Thoughts on the Diana Nyad Controversy

ImageFor anybody interested in marathon swimming and wanting to have a better context into Diana Nyad’s swim, The Marathon Swimmers Forum‘s thread titled 110 miles, 53 hours: questions for Diana Nyad should be required reading.  In it, swimmers raised legitimate questions in the aftermath of Diana Nyad’s giant swim with the intention of better understanding its detail, the rules that were applied, and clarify some statements made by Diana’s own team…statements such as Diana not eating or drinking for over 7 hours well into her swim would not raise an eyebrow to most people, but they sure raise question marks to experienced marathon swimmers.  I’ve always been impressed by the high level of collaboration and willingness to help fellow swimmers found in Marathon Swimmers Forum (MSF).  In a survey to open water swimmers that we launched last February and that got 180 responses form open water swimmers, we asked them to tell us what their favorite open water forums/blogs/communities were.  The Marathon Swimmers Forum had the most votes by a wide margin.

“You’ll find an unprecedented amount of support and sharing of information on this forum regarding planning and researching swims… likewise the celebration of successful swims and heroic efforts that may fall short seem to me to be on equal terms.” — David Barra on The Marathon Swimmers Forum

Asking for transparency and access to information should be the norm for any athletic achievement.  Transparency is particularly important for lesser known sports such as marathon swimming and achievements that get picked up by the mainstream media and broadcasted with no filtering to the entire world.  By asking legitimate questions from the “expert” perspective and providing a balanced view in the full context of marathon swimming, MSF members took on a role that nobody else was doing and they did out of the love of their sport.  They approached Nyad’s swim in the same way that they approach any other swim and with the same level of respect and objectivity.  They should be commended for that, not called “haters”, like they were by many who did not necessarily know what they were talking about.

I am happy for the attention that open water swimming is getting these days.  It is hard to get this sport in the public spotlight, so any attention that any swimmer who subjects him/herself to the sacrifices required by this sport is very welcome.  Interestingly I was talking to a colleague at work about Hector Ramírez’ recent butterfly swim across the Strait of Gibraltar (!).  In normal times, my colleague’s eyes would have simply glazed before moving onto more commonly interesting subjects.  But now it was different.  He made a quick mental calculation and said that Hector’s effort was nice, but Diana’s swim was anywhere between 7.5 times  (53 hours vs 7 hours) and 9.7 times (176 km vs 18 km) harder.  Swim4Good teammate Susan Moody was also recently asked if she feels like a slacker after “only” swimming Gibraltar.  It was in a joking manner and all, but let’s face it: it’s the way people think.   Diana’s swim is now being generally used as the ultimate swim and the yardstick by which other swimmers should be measured against. It’s not that marathon swimmers give a hoot about public recognition (they would have chosen a different sport if it were the case), but having Diana’s swim as the ultimate target is neither correct nor relevant.

I am incredibly impressed by Diana’s achievement and, more than anything, I’m in utter awe of her tenacity in making her lifelong dream a reality. That, in itself, is something that should be written about and told again and again as the ultimate “never give up” story that we all should aspire to.  But on a personal level, I am equally as impressed by Steven Redmond, Trent Grimsey, David Barra, Grace Van der Byl,  Darren Miller, Tina Neill, Chloe McCardel, Antonio Arguelles, Nora Toledano, Damian Blaum, Esther Nuñez, Owen O’Keefe, Evan Morrisson, Donal Buckley, Lisa Cummins, Kim Chambers, Anna-Carin Nordin, Michelle Macy and many many other swimmers who have had recent and amazing swims (all well-documented) while contributing greatly towards the further development of this sport and providing support to their fellow marathon swimmers.  Anybody clicking on any of the above links will be floored by these swimmer’s achievements and contributions both in and out of the water.

Going back further in time and relevant to Diana’s swim, I am also impressed by Susie Maroney who, in May 1997, became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida in 25 hours.  Any direct or indirect implication to put these swims in a lesser category or put a “but” to their achievements is kinda disturbing and is something that we should care about. Diana Nyad says that she was the first person to have completed the Cuba-Florida swim “unassisted and without a shark cage”.  This, in a sense, puts a “but” to Susie Maroney’s Cuba-Florida swim mentioned before: Yes, she swam it, “but” she used a shark cage.  Diana did not swim in a shark cage because she did not need one.  The boats and kayaks accompanying her had sonar-emitting devices that drive away sharks. And just in case a shark managed to sneak by, Diana had specialized shark divers to drive the animals away. Diana’s successful swim was assisted by the use of many other enhancers that Susie Maroney did not have.

