On NYAD: An open letter to the marathon swimming community

deadspin headline
My favorite headline from September 2013 (source).

by Evan Morrison

Fellow marathon swimmers:

Through my various roles in marathon swimming — administrator (MSFSBCSA), observer, developer (LSDBtrack.rs), forum moderator, and swimmer — I’ve paid as close attention to the sport as just about anyone over the past 15 years. The sport has changed profoundly during this time. Massive increases in participation. An explosion of new swim routes around the globe — along with pilots and organizations to support them. Continuous refinement of rules, standards, best practices — befitting a real sport. An authoritative results database. We’ve come a long way. This should be celebrated.

Amidst all this change, one of the few constants of this era has been … Diana Nyad. Her four attempts to swim from Cuba to Florida after the age of 60. The controversy that followed the final, successful one in 2013. And the criticism of Diana personally, by some members of the marathon swimming community (including, at times, myself). The controversy and criticism continues even now — flaring up again recently with the upcoming release of NYAD, a film adapted from Diana’s memoir Find A Way.

Today is 10 years to the day since Diana set off from Havana on her fifth and final attempt. And we’re still talking about her. In some ways, the current discourse within the marathon swimming community is bitterer, more personal, and is getting more media play than anytime since September 2013. 

This is unfortunate. I’ve been as staunch and vocal a defender of traditional solo marathon swimming rules and standards as anyone. But I believe the continued criticism of Diana no longer serves our community, at a time when potentially millions will be exposed to marathon swimming through a major motion picture. If even a tiny fraction of these viewers are inspired to dip their toes in the open water for the first time, this translates into a vast influx of new swimmers.

The person vs. the swim

I also think people are confusing certain critical — but separate — issues. Given Diana’s celebrity and “brash, larger-than-life image,” some may find it difficult to separate Diana — the person — from her swim. But that’s just the thing: these are separate issues. Diana is a human being, imperfect as we all are. You might love her, you might not. A swim is a set of facts, detailing an athletic feat. We must evaluate it as such, regardless of how we feel about Diana the person.

Diana Nyad swam from Cuba to Florida

Regarding the swim, I want to be clear: In light of the extensive documentation released in August 2022, I believe Diana swam from Cuba to Florida without artificial assistance to her propulsion, and without using a shark cage (as had been used in previous Cuba-Florida swims by Susie Maroney and Walter Poenisch).

I also believe that according to the current standards of the sport — which distinguish between Unassisted (English Channel rules or equivalent) swims and those which utilize additional equipment or involve supportive contact between the swimmer and any other person or object — Diana’s swim should be categorized as Assisted. Poenisch’s and Maroney’s swims were also Assisted. Diana’s swim was less assisted than these previous swims — she didn’t use a shark cage or flippers. Unfortunately, the sport of marathon swimming has not yet developed a system of categories to capture more nuanced distinctions among Assisted swims.

It’s unclear if it is possible to complete an Unassisted swim across the Straits of Florida. Two of the greatest marathon swimmers of this era, Chloe McCardel and Penny Palfrey, made admirable attempts that were derailed by jellyfish (in Chloe’s case) and swept off course by currents (in Penny’s case). I hope other swimmers will try, and that someday someone will complete the first purely Unassisted swim of this epic route. 

Beyond Diana’s well-documented deviations from standard marathon swimming rules, there is no evidence that she cheated. 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.

Incidentally, here’s what I wrote after the conference call of September 10, 2013, in which Diana and her team answered questions from a panel of marathon swimmers and administrators (including myself):

While many questions about Diana’s swim remain to be addressed, I have not yet seen any evidence to suggest that Diana did not do as she is claiming — swim from Cuba to Florida. However, because of the repeated physical contact with her crew in putting on her stinger suit, I consider it an ‘assisted’ swim – the third after Walter Poenisch and Susie Maroney.

Some may find this surprising, but my general view has not changed from 10 years ago — except now, with far more documentation, far fewer questions “remain to be addressed.”

Ratification Shenanigans

Aside from the assisted/unassisted distinction, in my view, the newly released documentation meets and often exceeds MSF requirements. This is notable since these requirements were not developed until 2014. MSF has not traditionally considered Assisted swims for ratification, but since the new WOWSA owner is using Diana’s lack of official ratification as a cudgel to target her listing in Guinness World Records and generate further controversy (read: clicks), we may reconsider this policy.

What the new WOWSA management doesn’t seem to understand, since they weren’t around at the time, is that in 2013, there was no system of ratification for independent solo swims, or generally accepted standards of documentation. MSF’s efforts since 2014 have changed this significantly, and the expectations for high-profile swims are now quite different.

In the early 2010s, if you attempted an independent solo swim and you wanted it recognized, the main option was Steven Munatones, maintainer of the Daily News of Open Water Swimming and Openwaterpedia. In that era, having a swim “recognized” meant having a DNOWS post written about you, along with an entry in Openwaterpedia. Note, this is not a criticism of Steven. He has consistently maintained that his primary focus is promoting enthusiasm for open water swimming, not developing documentation standards and ratification platforms.

In summary, “ratification” was not a relevant concept for independent solo swims in 2013. Is it fair to hold Diana accountable to standards that shifted beneath her feet in the years following her swim? In any case, if 2023-style ratification is what will help the sport move on from this unrelenting embarrassing debacle, then let’s define an appropriate category and ratify it.

Time to move on

To those who asked questions in September 2013 — our questions were valid and honorable. We asked for documentation, and now we have it. I wish we had it sooner, but we have it now. This is a vindication.

To those who have criticized Diana for past misstatements — I don’t disagree with you. It’s important to speak with integrity about one’s athletic achievements. But I think we’ve made our point, by now. Is the ongoing vitriol helping the sport, in 2023? 

Let’s focus our energies on continuing to build and develop — new routes, new races, new communities. Rather than undermining the film, let’s embrace the interest it brings and harness it towards building our vision of marathon swimming in the future. 

In 25 years, I believe we’ll look back on all this as growing pains of a rapidly changing sport. In the meantime, let’s embrace the rising water as it lifts all our boats.

Evan Morrison is an Honor Administrator in the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame.