Although the hoopla regarding Diana Nyad’s incredible swim from Cuba to Florida has died down, questions about the validity of her feat continue to surface.
Nyad crossed the 110-mile channel in 53 hours over the Labor Day holiday weekend, becoming the first person to swim across the Florida Strait unaided, and generating headlines around the world.
It was Nyad’s fifth attempt, the other four having ended unsuccessfully, largely as a result of painful jellyfish stings.
But the fact that she wore a special suit to guard against stings has irked purists. She even wore a face mask the first night.
(Under what for generations have been referred to as “English Channel Rules,” open-water distance swimmers should not wear wetsuits or any attire that might provide extra warmth or buoyancy, or aid their speed. For example, swim caps can be worn if they’re made of latex or silicone, but not neoprene, which provides warmth.)
A streamer towed behind the escort boat to help provide direction is another issue critics have discussed on open-water swimming forums.
But mostly, according to a story published Thursday by National Geographic, it was the lack of an outside, unbiased observer that has veteran swimmers skeptical of Nyad’s accomplishment.
Did she, at any time, cling to the boat, which would result in automatic disqualification?
Was Nyad assisted in any other way that could have tarnished her effort? (Escort personnel can provide food and drink, or help apply sunscreen, but the swimmer cannot hold onto the boat.)
Missing, critics contend, is a detailed chronicling of each hour she spent crossing the channel (information that an outside observer would have provided). This would include notes about her speed, when she accepted food and drink, and precise coordinates at any given time.
There were plenty of blog posts and photos offered by Nyad’s team, but apparently not the type of information that would convince all purists.
“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,” Evan Morrison, a veteran swimmer and creator of the Marathon Swimmers Forum, is quoted as saying.
Morrison elaborated: “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.”
Added Mo Siegel, a New York marathon swimmer who swam 20 miles across Cape Cod Bay: “I’m skeptical if she swam every stroke of that 110 miles. I’d love to be proved wrong.”
As National Geographic points out, two issues in particular have really fueled the skepticism.
One involves a 7.5-mile stretch late during the swim, in which Nyad appears not to have accepted food or drink. Her crew explained that this was because she was cold and did not want to stop.
Veteran swimmers have a hard time believing that after 38 hours of swimming Nyad, who is 64, could last seven hours without fueling the body.
“Is it possible she rested on the boat and is not telling us?” Morrison said.
A second issue involves speed. Nyad has said in the past that her speed is generally less than 2 mph, yet Morrison notes that for more than nine hours on Sunday (September 1), it was reported on Nyad’s blog that she had swum at a pace of 3 mph and at one point, almost 4 mph (Nyad completed the swim Monday.)
Currents and tides might make that possible, critics have conceded. “But I didn’t see it in the satellite images or the real-time flow charts,” said David Barra, another New York swimmer.
Andrew Malinak, a Seattle distance swimmer, has suggested that the Marathon Swimmers Forum recalculate Nyad’s route and speed, an other various factors, in an attempt to make the numbers add up in a manner that will please purists, or discredit Nyad.
Said Barra: “This information matters, and not only do we want to know for the purpose of recognizing the 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.”
Nyad’s team did not respond to National Geographic’s request for a comment.