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Long distance swimmer Diana Nyad struggles to walk ashore in Key West, Florida.

Long distance swimmer Diana Nyad struggles to walk ashore in Key West, Fla. Monday, Sept 2, 2013 after swimming from Cuba.

Photograph by J. Pat Carter, AP

Suzanne Sataline

for National Geographic

Published September 5, 2013

Diana Nyad has captured the public's imagination with her epic swim from Cuba to Florida—but some of her fellow long-distance swimmers are skeptical.

The online Marathon Swimmers Forum and social media have been ablaze this week with the comments of swimmers questioning one of the sport's seemingly greatest feats: Nyad's claim to be the first person to swim the entire 110 miles, unaided, from Havana to Key West.

Open-water marathon swimming was born in August 1875, when British shipping captain Matthew Webb plunged into the English Channel at Dover and started breaststroking eastward. He pawed through thickets of jellyfish and swirling currents, and after 21 hours and 45 minutes, he landed at Calais, France. He accomplished what many had thought impossible, becoming the first man to power himself unaided across the busy shipping lane.

English Channel Rules

Webb's feat, replicated by more than 1,000 people since, is honored today by a set of standards—referred to simply as "English Channel rules"—that have come to govern most swims of ten miles or more in the small and quirky sport.

According to these rules, swimmers should not wear or use anything that will aid their speed, buoyancy, heat retention, or endurance. That means no wetsuits, no fins, no sleeves. Swim caps can be latex or silicone, but not neoprene, which boosts warmth.

Above all, swimmers must have no physical contact with their boat or any person, other than moments when food and drink is shared. Clinging to a boat means automatic disqualification.

Channel purists have dismissed Nyad's attire—she wore a protective suit to ward off jellyfish stings. Others booed the streamer, attached to a boat, that she followed. Many were turned off by the lack of an outside, unbiased observer.

Under the English Channel rules, swimmers who want to be recognized for a successful crossing must have onboard an independent observer who marks their progress and records the course. (Most channel swimming associations require this.) Those notes create a record that not only provides proof of a swimmer's success, but also guides other swimmers on the best routes and the best tides, so that they too may cross successfully.

"Because it's a solitary sport and not watched live by many people, it's important to record notes and take down documentation so when people ask the question, 'did you actually do this,' you have evidence,'' said Evan Morrison, an accomplished channel swimmer from San Francisco and creator of the Marathon Swimmers Forum.

Demand for Data

Critics have knocked Nyad for withholding a detailed account of each of her nearly 53 hours in the ocean, information that would include her speed, the number of strokes, her feeding schedule, and her Global Positioning System coordinates—standard data recorded by observers that would bolster her claim.

"If she's accomplished what she's claiming to accomplish … I wonder why she wouldn't take the extra steps to make sure people believe it was actually true," Morrison said.

The lack of information is particularly irksome to some swimmers because Nyad's team has produced a steady stream of pictures and blog posts for publicity, but not the specifics that her fellow sportsmen crave. "I'm skeptical if she swam every stroke of that 110 miles,'' said Mo Siegel of Piermont, New York, who just completed a 20-mile crossing of Cape Cod Bay. "I'd love to be proved wrong."

Several swimmers point out a curious 7.5-hour stretch when it appears that Nyad did not eat or drink. Her crew reported that she was cold and didn't want to stop. Some swimmers said it's doubtful that after swimming 38 hours, Nyad could endure more than 7 without refueling. "Is it possible she rested on the boat and she's not telling us?" Morrison said.

(Related: "Diana Nyad Record: How Does the Body Endure Long Swims?")

Still more have questioned the speed of the 64-year-old Nyad, who has told interviewers in the past that her swimming speed is less than two miles an hour. There are hours on Nyad's blog culled by Morrison that she's doing just that, toddling along at 1.5 miles per hour. But for more than nine hours on September 1, Nyad's team reported that she traveled more than three miles an hour—at one point, almost four.

"If she swam three miles averaging three miles per hour, I'd like to see a tide chart that shows that it's possible,'' said David Barra, a New York state swimmer and creator of the 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim.

"I'm not saying it's impossible. We've all seen strong currents rip swimmers places quickly, but I didn't see it in the satellite images or the real-time flow charts." Barra said the boat pilot should share his log.

Nyad's team is not commenting, her public relations firm said.

Why It Matters

On the Marathon Swimmers Forum, Andrew Malinak, a Seattle long-distance swimmer, suggested that the group recalculate Nyad's route and speed and see if they could "get any, some, all, or none of her numbers to work out … At the end we'll either have some solid evidence with which to declare fraud, or we'll have the inner workings of an amazing feat of navigation." Using Google Earth and some assumptions, he decided that "her feat seems plausible based on some basic math."

