the water for six weeks” (due to an illness that she eventually blamed on keeping her out of the Olympics)  eventually became three months, then six months, then years.

Understandably, he didn’t remember a thing. “That was a long time ago,” he said. “I wrote about a lot of people.”

5. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is a little like God.

After namechecking Barack Obama—“I have sat [with him] in the Oval Office”—she brings up Gates: “I’ve had a chance, you know, to sit with Bill Gates where he presides over the entire tech world of the universe” (my italics). Later, she’ll parachute Nelson Mandela into the conversation, but the Dalai Lama gets a reprieve this time. Maybe we’ll meet His Holiness in part 2.

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