Grow Further Interview, Part 2: Diana Nyad And The Case Of The Vomiting Valedictorian

Early in the podcast, Diana Nyad begins a detailed description of her sixth-grade graduation. I didn’t question this tale when I first heard it last year. This time, though, something felt off. Maybe it was her “little patent leather shoes,” a curiously specific detail from someone who claims she doesn’t remember anything from childhood. In fact, she makes this claim a few minutes after telling her graduation story (6:19). Consistency is not one of Nyad’s strengths.

As she recounts it, class valedictorian Jimmy Woodruff, overcome with stage fright, was on his knees in the bathroom throwing up when it came time for him to speak. The principal asked Diana if she would take Jimmy’s place. She agreed and saved the day (2:51—transcript here along with two other versions).

Parts of the tale are true. In 1959, Nyad and Woodruff graduated sixth grade at Pine Crest Preparatory School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. According to Debbie Woodruff, Jim’s sister, he and Diana were sixth-grade king and queen. The rest is likely BS. (Debbie or Jim or anyone else who remembers Pine Crest’s 1959 sixth-grade graduation, please contact me!)

Above: Image from the 1962 Crestian, Pine Crest School’s yearbook. This is the year Nyad, then 12 years old, began swimming competitively (though she often says otherwise).

For the valediction tale, Nyad appears to have reworked a favorite story about a fifth-grade essay. The contents of the document—entitled “What I Will Do With The Rest Of My Life”—sound suspiciously like that of her sixth-grade oration: both mention the same erroneous ages of her grandparents (she says their average age at death was about 83 when it was 65), her wasted childhood, and the urgency she feels not to squander another second of her life.

For years, the details of her fifth-grade story remained uncharacteristically stable for a Nyad tale. The essay first appears in her 1978 memoir, Other Shores. In 2013, she reads that version verbatim to Oprah. Nyad also mentions the essay in her post-crossing press conference and her second memoir, Find a Way (2015).

The essay remains in fifth grade all the way to June 2021. A month later, Nyad returns to form: “I wrote a little essay for third grade,” she says in July. “So, you’re eight.” (See transcripts of multiple versions here.)

The document spends only a short time as a third-grade composition. Since Nyad claims to be a master storyteller, she wants to give early evidence of her prowess. So, she moves the story to sixth grade, shoves King Jimmy under the school bus, and strides on stage.

Whether it’s elementary school graduation, the Manhattan swim, “the best friend anyone ever had,” or “the best ocean swimmer in the world,” Diana Nyad’s imaginary podium has no room for anyone but herself.

Diana Goes To Second Grade And Accidentally Tells The Truth

Remember the part about consistency not being one of Nyad’s strengths? After so many decades of lies, it’s impossible for her to keep track of them all. So, she occasionally slips and tells the truth. In some of the fifth-grade versions, Nyad says she wrote the essay for her favorite instructor, Mrs. Farr. But Farr was Nyad’s second-grade teacher. : “When I was in fifth grade,” she begins one version,

and I remember this because I had a teacher that I just love. . . . Her name was Mrs. Farr, F-A-R-R. . . . She kept every essay of every kid she ever had, teaching second grade over 50 years. [my emphasis]

Articles in the Fort Lauderdale Daily News show Mrs. Josephine Farr teaching second grade at Pine Crest through 1955, the year Diana Nyad was in second grade. And about those 50 years Mrs. Farr ostensibly taught: She began teaching at Pine Crest in about 1952. She died in 1977. So, she couldn’t have taught second grade for half a century, at least not at Pine Crest.

The Speech Diana Won’t Tell You About
Above: First part of 1966 Miami Herald article that includes details about Diana Nyad’s support of Jack Nelson, her swim coach.

Nyad did make a speech while at Pine Crest, and The Miami Herald was there to document it. (Nyad Fact Check Pro Tip: Don’t believe a word Nyad says unless you have a reliable corroborating source.) But it’s not a speech she wants anyone to know about.

Nyad made it in June 1966. She was 16 years old. Jack Nelson, her swim coach, had just resigned in anger from the Fort Lauderdale Swimming Association (FLSA) but quickly changed his mind. However, the board wanted him gone, so they met for a vote.

During the meeting, two students spoke. Adults in the audience laughed and heckled the first, 17-year-old Dick Boling, who read a petition of support signed by Nelson’s swimmers.

Nyad spoke next. She commanded the room, silencing the adults who had mocked the previous speaker. “If coach Nelson doesn’t coach,” she said, “we won’t swim.”

The board voted to keep Nelson.

Nyad never mentions that speech because it might raise doubts about her subsequent abuse accusations. Depending on the version she tells, Nelson began abusing her

and he abused her

and she told her headmaster about it in

and after she told her headmaster, he

  • gave Nelson “half an hour to clear his office” (Find a Way, p. 57),
  • fired Nelson the next day,
  • allowed Nelson to finish out the school year.

In fact, Nelson remained at Pine Crest until 1975.

However, Nyad can rest easy. She has told so many conflicting versions of so many stories to so many media outlets that one more contradiction probably won’t affect the public’s acceptance of her bullshit.

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