In 2013, at the age of 64, Diana Nyad achieved a lifelong dream to swim from Cuba to Florida, across more than 100 miles of open ocean. It was her fifth attempt, and a new two-hour docudrama on Netflix tells the story of how she managed it.
This is a buddy movie portrait of will and friendship, with the main leads being played by Annette Bening (Nyad), Jodie Foster (Bonnie Stoll, her coach and best friend) and Rhys Ifans (the navigator). Technique aficionados may flinch at some of the swimming, while being staggered by what a lot of swimming there is as Nyad battles training, storms, box jellyfish, hallucinations and, in the end, a 53 hour swim.
Bening did swim training for a year for the role (there are rumours of an Oscar) and is excellent as Nyad – boastful, bossy, narcissistic, completely determined: a nightmare at parties, but with an ability disassociate during her marathon swims and endure more – far more – than others.
The film is directed by documentary filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and “Free Solo” Oscar winner Jimmy Chin, turning their geeky interest in extreme and marathon sport to a woman, and swimming.
Many will remember Nyad’s reputation being tarnished in 2013 by a New York Times piece that questioned her achievement at the time (she has also been dogged by criticism about inconsistencies in her sexual abuse story and self-aggrandising claims she has made for her sporting achievements).
However, 10 years on, the controversy around this swim appears to have settled down to Nyad deviating from standard English Channel marathon swimming rules, by wearing a stinger suit, being touched by crew applying duct tape to her body, and by using SharkShields on the kayaks and a swim streamer, rather than the original damaging suspicions that she climbed on the boat.
‘Beyond Diana’s well-documented deviations from standard marathon swimming rules, there is no evidence that she cheated,’ says Evan Morrison from the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame, who has reviewed the evidence. ‘There is no evidence that she snuck onto a boat under cover of darkness. There is no evidence that she was surreptitiously towed by a rope.’
‘Yes, Diana Nyad swam from Havana to Key West, Florida as she claims and as 40 eyewitnesses saw who were on her escort boats,’ says Steven Munatones, a key figure in the marathon swimming world. ‘Although I was not physically on her escort boat during the last attempt, I was on Diana’s previous failed attempts and I have 100% confidence in the integrity of everyone involved.’
In short – while undermining features on the internet linger on – most now believe her and the 40 people on her boat who said that she swam, and not in a conspiracy theory to cover up a big cheat.
Now Nyad’s on the big screen, a sporty, lesbian sexagenarian, with her sporty lesbian sexagenarian best friend, and what a resonant story of friendship it is.
And now Nyad’s on the big screen, a sporty, lesbian sexagenarian, with her sporty lesbian sexagenarian best friend, and what a resonant story of friendship it is. With strong messages about never giving up, ignoring what people think, courage, will, bravery, and refusing to ‘sit down, shut my mouth, and wait to die.’
Though extreme, Nyad’s world is familiar to lots of us in small ways – the goggles, the grease, the tedium, the team work, the friendships, the fear and the feel of the water. So how wonderful that a true slice of our world is now being beamed out to so many people beyond the swimming community.
Aware that the controversy around the swim will roll back around with the film, The Outdoor Swimming Society asked marathon swimmer Steven Munatones, founder of WOWSA (World Open Water Swimming Association), US Swimming Coach, creator of Oceans Seven concept, and Honor Member of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, for his view:
Yes, Diana Nyad swam from Havana to Key West, Florida as she claims and as 40 eyewitnesses saw who were on her escort boats. I was on Diana’s previous failed attempts, but unfortunately could not make it to Key West in time for her successful crossing. What I witnessed during each DNF (Did Not Finish) was an incredible feat of physical stamina and mental toughness. She swam through terrible tropical storms until the danger was too great for her and everyone on her crew. She bore the pain of box jellyfish stings until her life was threatened. I first heard about Diana’s attempt in 2010 when she was swimming for hours non-stop in a pool in Pasadena, California – and those years of relentless training finally paid off.
I was able to be part of her support team and enjoyed working with her other escort crew members – who are scientists, researchers, physicians, and professionals from all different walks of life. They volunteered their time and talents to help Diana attempt the swim and, ultimately, to complete the swim. I was on her main escort boat when the emergency room physicians placed an oxygen mask on her and were frantically working to keep her conscious. I sat next to her navigator John Bartlett when he showed me how he would often make navigational adjustments based on what he was seeing first-hand and the meteorological data that he was receiving from different sources on the mainland.
Therefore, although I was not physically on her escort boat during the last attempt, I have 100% confidence in the integrity of everyone involved in Diana’s attempts.
I think few people in the marathon swimming community do not appreciate the fact that on Diana’s initial post-60 attempt, she did it according to English Channel rules (i.e., no porous non-neoprene stinger suit, no face mask, no duct tape around her wrists and ankles, no booties, no gloves, no shark cage). But when she was stung by box jellyfish, this encounter changed everything.
Diana’s dream was to swim from Cuba to Florida. Jump in, swim across, walk out. But achieving those three actions were not as easy as she or her team initially thought. To successfully swim across, Diana ultimately needed to design a custom stinger suit and a custom face mask, use an innovative and new jellyfish ointment developed by the renowned jellyfish expert Dr. Angel Yanagihara, and frankly to get lucky with a 3-day window of relatively calm waters.
Over a 4-year period, she finally achieved what her long-time dream was. At the age of 64.
Her 3 messages before, during, and after her success were as follows:
(1) never give up,
(2) never too old to chase your dreams, and
(3) work with a talented team
Some marathon swimmers are upset for various reasons. But these are all wonderful life lessons for anyone and everyone who seeks goals outside of their comfort zone.