Swimming Against the Grain: Diana Nyad’s Controversial Story

Swimming Against the Grain – Annette Bening portrays marathon swimmer Diana Nyad in Nyad, which premieres today on Netflix.

Streaming now on Netflix, Nyad stars Annette Bening as swimmer Diana Nyad. Nyad’s attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida is chronicled, starting in 1978 at age 28, then in 2011, then in 2013, when she was 64 years old. Her memoir, Find a Way: The Inspiring Story of One Woman’s Pursuit of a Lifelong Dream, is the basis for the film.

After completing her 110-mile swim, Nyad told The Guardian, “I remember coming out and seeing the faces of the crowd just so emotional wrought. As I realized later, they were not weeping because somebody finally achieved something or set a sporting record. They were weeping because they saw someone who refused to give up. No one is a stranger to that, whether they were fighting cancer or raising a difficult child.”

Even though she accomplished an incredible athletic feat, her swim was the subject of some controversy. She was never officially recognized by the World of Open Water Swimming Association (WOWSA) or by the Guinness Book of Records for her crossing. In a report published in September 2023, WOWSA summarized their concerns regarding the swim as follows:

  1. There were no established rules and standards for ratifying the swim prior to the attempt.
  2. Deviating from established rules and standards traditionally followed in English Channel crossings.
  3. Despite the swim not having been formally ratified, a record has been declared.
  4. Following the swim, it was suggested that the swim had been conducted according to the rules and procedures of an organization that did not formally exist at the time, Florida Straits Open Water Swimming Association (FSOWSA).

In an interview with The Los Angeles Times this summer, Nyad said, “I thought we had provided all the proof we needed.” Perhaps I was a little too hubristic. But it wasn’t meant to obfuscate the rules. We were never told, “You have to do this in order to ratify.”

Nyad, before she began her swim, August 31, 2013.
Nyad, before she began her swim, August 31, 2013.

According to the New York Times, fellow swimmers unleashed a barrage of censure and doubt after Nyad’s swim, asking: “Was she truly unaided for all those hours in the open sea, only her crew watching?” Given that her average speed was 1.7 miles per hour at the start and end of her swim, how was she able to swim almost 53 hours, crossing 110 miles? “Were her two handpicked independent observers truly independent?”

Her own claims that she cheated on her swim have been strenuously denied by Nyad. Whenever someone accomplishes something they’ve been trying to accomplish for a long time, and you know how difficult it is, it’s only logical. I hope they don’t question whether I’m honest,” she said. Observers have denied that she received any assistance, and some have argued that water currents caused the disparity in speed.

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