On Tuesday, super-endurance swimmer Diana Nyad addressed both her critics and supporters in a round-table discussion, moderated by the great Steve Munatones, where she addressed many of the concerns that the open water swimming community had about her swim. Our Mike Lewis, who has been an ”observer” on one of her 5 attempts, was a part of this round table that was picked up by major news outlets like CNN.
This discussion is not entirely settled, however. Nyad accurately and honestly answered all of the questions asked of her. If you are someone who still thinks that her swimming through currents was probably her hopping on a boat, if her being touched by doctors meant her being supported by doctors, or that she was somehow towed by a boat, then you’re flat-out calling her and her team liars. That is everyone’s right to do, but it would also be treating “lack of 100% proof that she didn’t do those things” as “proof that she did do those things,” in which case no amount of answers will satisfy you, with specific regard to this swim.
So, in my mind, we’re past that. You may not be past that personally, but for the sake of continuing the conversation, this post is past that.
Diana Nyad has swum from Cuba to Florida. She has swum from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage. She has swum from Cuba to Florida with a specially-designed, reportedly non-buoyant but still protective, FINIS suit, with a jellyfish mask, with shark divers, with a doctor, and with a strong current, but without climbing into a boat, being supported by anything but the water and her suit, and without being towed.
That full paragraph, taken in entirety, is an appropriate description of what she has done, and so long as it is expressed that way, there’s little to refute exactly that.
Here’s where the situation becomes more complex, though. For someone to have claimed a record, for someone to have claimed victory over an unconquerable feat, they have to follow a set of guidelines. Pool swimmers, to break a World Record, have to do so in an approved, legal suit. This is a guideline that has been set. Baseball players, to break a home run record, have to use a bat of a certain size and weight and made of certain materials. That is a guideline that has been set.
These open water challenges (the English Channel, the Catalina Channel, Cuba to Florida) are more on the new frontier, or the Wild West, of sports, however, which lends even further complexity to the debate, and why the debate is not a “done deal”. Open water swimming is like baseball in the 1880′s. The rules were evolving and changing, but there was a process by which rules became rules.
And that is what both sides of this debate, both Nyad skeptics and Nyad supporters, need to remember. Diana Nyad and her team do not get to unilaterally set the parameters of recognized records. They do, however, get a voice, and given how long she’s been a part of the open water community (40-some years), she gets a strong voice.
These things do matter. How long is this a record for? Is it only a record until someone else comes along and does the same swim, with doctors, with a jellyfish mask, with a FINIS suit, but without shark divers? Which of the multitude of assistances a swimmer can receive determines the difference between “gimmick swim” and “legitimate record-breaking swim”? Which criteria deserves its own record? The community has already decided that Susie Maroney’s 1997 swim of the same distance, but with a shark cage, is of a lesser value than Nyad’s with all of the above mentioned criteria. Where do those restrictions fall next? And make no mistake – there is a lot of money at stake here, so don’t brush aside the need for a clear definition, either.
The easiest (and laziest) rebuttal of the English Channel rules is to simply prey on the “English Channel” part of it and immediately declare them irrelevant. I think Mike Lewis framed them best when he said “this is a much greater distance than the English Channel, and thus needs its own rules,” but to try and say English Channel rules are completely irrelevant is flippant and cheap. They are a basis for great long-distance feats of swimming, and every conversation on open water rules should start there, and evolve as appropriate, just as any ruling by congress or the court system is supposed to begin with the Constitution and its amendments. The English Channel rules are the root of the sport, and the safer way to have this conversation is to start there and move outward to what’s acceptable, because starting with Susie Maroney’s swim, and start to hack things off that negate a swim leaves open the potential for a quagmire.
This conversation has moved beyond “haters” and “giving love” (which, in our eyes, is the easiest way to lose any argument – to say someone who thinks Nyad’s swim was illegitimate is simply an attempt to give a negative connotation to what that person is already saying themselves – that they disagree with what is being presented).
To quote Nyad herself: she did this swim “her way.” Just as Susie Maroney did it “her way”. Those words have rung a bit hollow on some of her fellow open water swimmers, especially when she took very public shots at Chloe McCardell and her team, who tried the swim in June without a jellyfish mask and were done in by a sting. But so long as Nyad, and her supporters, say that they did this swim “her way,” then there can be little to no debate. When she wants a record, though, she has to accept that she has to do things “everyone’s way”.
The conclusion may be just that, that she did. I am not here, in this editorialization, to say whether or not her way was the right way or the wrong way. Until we, as a group, as a community, determine what “the way” is, this is a swim that need live in context. Eventually, it will find its rightful home with permanent residence next to an asterisk, or permanent residence in the record books.