The Diana Nyad Controversy, a personal reflection – Part 4 – Assisted or Unassisted?

Parts 1, 2, 3.

I’m really sorry that this is taking so long, I have better things to do myself! I’ve found it difficult to distil this subject down to essentials. I’ve written long series before, and there’s no way I’m giving Diana Nyad more blog parts than more important subjects like Understanding Cold Adaptation in Humans or Trent Grimsey’s  English Channel record. So you are getting long posts instead.

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An important moment came for me during the entire controversy. I’d asked for advice or even new questions from various swim friends for the review panel. One respondent, she knows who she is, gave some excellent media advice: Stick to the message, don’t get bogged down in technicalities that the public doesn’t understand or care about. I planned to do so. And then, on the panel, I realised that while it was excellent advice, it wasn’t the right advice for me just then.

I actually don’t really care if the American public paints an American flag on Diana Nyad’s face and makes her Queen. I only care about the swimming. (If I’d had to endure the media questioning, this may have been different but as a swim blogger, especially one outside the shadow Diana Nyad casts over the US media, I can both be dismissed and still retain freedom).

The words assisted or unassisted don’t matter to the general public, but they do matter … to me, to my friends, to the swimmers who came before Diana Nyad, to the swimmers who will come afterwards and they may even matter to Diana Nyad.

When you ask yourself who has a vested interest here, ask yourself which of us, myself or Diana Nyad, has more reasons for deception. (None of all this writing gains me one cent toward funding any of the swims I can’t afford to do).  If you are a Diana Nyad supporter, maybe you can ponder that while you are waiting for your credit card to process.

I speak for myself and no-one else. I came to believe that the level of deception was deliberate and purposeful, some unwittingly so by crew chosen with little understanding of the context and apparently no guiding rules.

The extent of that contravention is unknown. Experienced marathon swimmers and crew, who know what we are looking at, who can make judgements based on knowing when something looks wrong, will keep going back to this brief video when Diana Nyad is supposed to be going at her fastest pace due to a current assist.

The public through Diana Nyad’s website and Daily News of Open Water Swimming and repeated public speaking and writing were led to believe that the swims would be attempted unsupported, especially the 2011 and first 2012 swim.

In the absence of published rules, I can only infer that Diana Nyad contravened rules generally adhered to around the world for over a century. These rules are called English Channel rules and dictate swimming not just in the English Channel but any swim where aren’t specific local rules. They are guidelines. There are exceptions to these rules (Cook, Manhattan) BUT these exceptions are codified and in place BEFOREHAND, and not used to claim records and aren’t directly compared to unassisted swims.

The media and the Diana Nyad team have since the swim repeatedly focused on these words, “English Channel Rules“, and used them in a deceptive manner. “Throw out that stuffy rule book“, said one of Diana Nyad’s team on the forum, showing a profound lack of understanding of the debate. No-one ever said that Diana Nyad had to use these rules. However in the absence of any clarifying guidelines, for which no-one but Diana Nyad herself is responsible, these rules are a universal constant of marathon swimming, like water. Diana Nyad only has herself to blame because she squandered or deliberately misplaced any opportunity to clarify before and after every attempt.

If you want to play games with experts don’t be surprised when they don’t buy your line of bullshit.

I already mentioned that I was contacted, along with other swimmers, to “respectfully” contribute to a discussion of a device under consideration for the second 2012 swim. We’ve seen Diana Nyad use the word pre-emptively respectfully repeatedly with the media and with swimmers, and the media bite this hook. I’m not the most perceptive person you’ll meet in person but damn it if even I didn’t see it for what it was; media manipulation by an expert, to an uncomprehending, uncritical audience, and damn it if it doesn’t remind me of how when Lance Armstrong was questioned he always used cancer as the response to divert.

Prior to September 2013 the most discussed marathonswimmers.org forum discussion was the 2012 discussion of Diana Nyad’s second attempt of that year. Following the announcement of her “success” on her fifth attempt in early September this year, the forum lit up with discussion of that swim, of which thread I initially stayed clear. It has became the most discussed topic in forum history. What that tells you is that the majority of marathon swimmers, best qualified to understand and support or question, were engaged.