That's ultimately the goal, the swimmers say. They're not trying to discredit Nyad, but to improve their sport and glean the best way to conquer the water. After all, the Florida Strait is a passage that, like the English Channel, was once believed to be uncrossable.

"For those of us who live by this, breathe by it, [and] study currents [to] try to model swims [by] calculating their speed, their tides, and the current and wind direction, this is a big deal,'' Barra said. "This information matters, and not only do we want to know for the purpose of recognizing this swim, we want to know for the purpose of other people who want to make an attempt at this swim, who want to repeat this."

(Also see "Greatest Swims: Five Epic Swims in the Wake of Nyad's Feat.")

29 comments
Sophia Philo
Sophia Philo

Comparing the 25mi & 95km swims is exactly like comparing:
- 26.2 mi  normal' marathon - only hydration allowed.
- 150 mi  ultramarathon - eat, sleep, medic, etc, ...all permitted.

They are completely different races/swims and for medical reasons (human physiological needs) they are not able to have the same rules.

Fl Ch has immense amts of deadly, predatory, paralyzing, carnivorous marine life. Eng Ch has little/none... it's too narrow, too shallow, and has high vessel traffic.

Anyone who applies Eng channel ('marathon') "rules" to Fl channel ('ultramrathon') "rules" is severely apathetic, intentionally ignorant, and , thus, just a stupid bully & VERY JEALOUS twit.

 GPS & film video, and scientific fact proved all correct.  

 Stop showing your immature, retarded, envious traits and just be a good child and say something nice (or nothing at all).


Esap Anian
Esap Anian

The chorale of rah rahs for Nyad is strong. The comparison with Lance Armstrong is appropriate. Lance "bent" the rules for personal gain. Nyad has appropriated the long distance swim to advance her own hubris. Her caustic comments against "traitors" who helped another swimmer attempt the same crossing in June revealed as much. Altering more and ever more the conditions under which the crossing is undertaken shows the extent she is pushing her own "Armstrong Agenda." Refusing to reveal basic information about the crossing - was she sponsored by the closed mouth Communist regime in Cuba? - raises immediate red flags on transparency.  What of her prior failed attempt when, only much later after the event, was it revealed she spent hours inside the lead boat? How can this person and this team be trusted? The rah rahs will wrap themselves in "great accomplishments of women of a certain age." Let them toss garlands and praise at Nyad. For the rest of us who value Truth over Pomp, we'll watch the parade from afar and await the slow trickle of facts that acrue and eventually define history. (It took a while for Armstrong's Kingdom to crumble.)  

Esap Anian
Esap Anian

Lots of rah rahs here. As there were for Lance Armstrong. Lance "bent" the rules. Nyad is certainly bending the long distance swimming rules with the streamer off the back of the boat among many other oddities. Then there was that past attempt when she she refuge in the boat for how many hours, then took back to the water. She and her team didn't admit to this till much later after that failed attempt. The comparison to Armstrong is very much appropriate. So for today, let those who will toss flowers and praise upon the conquering hero Nyad. For the rest of us who know better, we'll let the slow trickle of facts define the eventual truth of this media and hubris-driven event. (Took a while before Lance's Fall from Grace.)

Mark Leavitt
Mark Leavitt

Anybody who goes back in the water again after being hit by a box jellyfish in 2011, the most dangerous invertebrate in the world that can kill you is all right in my book.  And, the Portuguese man of war (there no joke either, I been hit by one that put me in the ER for 1/2 day) and sharks, well she's crazy-- but I like her.  Congrats !!

James M.
James M.

If this feat was truly accomplished, then the evidence would be incontrovertible. I will not believe the word of someone who cannot be forthright and truthful.

Connie Pokorny
Connie Pokorny

this is just incredibly poorly researched.  She introduced her independent observers during her press conference, and said that it would take a few weeks for that all to be proven with the appopriate authorities, etc. 

Max Tanner
Max Tanner

she completed it, everyone saying that she didn't is just jealous because they cant do this

Bridgette Rains
Bridgette Rains

there will always be nay sayers!!! just the fact that she attempted is awesome to me!!!

Gwendolyn Mugliston
Gwendolyn Mugliston

Data, data, data.  That is exactly why winners exist and records are what the winners have to beat. No data, no record. 

Freya Williamson
Freya Williamson

Couldn't agree more myself! To both Doug M and Bob, well said. Most importantly to Diana Nyad, what an amazing feat to accomplish, congrats!

Doug M.
Doug M.

Bob has it right: "Setting rules on a never-been-done-before is completely asinine...Until someone can come along and prove that it can be done more purely, then it's "Hillary's Rules". And until someone can do it better than Nyad, then it's Nyad's rules for the known limit of what's possible." Amen, Bob.  There are no "rules" decreed by others worth a hill of beans consideration when attempting something that's never been done before at the limits of human endurance and capability.