“I would like to know when DN’s swim goes from “first ever without a shark cage or fins” to “first ever with stinger suit, jelly mask, streamer, handlers applying jelly salve, handlers applying sunscreen, handlers applying Vaseline, handlers assisting with dressing and undressing the stinger suit, handlers applying duct tape, handlers hand feeding, physicians conducting physicals, jelly professionals scooping jellies out of the swimmer’s path, shark divers shooing sharks, and current aided”? — RuffWater on The Marathon Swimmers Forum 

Getting the wording right is not a matter of simple semantics: It is important for the sport and for those that come next.

What I care about is she is trying to claim this as the first unassisted swim. No, you were not unassisted. Assisted/unassisted have a meaning in open water swimming. She should not get the first unassisted swim designation. That has yet to be done. If she wants first without a shark cage – whatever… but you damn well better document and spell out what the swim was to provide the baseline for swimmers who come after….After so many years in the sport to not know the importance of having experienced, impartial observers, to not be clear before and after on what happened may gain her sympathy from the unknowing masses but frankly erodes any respect from those within the swimming community.  — Sylmarino on The Marathon Swimmers Forum

Diana’s swim is definitely a first in terms of media and public attention.  Now Diana has a great opportunity to lead the marathon swimming community into the public forum while gaining their respect by further bringing full disclosure to her swim and recognizing the achievements of fellow swimmers.



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20 replies

  1. Why can’t people just be pleased for Diane and give her a break? It’s like rules for one and certain rules for others. What gets me is how many people have swam the channel with a support swimmer in the water with them? And how many have done it on their own? After all you have wet-suited swimmers now and none wet-suited swimmers so why not accompanied by a support swimmer? And swam on their own?…. If you are going to moan about rules then start looking at a lot of other swims and swimmers, channel swims used to be swam on drinks of tea/coffee/orange juice now look at what swimmers are taking during swims. Looks like a lot of the green eyed monster to me, did you actually look at the pain of what she had been through on her face when she finished? ….

    • Hi Maggie. Thanks for your comment. Yes, I saw her look after swimming 52 hours, and I greatly admire her determination and athleticism. My point was not so much to discuss which rules should apply, but to bring up the need for all swimmers to be transparent, particularly those that accomplish such a monumental swim and put themselves in the public eye. Not doing so is prejudicial for the sport, for fellow swimmers and for Diana herself.

      • I totally agree but I think there is a big difference between a swimmer swimming a swim on their own or one who has a support swimmer in the water with them, I swam all my swims unaccompanied so I think someone being in the water swimming beside you is a greater help than someone leaning over a boat applying sun tan lotion etc… Just my personal opinion

  2. It’s so good to see you call out many of the accomplished open water swimmers who have had recent successful, well-documented swims. My respect for these swimmers is the reason why I am so interested in understanding some of the “anomalies” in Diana’s swim. I’d like to add two others to your list – @Ana Carin-Nordin and @Michelle Macy – the first two women to complete the Oceans Seven Challenge this year. Kudos to these ladies for their humility, dedication, strength and perseverance.

    • Erin, thanks for pointing out Anna-Carin Nordin and Michelle Macy. Indeed, admirable swimmers. I added them to the list above. I am aware that this list is not exhaustive, but it was a small way to pay tribute to the amazing swimmers that have recently accomplished tremendous feats both in and out of the water. Thanks again for your comment.

  3. I am personally impressed with what Diana accomplished and, in reading the marathon swimmers forum, I believe they are also – They are clearly wanting to understand the details to learn from her swim, the route she chose, what she ate, so that others may benefit. It’s really no different than, say mountaineers who view a route for insight into what to expect and how to prepare for their own climb. Unfortunately, the thirst for insight includes some tough questions for the Nyad team to answer.

  4. Mauricio, it means a lot to me that you wrote this. Thank you. The MSF is about knowledge-sharing and celebrating the sport in a positive way. The DN discussion has been misrepresented in many places, and is really more about *process* than any specific people. The processes of conducting swims, and how they are verified.

    • Thanks for your comment Evan. We are lucky to have a forum like MSF which strives to provide an engaging and positive environment for the marathon swimming community, and treats all swimmers in a fair and respectful manner. The coverage of DN was no exception. Big congrats and many thank you’s to you, Donal, and MSF members for standing up for this sport and representing it so admirably.