As I wrote previously those threads are fascinating reading and essential if you want the context and the thoughts of a wide selection of actual marathon swimmers, and also of some Diana Nyad crew and supporters.  There were extraordinary revelatory moments, amongst which was swimmer Andrew Malinak’s actually scouring of the data from Diana Nyad’s website, that led to the questions about Diana Nyad’s speed increase after thirty hours. It led to the subsequent engagement by Diana Nyad’s webmaster, Chris. (Had Diana Nyad ensured her Observers were of the same calibre of transparency as Chris, this issue could have been over by now). And Sarah Thomas’ hugely popular articulation of how many feel, and also Niek Kloot’s detective work on Walter Poenisch.

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It’s a lot isn’t it? The forum, the blogs, the newspaper and online articles, the media interviews, this seemingly interminable series… How can you really come to a definitive conclusion?

How can I get this monkey off my back? A soupçon of Socratic Method, cut by Occam’s Razor, leavened by gut feeling. Questions and answers. (Or lack of answers in this case).

Throughout this controversy there has been one recurring issue for actual marathon swimmers, rather than the adoring public, an issue that’s been growing: The question of integrity.

I’ll put it another way: There are serious questions over Diana Nyad’s probity and trustworthiness.

“But she’s a 64-year-old woman who did an astonishing swim you couldn’t do! She’s an amazing inspiration”.

Yes, I’ve already heard that. Playing to the gallery means nothing. Had Diana Nyad taken the most simple of steps, we could have been all celebrating her. But most of the people best qualified to understand Diana Nyad and her claimed success certainly aren’t so doing. You need to grasp that fact. The fact that most marathon swimmer’s don’t seem to believe Diana Nyad is a very telling weathervane.

Diana Nyad’s actions in the 1970’s and 1990’s were a demonstration of her questionable probity when she attacked both Walter Poenisch and Suzie Maroney in the media over their respective Cuba to Florida assisted swims. She attempted to subvert Walter Poenisches  attempt and unleashed a vicious attack on him afterwards, only retracted on legal threats. For over 30 years she falsely claimed to be the first woman to swim Around Manhattan.

(This article about Walter Poenisch, his wife and widow, and the part a much younger Diana Nyad played in trying to destroy his life is astonishing, essential reading).

Yet she herself is now being defensive and even duplicitous about similar issues. Her 2010 and 2012 Cuba to Florida swims incontrovertibly showed that she was still not above misleading everyone prior to, during and after swims. It is safe to say that those swims alienated many members of the marathon swimming community. She held onto and got into support boats. She herself was the cause of the alienation, not this bad man from Ireland. She took the trust people initially placed in her as a swimmer, and she destroyed it.

She’s not the first swimmer to make dubious claims, and won’t be last but this is the swim where I draw my own line.

Here is the swim and the swimmer where I choose to say: No. I don’t believe you. Clearly, so anyone who chooses can hear.

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Diana Nyad demonstrated a complete lack of interest in rules.

Rules. A small word, a big concept, but one that is easy to grasp. Rules are essential as guidelines for all human activity, and specific in the sporting realm. Clear published rules allows us the ability to judge and evaluate, to demonstrate fair play and to aid in the evaluation of effort, to present a level playing surface for all competitors. To separate the merely excellent from the truly historic or exceptional.

Rules aren’t a burden. They also protect the average honest athlete giving their all to the effort, dividing them from the cheats and the self-promoters. One of the features of rules is that they need to be published. Why do I have to explain that rules need to be known to everyone BEFOREHAND? I’m frustrated that, in light of this shambles, I, an adult, am trying to explaining what rules are for and why, to you, other adults, all of whom already know this. 

Nor did Diana Nyad care about what actual marathon swimmer thought, despite her later protestations, despite the faux-respect of the panel. Our concerns previously had no effect on her, and she had only engaged when it became clear that we were being listened to. We weren’t disgruntled because we were feeling left out, or that we wanted to be in control, as the Extreme Dreamers would assert.

A brief perusal of the marathon swimmers forum will demonstrate a lively, energetic, engaged community, celebrating and supporting swims and swimmers around the world.