But what's more bothersome is this self-righteous and cynical attitude among some of these posters. Why doesn't someone come out and directly say what the real implication is in these petty objections? "She cheated" is what it boils down to, what several are insinuating but no one has the courage to speak out loud. And no wonder - it makes the accusers look very small. Got any evidence?

Did Nyad cheat when she swam around Manhattan? When she swam from Bimini to Florida? On any of her previous four attempts to swim the Florida Strait?  We know the answers to those questions, and we know integrity when we see it. Nothing of her style was an issue or objectionable before...why all of a sudden now? Quite a few levelers instead of builders in the long distance swim community, apparently. Always easier, and cheaper, to tear down what you haven't achieved instead of striving to elevate oneself to that higher plane. But it doesn't take away from her accomplishment, and it doesn't paint the objectors in a very good light.

Congratualations, Diana, on a magnificient accomplishment and the achievement of a lifelong dream. 

bob wright
bob wright

Oh, well, I'm good with anyone who swims from Cuba to Florida criticising her. However they do it. Hop in the water, dog-paddle across, then shoot your mouth off. You've earned it. If you're so keen on doing it without a flag to follow or protection from stings, do it yourself, and then you'll be a big hero, instead of whatever you are. 

Matt Langford
Matt Langford

The rules about aids are pedantic, like denying someone climbed Everest because they used bottled oxygen or fixed ropes or heat-retaining clothing.  You earn the right to scoff at someone else's aids AFTER you finish the task foregoing their use.

Much of the rest appears to be swimmers trying to compete against someone who was competing with herself.  Some people climb the mountain because it is there; some people climb it because others have.

Lewis L
Lewis L

Obviously this was anything but easy.  That said, I am not a long distance swimmer and I doubt many commenting here are.  So when the actual competitors of the sport say she didn't follow the rules or at the very least, provide data to back up her feat, I am inclined to side with them.

Rizaldy Nolasco
Rizaldy Nolasco

Since she started it, how else could we duplicate her feat if none of the navigational, nutritional and physiological data would ever be presented? Her efforts are worth emulating, just like scaling the Everest. And so perhaps, bringing these data for the fore won't hurt.

Bill Bessonette
Bill Bessonette

Sour grapes from posers!  Inevitable.  Diana is a champion.

David McGuire
David McGuire

Lets hope Diana did it after so many efforts. At 64 she is still a great swimmer. What is proved is she didnt need a shark cage. Maybe she even caught a ride for awhile from an endangered hammerhead shark.

She can join us in San Francisco for our swim for sharks with Shark Stewards!

Ted Erikson
Ted Erikson

Marathon swimmers desire critical information on any successful swim in order to assess it and consider whether they may try to beat it.   If in fact, Ms. Nyad spent ~53 hours in the water, proceeded ~100 miles, by swimming, even if aided by tides, at age 64 it is remarkable. 

But this information should not come from only public relation sources.  I must await reports of those who were in charge of navigation (captain), feeding (foods employed and how administered), handling (face mask, etc..) Her past records in Cuba,  Channel, and LaTuque swimming have left some things to be desired.  

Patricia Sener
Patricia Sener

Thanks for giving voice to what many in the open water swim community have been quietly (or not so quietly) questioning. No one wants to take away from a tremendous accomplishment--Nyad did some epic swimming.  But she did not complete a marathon from Cuba to Florida.  You can't make up the rules as you go along, no matter how inspirational your message is or how much media attention you've brought to the sport.   The line must be drawn somewhere, and the marathon community knows exactly where that line is--English Channel rules. She clearly broke nearly every one to be considered a true marathon swim (holding onto the boat, swimming in stages, using a streamer, wearing a sting suit and mask and possibly getting on the boat/having her crew put it on for her, possibly having the boat advance her in the water?).  And yes, much of this is on film.   Diana, I was really hoping you'd do this this clean.  I was rooting for you.  Now I feel the same way as I do towards Lance Armstrong--both great athletes that bent the rules for personal glory and tried to hide the details of their transgressions. 

 

Sherryl Brown
Sherryl Brown

I have followed Diana Nyad's almost incomprehensible swim to Key West from Florida last week, and I find it disturbing that her fellow swimming athletes would question the integrity of the swim, suggesting that she might have "cheated" by bending the rules set up in the 19th Century.  There was constant observation during the swim;  it was filmed almost non stop; I am sure that Diana Nyad will counter these questions with answers that satisfy everyone concerned.  Did it ever occur to her critics that she might not have had time to get a "Channel" official on board once she decided to go.  The currents were favorable, but there was also wind and other harsh conditions to overcome.   I am awed.

Cat Severson
Cat Severson

What is a champion?

A champion (from the late Latin campio) is the victor in a challenge, contest or competition.

You have a champion right  there, Diana Nyad.  She saw a challenge and from the age of 28 tried 5 times to conquer this challenge. 

