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.

18 thoughts on “AP: Nyad’s team responds to skeptics doubting her swim”

  1. Thanks for this, Evan. I appreciate the combination of the article along with your comments. It’s quite the full time job, correcting misconceptions and keeping the dialogue productive… Thanks for your level head.

  2. So, let me get this straight. Judging from what I’ve read, according to the hard-core marathon swimmers, this journey will always be classified as an assisted swim, because the swimmers won’t be permitted to protect themselves from box jellyfish stings without receiving some “assistance” from the crew. Oops! He touched her hand when he handed her the mask. ASSISTED SWIM! I think this has more to do with Diana’s reputation in the community than accomplishing something her critics cannot.

    1. Can’t believe I didn’t see this back then, but in your example Jim, being handed a mask to use during a marathon swim is in and of itself an example of assisted! No masks allowed!

  3. It’s an “assisted swim”, perhaps, but no less remarkable. It is an inspiring achievement, jellyfish suit, favorable current and all.

  4. I am amazed at the pompous tone of your groups questioning, as if gods qualified to give and take life.

    This lady has done more for your ‘sport’ than anyone in the last 50 years. You’d be a lot smarter to embrace, than challenge with ‘opinions’, which on the surface are incredibly biased.

    You should verify with an open mind and not with the tones of arrogance that permeate your spokesperson’s every breath.

    I so disappointed and feel your tone leaves a bad taste and has set back the legitimacy and credibility of your group at a time when you should be celebrating. Too bad. You’re missing the boat.

    1. Andy, thanks for your comment. I’m sure you’ll agree that in any sport, it is reasonable to ask for verification of world record claims. Typically this verification is built into the swim attempt, through independent observation, transparency of rules, availability of logs and other documentation. In this case, there was none of the above. We are pleased that after the community’s questions became national news, Diana’s team agreed to release their logs.

      Congratulations to Diana on an amazing swim.

    2. Should baseball celebrate Barry Bonds? He did a lot for the sport and generated tons of media. I’m sure he even inspired the next generation to pick up a bat. His performance was ASSISTED. The league rules do not allow the use of PEDs. Diana Nyad used a streamer, stinger suit, mask, unofficial observers, and has a record of touching and even getting onto the boat. Her performance was ASSISTED. Marathon swimmers adhere to a certain set of rules just as the MLB does. Barry Bonds played by his own rules and Diana Nyad swims by her own rules. I think Bonds’ performance was impressive even with aids. I think Diana Nyad’s performance was impressive even with aids.

      A baseball purist would not celebrate Barry bonds, and some marathon swimmers won’t celebrate Diana Nyad. At some point all rules are arbitrary, but organizations and individuals set a certain bar to follow.

      Personally, as long as she calls it an assisted swim for using streamers, stinger suit, mask, etc – I am fine with it and would celebrate the achievement. The lack of official observer is a deal breaker however. How would you feel if a high school football team claimed to beat the SF 49ers, but adjusted the rules and played the game in front of 30 fans all from the high school? Would you believe the result? All I’m saying is that a well coached high school football team probably has a better chance of taming the 49ers that a 64 year old, 1.5 mph average swimmer has a chance of taming the Florida Straits.

      1. And just for the record, I do think she completed the swim and defied those amazing odds. I just wish she had an accredited observer so we don’t have to speculate and rely on past precedences.

      2. Thanks, Sully. The last part of your comment, with the football analogy, is frankly why this swim doesn’t pass the sniff test to almost every experienced marathon swimmer in the world.

  5. Look, Nyad attempted this swim several times, and so did that other person. So there was an opportunity for some oversight committee to specifically say what the cans and cants were for that swim. From what I’ve seen there are no such rules, only the “English Chanel Rules.” So if all there is are a bunch of skeptics applying subjective conspiratorial doubts from their comfortable desk chairs then it all sounds like sour grapes.

    1. A member of the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame offered Diana the opportunity to start a sanctioning organization for swimming the Florida Straits. She did not take him up on that offer.

  6. Glad to see this sport is growing and the rules are being clarified. Please continue with all the diplomacy you can muster.

    While you are at it feel free to come and swim in any or all of The Great Lakes (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior).

    Marathon swimming is awesome!

  7. Jim,
    The scenario you describe (“Oops! He touched her hand when he handed her the mask…”) is considered an inadvertent touch, much like a marathon swimmer accidentally hitting an escorting kayak. Of course, the mask you describe would make the swim assisted.

    Thanks for blogging the article with your comments. I’ve linked it in my latest blog post.


  8. Marathon Swimming Community

    Why would you ask someone to use rules for an 18.2nm swim to swim a 110 nm swim. It does not even make sense. The type of suit she put on to protect her from the jelly fish(There are Many More Jelly Fish off of the Florida Keys than there are in the English Channel), actually made the swim harder to do. Her accomplishment has not only done more for the sport but also has motivated people to get off the couch. It seem like there are a lot of Jealous Swimmers out there. Nyad’s Swim should be the standard for your sport. Give the Lady Her due!!!!

    1. LDS, I know this is old, but I must comment.

      For the record: There are people that do THREE WAY crossings of the English Channel, taking almost the same number of hours as DN’s assisted Cuba-FL swim, and they still followed EC rules.

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