Instead we had genuine questions, that could so easily have been assuaged with information and some planning changes. They knew we were here, so they had to have known the questions and concerns. Diana Nyad also didn’t choose to get the marathon swimmers on her side, and you have to wonder why, since media and public attention is clearly at the heart of what she desires. Could it be that actual experienced swimming Observers would be so much more difficult to bamboozle?

Diana Nyad  has only reacted in 2013 because our debate got outside the swimming community, first published by Simon Griffiths and H2Open magazine on Septemeber the 2nd, then followed by a National Geographic web story and then Suzanne Sataline for the New York Times, which then very quickly became the story of the week. We were tarnishing the image, and far more importantly I suspect, the earning potential, and casting a shadow on her ego, so clearly seen in her claims of a new world record.

Her probity and integrity was amply demonstrated (and probably irreparably to the swimming community) to be at odds with the values of the marathon swimming community when she attacked volunteers. This is no small matter for people who place their dreams and lives into the safekeeping of those selfsame volunteers. The About page on Loneswimmer.com written well over three and a half years ago expressly thanks those who have helped me in my minor achievements. Every swimmer I know understands this. Without exception.

People have pointed out her attack on what she perceived as her competitors, Penny Palfrey and Chloe McCardel, both of whom have acted in an entirely more honourable and open fashion regarding the same swim. I do think it’s possible to put that aside, even though a lack of willingness to help others in the community achieve swims is also anathema to marathon swimmers. The attack on the volunteers is very different and a repulsive attitude to the worldwide cadre of swimmers.

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The post-panel email discussion went on for over a week. Other additions to the panel included Skip Storch, who had attempted the swim in the 90’s,  Captain Timothy Johnson, Author of The History of Marathon Swimming, Sid Cassidy, a Team USA coach, and I’ve heard Lynne Cox was listening in (allegedly). Members of the panel were part of the post-swim discussion. A few days in, it seemed to me, (very subjective), that there may be a move to have some kind of a vote by the IMSHOF members, who would have included from the panel, I think, Steve Munatones, Skip Storch and Penny Dean.

Concerned something like a “star-chamber” might arise to decree the swim unassisted, Evan and I decided to give marathonswimmers.org forum members their chance to cast their decision. For 48 hours we ran a simple unannounced vote on the forum on this simple question:

Was Diana Nyad’s swim assisted or unassisted?

Unlike the WOWSA awards this wasn’t a public vote. We allowed no new membership applications during the time to avoid vote brigading, (the biggest problem with the WOWSA awards), no comments were allowed in the thread and there was no prior notification of its announcement, and no canvassing. Just a simple vote. Diana Nyad repeatedly spoke about the consensus of the marathon swimming community after her swim. Here was a way to see what that consensus was.

After 48 hours the vote was

82 votes for Assisted 

2 votes for Unassisted

Actual marathon swimmers had spoken. Overwhelmingly and unambiguously.

The consensus Diana Nyad which looked for has happened, but that consensus of marathon swimmers said her swim is Assisted. Which makes her the Third Assisted Cuba to Florida swimmer after Walter Poenisch and Suzie Maroney.

Two weeks after this vote, Diana Nyad, who reportedly said “I don’t want the record if they’re going to call it assisted because that’s the equivalent of fins or shark cage” is still doing the media rounds.

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I’m almost there, I promise, just one more to go. Stay with me and let’s all see this series through to the end.

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22 thoughts on “The Diana Nyad Controversy, a personal reflection – Part 4 – Assisted or Unassisted?”

  1. “Not legal. He’s not a legal marathon swimmer. He does not swim by the rules. He’s a gimmick. He’s a cheat. In the world of sports, he’s a cheat.”

    Astonishing series of articles. As an outsider looking it, the attitude of ‘I make my own rules’, ‘I’m a hero / rolemodel etc’ and the methods of attacking other competitors reminds me of someone. Is she an mother / aunt of an infamous cyclist?

    Great work putting it altogether. Looking forward to Part 5 of the saga.

  2. I have noticed that all the recent press releases and headlines around her swim now seem to say: “First person in history to swim that route without a shark cage.” when she first completed it they all said “First person in history to swim that route unassisted and without a shark cage.” The unassisted seems to have been dropped somewhere along the line.

    1. Thanks Bob. I’d need to feel more confident of my prowess before I could consider showing off. “Occasionally moderately content, but usually later regretting what I didn’t write” might be how I’d best describe my feelings.

