The DNFCA Christmas Special: “My Emergence Is What It’s All About!”

The Diana Nyad Fact Check Annex and Saturday Night Live join forces for a Diana Nyad Christmas episode.

In the late 1970s, director Gary Weis created short films that aired during episodes of SNL. The 1976 Christmas episode included one about Diana Nyad. The three-minute montage killed the otherwise festive holiday vibe:

At the time, Nyad’s repertoire of untruths was small compared to what it is today. But she managed to sneak few in.

Above: on September 13, 1954, ticker tape parade for Marilyn Bell, celebrating her Lake Ontario crossing. Via the Toronto Star.

She says she was the first person to swim Lake Ontario. But that would be Toronto’s Marilyn Bell on September 9, 1954. When the then 16-year-old outlasted veteran marathoner Florence Chadwick, newspapers across Canada and the U.S. filled their front pages with the news. Perhaps Nyad realized that all the attention made a first-across-Ontario fabrication unsustainable. So, she eventually settled on her first-woman-around-Manhattan lie. (She was seventh, but the six women who preceded her got less ink than Bell and others who crossed Lake Ontario before Nyad).

Nyad was the first to cross the lake from north to south, but she doesn’t volunteer that detail. Not to mention that she resented the outpouring of attention and treasure that 16-year-old Canadian Cindy Nicholas received after completing the swim in record time two weeks earlier. “Why are we doing these masochistic feats,” Nyad wrote to Dennis Matuch, then president of the World Professional Marathon Swimming Association, “if a little money isn’t going to come in the end?” (Nyad to Matuch, 14 Dec 1974: original | transcription)

Then there’s Nyad’s claim in the film that she had been swimming four to six hours per day for “over 15 years.” That’s an exaggeration at best. She began swimming competitively when she was 12 years old, sometime during the 1961-62 school year. We know this because Nyad never wavers from her claim that she began training after her school’s swim coach, Jack Nelson, recruited her. But Nelson didn Jack Nelson joined her school’s faculty until the fall of 1961.

So, as of 1976, she couldn’t have swum for “over 15 years.” And in those days before goggles, coaches didn’t require the long workouts that became more common after swimmers could protect their eyes from chlorine. Nyad probably trained no more than one or two hours per day for at least the first six years of her swimming career.

“From a mile out,” Nyad says at the end of the film, “I can hear the clapping and screaming. . . . And my emergence is what it’s all about.” That comes from the last paragraph of “Mind Over Water” (Esquire, Oct 1975), one of the many fawning, credulous pieces that followed Nyad’s Manhattan success. Nyad begins the first-person section of the article with lies—”I have been working on swimming since I was ten, four hours a day or more, every day”—and she doesn’t stop lying until her emergence at the end.

However, the article includes one critical truth: “A legal marathon,” she writes, “may be undertaken only in a regular racing suit, cap, goggles, and grease—no flotation devices, no insulating suit.” Cf. Her Cuba–Florida crossing.

Which leaves me with two questions: First, Can anyone tell if the fur she wears in the film is real or synthetic? Second, isn’t the Hokey Pokey “what it’s all about”?

Diana Nyad on New York City street wearing a knee-length fur coat and carrying squash racquets.
Screenshot from Saturday Night Live short film


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