  5. Please note that the preamble statement above is inaccurate “statements made by Diana’s own team…statements such as Diana not eating or drinking for over 7 hours well into her swim would not raise an eyebrow to most people, but they sure raise question marks to experienced marathon swimmers” The team member that made these misstatements was not even on Voyager. He was holed up on a support vessel on an IV for most of the crossing. This fellow claimed to have been the captain of Voyager, the navigator of the fleet and her nutritionist. He was all over FOX news and SunCoast local news with these fabrications. I was on Voyager and a diver all night each night. The first night she had problems eating and drinking with the mask but she did eat and drink. The second night she did not use the mask only sting stopper and fared much better with the exception of a squall. I must say respectfully that I do not feel the drag and handicap represented by swimming in a stinger suit to be an “assistance’. In contrast a shark cage provides forward momentum eddies to benefit the swimmer. I do hope open ocean swimmers appreciate that different swims involve different risks and hazards. Mitigating hazards has long been an ethical aspect of sports from football helmets to hockey shin guards. Loss of life or severe kidney damage due to box jelly stings to my mind have no place in pursuit of extreme athletic achievement. I do hope that the community is open to issues of prudent hazard surveillance and assessment with the development of effective protocols to employ when loss of life is a clear risk. Swimming in waters with life threatening aggressive marine life -sharks or lethal box jellies clearly represents an environment that demands development of protocols to mitigate these risks while maintaining the complete prohibition of flotation or forward momentum assistance. The Nyad team worked tirelessly for years-to ethically design and develop measures to address these serious issues. As the worlds oceans change jellies will likely become a bigger issue for the best ocean athletes to address.

    • Angel, great insights. I very much appreciate your comments and your insiders perspective. It is a shame that the team member your are referring to provided inaccurate information to the public. This information raised issues that cast doubts that wouldn’t have been raised otherwise. You bring up very relevant points on risk mitigation in sports. As I mentioned in my post, I greatly admire Diana’s swim and her relentless pursuit in making her dream a reality. That is an example for all of us indeed, at least for me it is.

  6. Thank you for this article. It is clear and fair. I am about to link to it in my own blog post which is mostly not about Diana Nyad… but I can’t mention her without giving the run-down, and you have already done that so nicely here. So thanks for that.

    Also, I am appreciating this comment above from Angel Yanagihara: It states opinions, and provides information about the swim from the commentor’s first-hand perspective, with clear, non-combative language. Gotta respect that. Issues related to swimmer safety are quite real, and if approaches to mitigating the dangers are looked at and addressed openly, I predict only a positive impact on the development of the sport.

    Caitlin

  7. Thank you Caitlin and Mauprieto for your open consideration of my opinions. May I ask your advice? I am an invited speaker at http://www.globalopenwaterswimmingconferencecork2013.com/#!programme-conference-weekend/cpcf I have been advised (? warned ?) that I may be the target of some hostile spillover from certain other heated thread debates. My intent in accepting the invitation to present has been to share my research with swimmers to whom this information can be most important. However, presenting at this conference presents a high cost of travel as well as lost research time. Do you feel it is worth my effort to present?

  8. Angel, definitely go. Your research on the dangers in the ocean will benefit many at the conference.

  9. Angel, I agree with IronMike. You will be providing factual and scientific information to help swimmers, and I am sure that the audience will be both interested in it and appreciative that you’re sharing it with them.

  10. The issue hasn’t changed: How to account for the more than double increase in speed for a 7 mile stretch. This occurred during the last stretch of the swim before she approached Key West. I look and look for someone in the marine/weather fields to explain this. So far no scientific facts or explanation based on facts have been proffered that would explain her sudden increase in speed. I am a DN lover, and want the achievement to be real. BUT this really bothers me. AND it does stain the achievement.
    I saw a statement by a marathon swimmer just days after her finish that raised the question about this sudden increase in speed. He stated that the increase should have been ‘gradual’, and not ‘sudden’ and that that was what raised a question in his mind. I am not a marathon swimmer and I would like somebody out there who is to be so kind as to explain in detail what this guy meant. Why should the increase in speed have been gradual? Or was this a problem in the way her crew was registering data?
    As far as the other complaints about “all the assistance” she got…that is just bullshit & jealousy. She was wise enough to assemble a team that would mitigate the risks of sharks & jellyfish. That is just plain smart, not cheating. STILL THE INCREASE IN SPEED MUST BE ADDRESSED, and if it cant be, it will forever cast a shadow on the swim.

  11. P.S. I am not a marathon swimmer but I do swim one or two miles a day in Dorchester Bay (Boston, MA) 5 months a year, and I can state unequivocally that my speed has been driven forward suddenly, or slowed to nearly a halt, when entering/leaving the boat channels. This effect depends of course on whether the tide is coming or going, and in what direction I am swimming. Is this anything like a current a marathon swimmer might encounter???

    • Hi Ron. Thanks a lot for your input. This indeed is something that happens when swimming in open water. Just like you state, depending on the tides and currents, you can be swimming backwards or twice as fast while making the same effort. I think that this sets open water swimming apart from any other sport. All the best,
      Mauricio

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