  3. thank you for all this. I totally agree with your blog. sadly, it wont matter one iota to ms.nyad. she is just in it for the media attention. and she is getting it, so her goal has been met. this will probably (hopefully) be her last open water swim. im so proud of the open water community for speaking out and discussing it all.

  4. Keep up the great work. Your blog posts and the MSF are instrumental in providing the facts and most important related opinions on this topic, while also providing a broader understanding of an assisted vs. unassisted swim. While both have their unique value, it is critical to maintain the bright line between the two. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  5. This just reminded me that when I was at an open water swim a couple of weeks ago, a young kid swimming open water for he first time raised his hand during pre-race instructions to ask about “disqualifications”.

    Kids can understand the importance of rules, but some adults can’t? Or is that just when some adults don’t want the rules to get in their way?

  6. My problem in reading this and other feedback from the MSC. is it comes off as,,,, well very bitter, and it shouldn’t. I think this was a real opportunity to promote the sport which was missed. It’s also a great opportunity to look at the rules and maybe see if they should change things for the benefit of the sport.

    First I want to say we can all agree it was an ‘assisted’ swim by EC rules. No question! However, I am personally frustrated that it’s either assisted or unassisted, no variation of how assisted. For example we know Walter was much, much more ‘assisted’ . I think this is why the press and the general public don’t understand the controversy. “So she had help putting on the suit, she swam in shark infested waters without a cage, cut her some slack”. Then actually comparing her to Lance Armstrong? Well that just comes across ,, well not good.

    Could the MSC turn this into a positive for the sport? Maybe EC rules are holding Marathon Swimming back. People love when someone bikes cross country, but under EC rules the ride would be assisted and not really count. Think of the exciting swims the community could get behind, Swims could taking place over days and weeks and push new boundaries. How about a race around the state of Florida? Would we just classify it as assisted? Lets take an opportunity to rethink this whole thing. The English channel was done a long time ago, Nobody outside of the MSC cares anymore and haven’t since Gertrude Ederle. You can do it 8 times consecutively, backstroke or even butterfly and nobody will still care.

    Feel free to disagree but understand this is not coming form a place of anger or support for Ms. Nyad. I think the MSC community are really nice, smart and passionate people, but could you be holding back the sport you love.

    1. Thanks Rich. I do appreciate the comment.

      I’ll address a few of your points:

      Bitter? That’s a matter of viewpoint. I’d say angry. This fiasco reached out to us, not the other way round. I was invited onto the panel, I was asked to comment previously, I was the one of the people whose opinion was sought, I got sucked into it so deeply on the forum and explaining the problems that it was impossible to stay dispassionate. Then when I didn’t buy the bullshit associated with the DN circus,that’s bitter? I’m sorry but there nothing I can do about telling the truth as I see it. While I have never claimed, explicitly the opposite, to speak for the community in this, I’d say the private comments and conversations with actual global members of the community, swimmers, observers, pilots and crew run somewhere above 95% in support of what I’ve written. The general public is probably at least 95% the other way. Guess which one is more important o me?

      This week Wendy Trehiou and Sylvain Estadieu were voted the male and female solo swimmer of 2013 by the marathon forum. The forum is largest public group of marathon swimmers globally. They choose two English Channel swims as the best swims of the year. These are the folk most qualified to judge. You say no-one outside the marathon community cares. But if you reread what I’ve written, you’ll see that I’ve said all I care about is the swimming community. Otherwise I wouldn’t have refused interview requests from other media, or I’d be writing in a wider sphere.

      You know, it’s nice when someone in my pool says I’m a good swimmer. But I know that I’m average. When another Channel swimmer says to me, “Donal, when it all went wrong in the Channel, you prevailed”, that means immeasurably more to me, because only a Channel swimmer can recognise what that entails.

