AP: Nyad’s team responds to skeptics doubting her swim

The Associated Press published a well-reported article on the marathon swimming community’s skepticism of Diana Nyad’s swim from Cuba to Florida. I am re-posting it here, with my comments in blue.


Nyad’s team responds to skeptics doubting her swim

By Jennifer Kay – September 8, 2013. 1:13 PM EDT

MIAMI (AP) — Diana Nyad’s 110-mile swim from Cuba to Florida has generated positive publicity and adoration for the 64-year-old endurance athlete — along with skepticism from some members of the small community of marathon swimmers who are questioning whether she accomplished the feat honestly.

>> Or rather, swimmers who just want more information, to understand how such an incredible swim was accomplished – a swim that even noted open-water swimming commentator Steven Munatones has said is impossible.

On social media and the online Marathon Swimmers Forum, long-distance swimmers have been debating whether Nyad got a boost from the boat that was accompanying her — either by getting in it or holding onto it — during a particularly speedy stretch of her swim. They also question whether she violated the traditions of her sport — many follow strict guidelines known as the English Channel rules — by using a specialized mask and wetsuit to protect herself from jellyfish.

>> I assume “wetsuit” is a misunderstanding by the reporter, rather than something Diana’s team actually admitted to. Diana has acknowledged wearing a non-neoprene (non-buoyant) bodysuit to protect against jellyfish stings.

“When you know how hard it is, you kind of want those details,” said Andrew Malinak, a Seattle long-distance swimmer who crunched the data available from the GPS positions tracked on Nyad’s website and concluded that he didn’t trust what he saw.

Nyad’s navigator and one of the swim’s official observers told The Associated Press this weekend that Nyad didn’t cheat and that she was aided during the rapid part of her swim by a swift current. And neither Nyad nor her team ever said she would follow English Channel rules, developed for swimming the waters between England and France. Those rules outlaw neoprene wetsuits and contact with a support boat. Nyad wore a full non-neoprene bodysuit, gloves, booties and a silicone mask at night, when jellyfish are a particular problem, and removed the suit once she got over the reef on her approach to Key West.

>> The marathon swimming community’s questions aren’t really about whether she followed English Channel rules – it was always obvious that she didn’t, and as AP says, she never claimed to follow them anyway. The more important issue is the degree of assistance she received – assistance such as touching or holding the boat or kayak, and being touched by her crew. This is important because, aside from the jellyfish suit and mask, she seems to be claiming an “unassisted” swim – which has a specific meaning to marathon swimmers.

According to Nyad’s team, she finished the swim Monday afternoon after roughly 53 hours in the water, becoming the first to do so without a shark cage. It was her fifth try, an endeavor apparently free from the boat troubles, bad weather, illnesses and jellyfish encounters that have bedeviled Nyad and other swimmers in recent years.

Nyad’s progress was tracked online via GPS by her team, and some critics say they think information is missing.

Many wonder about a roughly seven-hour stretch when Nyad apparently didn’t stop to eat or drink, recalling her 2012 attempt when she got onto the boat for hours during rough weather. Nyad eventually got back into the water to try finishing, but her team was criticized for delaying the release of that information to the public.

Malinak said the hours-long spike in Nyad’s speed after 27 hours of swimming is particularly questionable — she went from her normal pace of roughly 1.5 mph to more than 3 mph, then slowed down again as she approached Key West.

>> Moreover, as shown in this chart, Ms. Nyad briefly averaged 10 km per hour (6.2 mph) over a 40-minute period around Hour 30.

Nyad’s spokeswomen did not immediately return telephone calls this weekend, but her navigator and Janet Hinkle, one of the official observers for the swim, told the AP that Nyad didn’t cheat.

Navigator John Bartlett said the increased speed was due to the fast-moving Gulf Stream working in her favor, nothing more.

“At some points we were doing almost 4 miles an hour,” Bartlett said. “That’s just the way it works. If the current is in your favor at all, that explains it.”

The data collected by Bartlett and two observers will be submitted to three open-water swimming associations and the Guinness World Records for verification, Bartlett said.

>> Which open-water swimming associations? And what record(s) specifically will this swim be considered for in the Guinness Book?

An oceanographer not affiliated with Nyad’s team said the swimmer couldn’t have picked a more perfect current to get from Havana to Key West.

Mitch Roffer of Melbourne-based Roffer’s Ocean Fishing Forecasting Service Inc. said he got an email questioning whether Nyad’s swim was a hoax, so he decided to look at the charts for himself. What he saw convinced him that she could do it.

“Many times that current runs west-east and you’re constantly fighting the current if you’re swimming north. In this case, it was in the shape of an S, and the angle was almost exactly from Havana to Key West,” Roffer said.

>> This is good stuff. I’d love to hear more details about how oceanographers such as Mr. Roffer determine the direction & speed of the currents, and which charts he is using.

Janet Hinkle, a Key West boat captain and acquaintance of Nyad’s, was called to be an observer for the swim when Steve Munatones, a former U.S. national open-water coach, was unable to make it. “I can say unequivocally she swam every stroke without question,” Hinkle said.

>> By that statement, are we to assume Ms. Hinkle remained awake and watching Ms. Nyad for 53 hours continuously?

