The Diana Nyad Controversy, a personal reflection – Part 2- the Panel Invitation

Part 1.

Let me start with a note: this series is growing all the time as I write. I had no plans to turn this into the Infinite Jest of marathon swimming, but the words keep pouring out. I have no idea how much longer it will be right now, or if I will have any writing left in me when it’s done. Though I will have to write up Sylvain’s fantastic English Channel butterfly swim, at least. Consider this due warning.

*

On Monday 16th September I received an invitation from swim promoter Steve Munatones of Daily News of Open Water Swimming to take part in an “expert review” of Diana Nyad’s swim.

I can only surmise that this was either because this blog is fairly widely read by open water swimmers around the world, or because I’m a co-founder of the forum, (or some mix of both). I’m sorry I keep saying this, but in a way no-one is more perplexed than myself by my apparent notoriety in the tiny world of open water swimming. I (used to) love writing about the subject, love the people, and the community, but do so with a certain knowledge of my inadequate experience and swimming skill compared to many others, and I regularly bristle at any externally imposed obligation or responsibility to be more sensitive, or to be a leader, even when it comes from friends. Lone and all that.

What I like most about writing my blog is the hope that it will be useful for swimmers and aspirants. Nothing gives me a reward like someone saying “Thanks” or That was useful. Nothing motivates me like a perceived attack on friends.

I see Diana Nyad as an overt attack on swimming friends by attacking the integrity and ethos of the community as a whole, and therefore on my particular individual friends by extension. (That’s the way my mind works).

Maybe this is burnout speaking, in trying to lay this out for you, to explain what and why and part of who I am and how that shapes my opinions. Maybe it’s the self-indulgence of blogging finally emerging, when I am usually more rigourous in controlling my writing.

Okay, back to the panel. Finally, says you…

The panel invitation opened with: 

Objectives: To gather a group of experienced and knowledgeable marathon and channel swimmers to: 1. address concerns that Diana Nyad did not swim from Cuba to Florida as she represents 2. address specific questions regarding Diana Nyad’s swim details as reported on her blog 3. review the data and oceanographic information collected by the GPS unit during the swim 

The panel included the people below. Where I have met or had previous contact with the person, I’ll put their names in blue.

1. Forrest Nelson, President, Catalina Channel Swimming Association

2. Evan Morrison, Board Member, Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association Co-Founder, Marathon Swimmers Forum

3. David Barra Member, Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming Creator, 8 Bridges Swim

4. Michelle Macy, Member, Oceans Seven. (I seriously doubt she remembers, we were doing a 5k swim in Deal in the English Channel organised for the Irish Channel swimmers in Dover in 2013 by local swimmer Paul Massey).

5. Barbara Held, Member, Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming

6. Patti Bauernfeind, Marathon and channel swimmer (Lake Tahoe + Catalina Channel)

7. Ron Collins, Race Director, Tampa Bay Marathon Swim

8. Donal Buckley, Co-founder Marathon Swimmers Forum. (What the hell am I doing in this company?)

9. Richard Clifford, Kayaker and attorney.

10. Penny Dean, Former English Channel record holder & USA Swimming Team Coach. (She literally wrote the book on open water swimming).

11. Mike Lewis, Open water swimming photojournalist, SwimSwam. (It should be noted that Mike Lewis has also been part of the Open Water Source network of Steve Munatones and the Daily News of Open Water Swimming network, who wrote an unintentionally funny, due its utter lack of understanding, hagiography of Diana Nyad’s swim the very day of the panel).

It was mostly an intimidating panel of which to be a member.

The panel would also include: Diana Nyad Team Members

1. Diana Nyad, Swimmer. Allegedly.

2. John Barlett, Navigator

3. Roger McVeigh, Observer

4. Janet Hinkle, Observer

5. Angel Yanagihara, Crew Member & Jellyfish Expert

6. Bonnie Stoll, Handler

There was a list of questions that were due to be addressed cut and pasted below in italics: 

Explanation: John Barlett will explain the following to provide background information for the panel: 1. How was the GPS data collected? 2. Where is the GPS data stored? 3. How was the decision made to start the swim? 4. How did Diana traverse across the Straits of Florida and navigate across the Gulf Stream? 

Roger McVeigh and Janet Hinkle will explain the following: 1. Where were they positioned during the swim? 2. How did they collect the information and fill out the Observer forms? 3. What was their experience as observers? 

Diana Nyad and Bonnie Stoll will explain the following: 1. How was the stinger suit and protective wear put on and taken off during the swim? 2. Did you touch the boat inadvertently or purposefully? 3. How was Diana fed? Questions: 1. Did Diana get on the boat to rest? 2. Did Diana touch a kayak or another swimmer to rest? 3. Did Diana use neoprene, hand paddles or fins to propel herself? 4. Was Diana pulled along the boat? 5. How did Diana continue without eating or drinking for over 7 hours during the swim? 6. How did Diana put on and take off her protective swimwear? 7. How was the Sting Stopper applied? 8. How did Diana swim so fast during some portions of the swim, specifically during the 27th through 30th hour? 9. Is her swim a world record? 10. Others 

During the day leading up the call, Steve Munatones told us that media would be present. My feeling from the initial invitation, which never subsided, was of great wariness. The late addition of media was portrayed as unavoidable, thought it seemed the point was to serve the story and the self-publicity of Diana Nyad and of course Open Water Source the network of sites of Steve Munatones who operates Daily News of Open Water Swimming.

Diana Nyad faces critics“, the headline wrote itself before we even began.

We were given the option of pulling out, but you can guess the worse headline in that event. It felt like a set-up.

I’m certain Steve Munatones would deny it but I doubt all of the people on the panel would disagree with me. Actually that’s a bit ambiguous; I am sure many of the panel members would agree with me.

Disclaimer: I rarely read Daily news of Open Water Swimming now. I once said to Steve Munatones that “have you seen DNOWS” was a regular conversation starter but I can’t remember the last time I heard that. It’s still far bigger than Loneswimmer.com and Steve Munatones has accomplished more in swimming than I ever will so take my comments in that context.

Loneswimmer is a blog. I don’t pretend to be a swim journalist. This is opinion, with facts that I can verify as needed. From something with News in the tile, I expect critical analysis and verification. If you want actual news of swimming though, use H2Open.com or other online sources. If you want cheerleading then DNOWS is your venue. If you want to publicise your swim, hell, send it to me, plenty of people read loneswimmer.com and I could do with a break from writing. This doesn’t apply to Diana Nyad.

I’m just a guy. Don’t automatically trust me if you like my blog. Blind belief is dangerous no matter where you aim it, I don’t want yours. But don’t automatically trust people who want to convince you of a story for an ulterior motive. 

I do this for fun. At least, I used to, not recently. (You have little idea how much I am questioning the future of loneswimmer.com and coming to no conclusions). 

There was always a bigger story here, and the media cannot understand our sport. The Diana Nyad story seemed exactly designed for public consumption, full as it was of endless empty fortune cookie exhortations to “dream”, to “believe” and to “overcome”.

Diana Nyad’s previous $10,000 to $15,000 fee for motivational speaking, a film already out on the day before I am writing this (faster than many Channel swimmers can release their personal videos onto YouTube) , website merchandise and you would be surely justified expecting a big book for the Christmas market, well, what was that point about asking who benefits again?

Mere hours before the call, an email emerged that had been sent from Steve Munatones to the International Marathon Swim Hall of Fame Board of Directors, which I and others read as escalating our suspicions of a set-up. Steve said in response that he was just as entitled to his opinion, which of course no-one ever denied. What we questioned was the explicit conflict of interest and lack of partiality.

Aside: I need to clear something up. I could reproduce emails but I don’t because I consider them private. But I can tell you that since early 2012 most emails I have sent that have included Steve Munatones in the circulation list are marked as Not For Publication. I did not like seeing my words used on DNOWS without my permission. Also Evan and I have repeatedly explained to Steve the etiquette of using discussions on the forum without reference. 

All Diana Nyad’s team had to do on the panel was repeat one thing: It was the currentIt was the current. It was the current. Someone on the forum calls it the “magic current“.

We were the suckers rounded up to provide the posse of bad guys, to add the final chapter to the Christmas book. You can see that final chapter in your mind, can’t you: “Just when, after all these years, I thought the hardest part was over…”

It was all the audience, the media and the public only needed, and only wanted to hear.

In the next part I will discuss parts of the call. At over three hours long before I left I will stick almost entirely to my own questions and opinions rather than a more forensic or comprehensive accounting. It will include one of the more scary moments of my swimming life, which happened on dry land on a phone.

* Cúchulainn, has been called the Irish Achilles. Look him up. The second most extant oral history in the entire world outside Greek myth and legend is Irish. Cúchulainn is one of our greatest stories and Hollywood hasn’t put its destructive hands on any of it yet. Eoin Neeson’s slim Irish Myths & LegendsLady Greogory’s definitive Gods & Fighting Men, and Cúchulainn of Muirthemne, Thomas Kinsella’s famous translation of The Cattle Raid of Cooley, The Táin,  are all superb.

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