In 1976, Diana Nyad told the Village Voice that she lied all the time, but only to impress herself, adding, “I don’t have to do that anymore.” In other words, Nyad admitted to being a compulsive liar—that she had to lie—but claimed she could stop.
She doesn’t, however, say she won’t. That’s because she can’t. Nyad’s as reliable as the tides: every appearance carries with it new untruths and novel variations on old ones.
In part 2 of Nyad’s Grow Further interview, she reaffirms her position as one of the most prolific and convincing liars in sports history. From nonsense about a 70-year-old film to a sixth-grade classmate barfing in the bathroom to “a little something” with Annette Bening, Diana Nyad can’t stop.
(Note: I’ve divided this post into three parts. I’ll post part 2, “Cuba Swim, Inc.” tomorrow and part 3, “Diana Nyad and the Case of the Vomiting Valedictorian,” on Monday.)
Of the multiple lies Nyad tells in Grow Further, few benefit her in any way other than to “impress herself,” to give herself the satisfaction of getting away with one more deception. Consider, for example, Nyad’s claims about the movie Jim Thorpe—All American.
First, though, some background: Thorpe was the best athlete of his era and one of the greatest ever. The first Native American to win Olympic gold for the United States, he went on to play professional football, baseball, and basketball.
He won his two gold medals at the 1912 Oslo Olympics in pentathlon and decathlon. The following year, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) discovered he’d earned a few dollars playing semi-pro baseball and revoked his Olympic titles. Thorpe died in 1953, but the IOC didn’t fully restore his titles until this July.
Nyad’s supposed to talk about the craft of storytelling, but she has biopics on her mind. So, she mixes those two things together and out pops her version of the Jim Thorpe movie: “You know, honestly, Ellie,” Nyad says,
I think I’m like most people—we feel the magic of movies, of cinema. And I know when I was a kid—you guys are way too young to know it—but Burt Lancaster played Jim Thorpe, The Jim Thorpe Story. I must have seen that movie—I don’t exaggerate—20 times. I remember the opening. And so, you know, [there’s] this poor Native American kid who can’t even afford shoes. (1:45)
When Nyad says “honestly” and “I don’t exaggerate,” she means, “I’m about to lie and exaggerate.” Jim Thorpe—All American, starring Burt Lancaster, opened in 1951, the year Nyad turned two. So, she didn’t sit through it 20 times, at least not in a theatre. The film returned to Fort Lauderdale for a single showing when Nyad was six. When she was eight, a local drive-in theatre showed it as the bottom half of a double feature with “Delicate Delinquent,” starring Jerry Lewis.
Jim Thorpe—All American began airing on television in the 1960s, so Nyad presumably could have caught it multiple times during the six weeks, three months, six months, 12 months, or years she variously claims to have spent in bed recuperating from a heart ailment.
However, if Nyad had seen it 20 times, or just 10, or even five, she’d likely get the title right, and she wouldn’t get the beginning so wrong. The film doesn’t open on “a poor native American kid who can’t even afford shoes.” It opens at a banquet honoring Thorpe as an adult, then flashes back to his father dropping him off on his first day of school. Young Jim (played by Billy Gray, best known for his later role as Bud on Father Knows Best) wants no part of it. He waits for his dad to leave, then runs 12 miles home through the hills, his feet protected by more-than-adequate footwear.
If Nyad wanted to load her tale with trauma—she usually stuffs her stories to the gills with it—she could have done far better than bare feet. The film whitewashes the horrors of Carlisle Indian Industrial School, where Thorpe began his athletic career. The school practiced forced assimilation, and hundreds of Native American children died in the process. This includes 186 in the school’s graves and probably hundreds more sent home to die so Carlisle could minimize its on-paper mortality rate.
The film also reinforced stereotypes like the white savior—in this case, Pop Warner, Thorpe’s coach—trying to tame the unruly Indian (Thorpe as played by a white actor slathered in dark makeup). It ignores the truth about Warner, who lied to protect his reputation when owning up to his role in Thorpe’s so-called professionalism could have helped the greatest athlete he would ever coach.
The Best [fill in the blank] On Earth
Despite our differences, Diana and I share a fundamental concern: We are both anxious about how she will be remembered. “But honestly, at the very end,” she says,
I guess there are a few things I’d like to be said of me. And one is that I was the best friend anybody ever had. You know, my best friends often stand up at toasts and things and say, “You don’t know what a friend is until you’ve had Diana as a friend, ” that means a lot to me. And on a more superficial level but on a more of a talent performance level, when people say to me that I’m an excellent storyteller and a performer of stories and a writer of stories, then that cuts deep, and it feels good. (7:20, lightly edited for readability)
Nyad has said previously that she wants two inscriptions on her epitaph: “The best friend on Earth,” (Find a Way, p. 116) and “she was a master storyteller.” (She has also said that she was, for a time, the best ocean swimmer on earth. But there’s only so much room on a headstone.)
However, Nyad’s not a master storyteller. Such a person would have a repertoire of tales that aren’t just about themselves and that they can draw from depending on the occasion and the audience. Nyad, on the other hand, has been telling a single story—with slight and not-so-slight variations, of course—for the last nine years. Yes, she has a kind of charisma that mesmerizes some people, especially those unfamiliar with marathon swimming, into believing that she’s legitimate and honorable. However, that makes her a successful con artist, not a great storyteller.
Nyad’s inability to give up her dream may be less inspiring up close than afar. . . . She exhausts herself with her own exuberance. She charms other people into taking care of her. (New York Times, 2011)
As for being “the best friend on Earth,” I find it hard to believe that someone as self-obsessed as Nyad understands that caring flows both ways in a true friendship. I’m certain, though, that some of her mesmerees believe Nyad’s friendship—like her alleged Cuba–Florida crossing—remains worthy of celebration.
Tomorrow: “Cuba Swim, Inc.”