      Rich, non-marathon swimmers need to understand that EC rules aren’t a burden. They are a matter of pride, a chosen badge of honour, tradition and belonging. No-one is stopped from using other rules, we will and do celebrate other swims. But I’m not sure how many times I have to explain that one of the main problems with the Nyad Fiasco is that whatever rules were in use were NEVER published and previously were changed as it suited and months later, DN is still lying to the media and public that she has provided all the detail, when none has been provided. She then sought to use us to rubber stamp her swim afterwards, and when we didn’t roll over we were dismissed. She is a consummate media manipulator, and they buy it. This lack of publication of rules happens nowhere else so comparisons with other sports don’t hold. As a former cyclist, there is little comparison. You can get off the bike at any time and not break any rules. Everything you do can be seen without a requirement for independent observers.

      As demonstrated the community reached out to DN and she ignored it. If you want us to jump on the bandwagon of a proven liar, then I cannot imagine how that wouldn’t do more harm in the long run to our sport.

      As for the LA comparison? rich, I used to be a competitive (amateur) cyclist. I saw doping ruin the sport I previously loved. LA wasn’t the only one responsible but he as clearly a cheat to those willing to understand and look. I luckily am from the same country as two of the three journalists who pursued LA for 15 years. The combined factors means I have more than a passing interest in the LA story and the comparison is deliberately chosen and apt.

      LA was not a great cyclist. Prior to doping he was mediocre in the Pro ranks. Doc Counsilman, one of the greatest ever swim coaches. described DN as a mediocre swimmer who was a fantastic self publicist.

      LA controlled the group around him, what they said, whom they said it to. DN has told team members, whom we also now know since I wrote this to include an international drug smuggler, to not speak with the community.

      LA destroyed the career of other cyclists (Christophe Bassons). DN destroyed Walter Poenisch’s career, and his widow said she destroyed his life. The media almost without exception bought LA’s lies. The media called DN the greatest living marathon swimmer, in world in which Alison Streeter, possibly the greatest woman marathon swimmer of all time, Kevin Murphy and Ted Erikson are still all alive and well.

      LA professed contrition publicly only after he was caught. DN confessed contrition about WP only in the last few months after the story went public despite having had 530 years previously to so do. Both had years to come clean and make amends, both acted like politicians: nothing matters,e specially truth, so long as you don’t get caught.

      If you go back one year from today, the majority of Lance Armstrong fans were still in denial. Such emotion and belief had been invested by so many in his “inspirational” dream. He always appealed that it was always about the “work for cancer” sucking in people because we have all lost people to cancer. Diana Nyad talks about drams and age, because we all dream and get old. (She never mentioned Roger Allsop or Sue Oldham, both marathon swimmers of equal or greater age). But now a year later everyone has just accepted LA cheated. If left to the general public and the media, and your assertion, there would be no transition period. Someone had to be right and be in the minority before people listened. You’d have to be crazy to think pursuing truth is enjoyable for those doing so, of whom there are very many in the marathon community.

      I keep repeating, the majority of people most qualified to judge that I know, do not believe Diana Nyad.

      There’s always a period before someone is caught where those who were trying to get the truth out are pilloried and insulted, when all they are doing to trying to get the truth.

      An inappropriate comparison between Lance Armstrong and Diana Nyad? I don’t think so.

      Regarding your suggestion of various categories of assisted. It’s a valid point. These already exist though. As I am only interested in actual marathon swimming though, I just don’t find it relevant to what I am interested in, which is by definition unassisted.

      I don’t know if I’m good or bad for the sport in my writing. That’s not for me to judge. I can only stick to my purpose: to help people by writing about everything I can think of, or in any other way I can or am requested.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment Rich, much appreciated and interesting.

      1. Donel,

        Thanks for taking the time to get back to me and doing it so quickly. That was very nice of you.

        I can tell this issue is still a little raw for you and much of the community. Maybe in the future you could review some of the suggestions when things calm down. I really have a problem with the assisted / unassisted thing.

        I also want to make sure you all know where I am coming from. Unlike you I don’t need the feedback of other marathon swimmers because,, I’m terrible. Basically I am a sprinter who lives by the beach so I do a few miles along the coast every now and again. I came to the site looking for training tips to maybe do the Manhattan swim (although not sure I could swim in the east river, kinda gross). So I want you all to understand I am not in your league in terms of experience, effort or a passion for the sport. I don’t even think I am experienced enough to know just how impressive you guys are. I am really just getting into it so the Ms. Nyad is not a big deal to me. So take what I say for what you think it’s worth.

        Have a great New Year!!

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