She tried and learned, and invested years of time and research into learning how to adapt a swimming mask to avoid the sometimes fatal box jellyfish stings.

She swam without a shark cage, even at night.  She taught her body to overcome the effects of seasickness, saltwater, and just plain bonecrushing fatigue. 

What I find strongest about Diana Nyad is her mind.  Like many ultramarathoners, she is able to dissociate her mind from the pain and complaints coming from her body.  She also had the mental toughness to survive four previous attempts, and say to herself, "I can do this.  I know I can."

Diana Nyad is a champion and one of the great ultramarathon swimmers of our generation.  I applaud her accomplishment and hope her determination inspires a generation of new swimmers.


Tey Ree
Tey Ree

@Sophia Philo The point is that she is not telling us what she did. Not that this wasn't an amazing feat. But that we have no idea how amazing because they did not collect or share any data. To me, Its ok if she did not use pure English Channel rules. But she is letting people believe she followed most of them. If she is just transparent with the data then we can know how this is to be accomplished. These marathon swimmers thrive on being the first and then having others repeating the swims. Without sharing data, we can not know how it is to be done.

matt s.
matt s.

So now the AP has written a much better reported story. The AP journalist actually contacted members of Nyad's team. Imagine that. A reporter talking to the team that is being accused of dishonesty so they can respond to criticism. Guess what? They weren't using English Channel rules. So why is NatGeo accusing them of cheating on rules that don't apply?

More importantly, why are you guys using this writer? You deserve better. National Geographic deserves better. Your readers deserve better. NatGeo's honorable staffers past and present deserve better. 

Now this same reporter has updated the story -- but not for NatGeo -- for the New York Times -- still no update to this story on NatGeo. 

And she's quoting Nyad as if she interviewed her when she's actually copying and pasting quotes from what Nyad has written on Facebook. Who is being deceptive and nontransparent here?

Who's more dishonest? A reporter who fakes controversy, doesn't bother to contact the accused, and then gets paid for it OR a 64-year-old swimmer who finally realized a lifelong goal of swimming from Cuba to Florida. 

Ridiculous. Please give us better reporting in the future.

matt s.
matt s.

@Connie Pokorny Completely agree! Lousy reporting, irresponsible editorial oversight, or lack thereof. Should not have been published.

bob wright
bob wright

Well, no, but seriously, it's cool that Reinhold Messner ran up and down Everest in his gym shorts, yodeling, but that doesn't mean that Hillary "didn't really do it".  Or that Susie Maroney "didn't really do it" because she used a shark cage. Messner and Nyad did it better, but now perhaps someone will do it stark naked, dragging a dead marlin behind him to bait sharks and then fighting them off with an amalgam of exotic fighting styles acquired in a montage. 

Obviously, any endurance feat is most pure when it is unaided. The ultimate feat is always to embark on the challenge as if alone. Walk into the water, and swim across, same as swimming across the lake at the cottage. 

Why is it "ok" to have a boat alongside toting food and water and telling you where to go, but only if you don't touch the boat when you go over to the floating restaurant? What is ritually pure about that? Why do you have to swim, but not navigate?

The English Channel Rules set a kind of standard for "what really counts" in events repeated so often that they become a competition. How can you compete with someone else's Channel time if he wore flippers? A standard is adopted. 

Those standards set the idea of what "swimming the Channel" means. It's a continuous event, about non-aided swimming, with some huge exceptions - food, water, and navigation - to make it possible at all. But ultimately by setting conditions which make it possible to swim the channel, you say that the only swims that count are the ones physiologically similar to swimming the English Channel. 

Setting rules on a never-been-done-before is completely asinine. There is no competition for Nyad, any more than there was for Matthew Webb, or for Edmund Hillary. First one up makes the rules. Bottled oxygen and massive staged support is ok if it's never been done before. Until someone can come along and prove that it can be done more purely, then it's "Hillary's Rules". And until someone can do it better than Nyad, then it's Nyad's rules for the known limit of what's possible. Sting protection is in the rules, until you can prove  otherwise by an actual demonstration. 

As for the implications that she crawled aboard the boat and had a little snooze while it puttered along at 4mph, that's just nasty. 

Shane C.
Shane C.

@Patricia Sener I agree with everything you said, but I would not compare her with Lance Armstrong. You quoted that much of this is on camera, Lance Armstrong did not put his actions on camera. He deliberately did his best to conceal what he did. She is a brave woman but rules are rules and they should be adhered to.

Ajit Dongre
Ajit Dongre

@Cat Severson 

Diana, at 64, did something truly remarkable and inspirational.  But I'm with the marathon swimming enthusiasts in wanting to separate apples from oranges.  If she didn't do it by the rules, then she didn't do it by the rules.  And if she didn't do it by the rules, then by hiding how she did it only diminishes her feat and her person.  Fie on her PR machine for that!

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