Critics have said Hinkle was too close to Nyad to be an independent observer of her swim. Hinkle has in the past helped Nyad by providing housing for her when the swimmer stayed in the Florida Keys, but she said she remained on the periphery of Nyad’s team. “I think anyone who knows me knows me as a person of high integrity. I believe that’s why Diana asked me, and I took my job very seriously,” Hinkle said. “She was giving her all and I would give her my best.”

>> It’s good to hear that Ms. Hinkle is a person of high integrity, but I think the marathon swimming community also wants to know: What (if anything) does she know about open water swimming? What is her previous experience observing swims?

Since none of the various open-water swimming associations dictate how someone should swim from Cuba to Florida — officially accomplished only by Nyad and Susie Maroney, who used a shark cage — Nyad just had to follow generally accepted rules about not getting out of the water or using equipment such as fins.

>> Not making intentional physical contact with other people (crew) or objects (boats, kayaks) is also a “generally accepted” rule of open water swimming – one of the oldest and most fundamental. Was Ms. Nyad following this rule? Photos showing her crew assisting her into her jellyfish suit would seem to indicate otherwise.

Australian Chloe McCardel followed English Channel rules in her attempt to swim the Florida Straits in June. She had to be pulled from the water after 11 hours after being stung jellyfish.

“Generally the rules are: You walk in, you swim across and you walk out, and you do it under your own power,” said Munatones, who consulted with Nyad for this swim and observed her attempts in 2011 and 2012.

The elaborate, full-body wet suit and protective mask Nyad wore to protect herself from venomous jellyfish actually weighed her down, Munatones said.

>> Again, I think the term “wetsuit” here is a misunderstanding by the reporter rather than something Munatones said.

“To put that on is like putting on a wedding gown in the ocean,” he said. “It’s different from the English Channel rules, but the water is different from the English Channel.”

To many, it seems Nyad hasn’t exactly endeared herself to those in the marathon swimming community. Some consider her primarily concerned with gaining the spotlight instead of helping others advance the sport.

At her post-swim news conference on Tuesday, Nyad admitted that she had not been rooting for McCardel and that she was miffed some members of her team would jump ship to work for a competitor.

McCardel said she was disappointed to hear Nyad call those crew members “traitors.”

>> Actually, this doesn’t bother me as much as it seems to bother others. It’s not classy or gracious, but it’s undeniably honest. To me, integrity and transparency are more paramount values in marathon swimming than being a likeable person. So kudos to Diana for her honesty in admitting this.

“One of the greatest things, I believe, about international marathon swimming is how people across the world support crew for and mentor each other. I wouldn’t change this aspect of our sport for the world!” McCardel posted on her Facebook page.

Diana Nyad Week

This past Monday, the most famous and charismatic open water swimmer of modern times, Diana Nyad, emerged from the sea at Key West and fulfilled her dream of swimming the Straits of Florida.

Ms. Nyad’s feat was headline news around the world – probably the biggest mainstream headlines for open water swimming of my lifetime. Millions were inspired by the dogged will of a 64-year old woman, taking on a challenge that had already defeated her four times, and had eluded swimmers half her age and twice her speed.

When she somehow had the presence of mind, still dripping wet, to urge the crowd gathered on the beach: “Never, ever give up… You are never too old to chase your dreams,” well… it was the stuff of movies. Incidentally, a documentary film about Ms. Nyad’s thirty-year quest – The Other Shore – will be released in three weeks.


By temperament, I’m not typically inspired by platitudes. But as a fellow marathon swimmer, I was inspired by the possibilities suggested by Diana’s swim. If it’s possible for a 64-year old to swim 110 miles in 53 hours, then anything is possible.

As a marathon swimmer, I’m also obsessed with details… data… information. Many of us are – I think it’s one reason the Marathon Swimmers Forum works so well. And in reading through Diana’s crew’s live-blog, trying to suss out how this incredible swim happened, I was struck by how little information there actually was. There was a lot of content, but most of it seemed aimed at the casual follower (or even pre-written), with little of the hard data that experienced marathon swimmers seek in piecing together a story of a swim.

Among other reasons, these details matter because Ms. Nyad is claiming – and the media reporting without fact-checking – a new world record for longest-distance nonstop, unassisted ocean swim, previously set by Penny Palfrey. Actually, forget the long-distance record: If Ms. Nyad’s swim was indeed nonstop and unassisted, as claimed, it might be the greatest marathon swim of all time, by any person, of any age.


And so it began. At first, just a discussion; but eventually, a full-fledged social media campaign among the global community of marathon swimmers – at Marathonswimmers.org and on Facebook – to encourage Ms. Nyad and her team to publicly release her swim data. And, in its own way, just as unprecedented as the swim itself.

As a freelance writer and open-water swimmer, Suzanne Sataline was in a perfect position to pick up on this emerging story. Thursday morning, her article went live at National Geographic Online:

The National Geographic piece was soon re-reported by other outlets:

EDIT: A few hours after this post went live, the Associated Press published a well-reported story including statements from Diana’s team:

The story was syndicated by the San Francisco ChronicleUSA Today, and The Guardian.

The result has been unprecedented traffic to Marathonswimmers.org, and even a DoS attack, which frankly I take as a compliment. It’s been an interesting week in the world of marathon swimming – and at my keyboard.

Stay tuned — the story continues to develop…