‘Nyad,’ the biopic about Diana Nyad’s historic Cuba-to-Florida swim at age 64, premiered last weekend at the Telluride Film Festival ahead of its Nov. 3 release on Netflix. Catch a first glimpse of the film here featuring four-time Oscar nominee Annette Bening as Nyad and Oscar winner Jodie Foster as her coach, Bonnie Stoll:
But as Oscar hype builds for the star-studded cast, excitement for the film has been met by a wave of scrutiny from the open water swimming community. SwimSwam went in depth into why the 110-mile, 53-hour journey has remained such a major point of contention a decade later, but neither Nyad nor directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (2018’s Free Solo) responded to requests for comment earlier this year. Now as part of the ‘Nyad’ press tour hitting the LA Times, Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, and other media outlets, the trio is speaking publicly in defense of the film.
“Our film is not about a record,” Varsarhelyi told the LA Times. “Our film is not about how many times someone was touched. It’s about how a woman woke up at 60 and realized she wasn’t finished, even though the world may be finished with her.”
Chin said they looked into some of the criticisms and “found that they weren’t valid.”
“When you look at an athlete pushing the boundaries of their sport, there are armchair critics, naysayers, and skeptics,” Chin said. “That’s just part of the deal. But there’s no question that she swam 110 miles.”
Chin and Vasarhelyi said they did their “research” and “due diligence” with this project, pointing out that Nyad “acknowledges her shortcomings.” The swimmer-turned-journalist-turned-motivational speaker has a history of exaggerating her past accomplishments, including claiming that she was the first woman to circle Manhattan, won a national title at age 16, broke a world record in the 100-meter backstroke later that summer, and competed at the Olympic Trials — none of which appear to be true.
“Am I embarrassed to have inflated my own record when my record is pretty good on its own? Yes, it makes me cringe,” Nyad said. “Some of those statements are 45 years old — there wasn’t even an internet then. But I’m human and I like to think that I’ve lived a life that now makes me proud of who I am.”
Last year, the World Open Water Swimming Association (WOWSA) completed a comprehensive analysis that found no evidence of cheating, but it maintained that Nyad broke rules required to qualify for an “unassisted” crossing. Two weeks ago, WOWSA said that Nyad refused to accept offers for an “assisted” ratification review and that Guinness World Records no longer recognizes Nyad’s swim as record-breaking. She’s the third person ever to cross the Florida Straits from Cuba to Florida after Walter Poenisch in 1978 and Susie Maroney in 1997, but still the first to do so without a shark cage.
Last week, however, Nyad told the LA Times that she would now accept an “assisted” ratification after a decade of seeking “unassisted” status.
“We didn’t want an asterisk next to the swim,” Nyad said. “But if anybody wants to ratify it now and stamp it assisted, we can accept it. Because we did it fair and square, no help in any way.”
Vasarhelyi said that “you see it all in the film,” crediting Nyad for not trying to control the portrayal of her “complicated” character. In one scene, for example, Foster’s Stoll tells Nyad that she has “a superiority complex.”
“I’m just a little tired of the internet trying to tear down a woman who’s complicated and outspoken and owns who she is,” Vasarhelyi told Vanity Fair. “We went to great lengths in the film to be able to live up to that. She is a complicated person who has a complicated life.
“We don’t say, ‘It’s based on a true story,’ we don’t say, ‘It is a true story’ — but it is a true story,” she added. “It’s about this idea of truth.”
The Netflix trailer teases the film as an “extraordinary true story” despite WOWSA advising Netflix “to include a disclaimer emphasizing the film’s dramatized nature.”
Bening trained with former U.S. Olympic swimmer Rada Owen for about a year to prepare for her role as Nyad and quickly fell in love with the water.
“I began to just completely fall in love with it because of how it affects your central nervous system and your brain — and that, for me, that’s why it gets addictive,” said Bening, 65. “You reach a state where the mind stops chattering or criticizing or planning. And suddenly everything quiets down.
“I will definitely keep swimming,” Bening added. “It keeps me calm.”