Open Water Swimmers Have Mixed Feelings About New ‘Nyad’ Biopic Coming to Netflix

by Riley Overend 57

May 24th, 2023 News, Open Water

A decade after becoming the first person to complete the 110-mile swim from Cuba to Florida without the protection of a shark cage at age 64, Diana Nyad’s improbable story will be the subject of a new Netflix movie expected to arrive later this year.

Filming for Nyad took place in the Dominican Republic featuring a stacked cast. Four-time Oscar nominee Annette Bening (American Beauty) will star as Nyad while Oscar winner Jodie Foster (Taxi Driver, Silence of the Lambs) will play her coach, Bonnie Stoll. Welsh actor Rhys Ifans (House of the Dragon) portrays their chief navigator, John Bartlett.

It will be the first scripted feature directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, the Oscar-winning team behind Free Solo (2018).

However, lingering questions about how exactly Nyad accomplished her feat have conjured mixed feelings about the upcoming biopic among the marathon swimming community.

It didn’t take long for skeptics to surface after Nyad successfully crossed the Straits of Florida on her fifth attempt in 2013, which took nearly 53 hours. They pointed out how the swim was not continuously filmed or monitored by independent news media, which were present on past attempts, and how the two independent observers knew Nyad and lacked experience in the field. They also noted that GPS data showed her speed spiking in the middle of her swim, fueling speculation that she may have had assistance from her support boat. And they remembered a prior attempt in 2012 attempt where she rested on her support boat amid poor weather before returning to the water, but delayed releasing that information to the public.

Nyad didn’t follow the English Channel rules, which prohibit touching by crew members in the boat or wearing a stinger suit that protected her from poisonous box jellyfish. However, an extensive WOWSA-commissioned review last year found that “touching was limited to applying sting stopper and assisting putting on the stinger suit… No touching of the vessel, no flotation or forward momentum in any of the above cases.”

So, 10 years later, no hard evidence has emerged to suggest that she cheated. But without definitive proof of the contrary, some within the sport still accuse her of being a fraud. Others believe she’s a victim of intense scrutiny that is only amplified by ageism, sexism, and homophobia. Wherever the truth lies, it’s difficult to deny that there’s a pattern of discrepancies related to Nyad’s past accomplishments.

In 1975, Nyad swam 28 miles around the island of Manhattan, finishing in under eight hours to take down a 45-year-old overall record. Three years later, Nyad talked about the first woman to have completed the swim back in 1916, Ida Elionsky, in her 1978 memoir, Other Shores. A few years later, though, she began calling herself the first woman to circle Manhattan.

When Nyad was reportedly fact-checked on her Manhattan claim by CNN, one of her sponsors, she wrote in a now-deleted blog post that “I hereby relinquish my title as the first woman.” The next year, though, she was back to claiming the title during a YouTube documentary and repeated the falsity in her 2015 book, Find a Way, which inspired the big-screen adaptation.

It’s not the only time that Nyad has exaggerated her achievements. The swimmer-turned-journalist-turned-motivational speaker has previously claimed to have won a national title at age 16, broken a world record in the 100-meter backstroke later that summer, and competed at Olympic Trials — none of which appear to be true.

World Open Water Swimming Association (WOWSA) founder Steven Munatones has long defended Nyad against her detractors. Despite an independent investigation finding that Nyad’s Cuba swim was never ratified as a record by any official swimming governing body, Munatones edited her Openwaterpedia entry in 2019 to claim it had been ratified.

After a blogger accused Munatones of vandalizing thousands of pages to bolster Nyad’s legacy, WOWSA launched an investigation in March. WOWSA has yet to reveal its findings, but it announced “a period of restructuring” last week with Munatones leaving the organization. The press release did note that a new advisory board would “monitor and address concerns around the promotion of false information or questionable practices related to the sport, particularly through the social media and other online channels.”

Loren King, a marathon swimmer and associate professor of political science at Wilfrid Laurier University, expressed his disappointment in the directors of Nyad for the choice of their subject.

“For Free Solo, (Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi) chose a subject, Alex Honnold, who supports his community of fellow climbers and is deeply committed to the ethics of their craft,” King said. “That describes Chin as well. Climbing and marathon swimming share a common ethic. We look after each other, and we’re honest and transparent about how we do a route. That’s why the choice of Nyad for a biopic is so disappointing. I guess the problem is that Chin knows the climbing world intimately, but not the swimming world. I wish he’d talked to some of us about a biopic in our sport.

“There are so many extraordinary and talented marathon and adventure swimmers out there,” he added. “Several of them — most obviously, Sarah Thomas and Lynne Cox — have stories that would make compelling documentary subjects. Nyad, in contrast, talks a great game (typically about herself), and she has done some solid marathon swims in the past (Lake Ontario, round Manhattan, but never the English Channel). She has also repeatedly misrepresented her own accomplishments, and ignored or outright denigrated their accomplishments.”

Others within the sport are looking forward to the film. Jaimie Monahan, a world record holder in ice, winter, and ultramarathon swimming, thinks that Nyad’s story is inspirational even if she didn’t follow traditional guidelines. She also believes the criticism of Nyad is snowballing out of control.

“This is a 64-year-old, 10 years ago, queer woman who basically did this amazing swim that no one had been able to do,” Monahan said. “And just also uniting two countries that have so many shared roots but also such a complicated history. Just logistically, it’s incredible, let alone the swimming part of it — swimming 100 miles in open water.

“I’m super aware of the criticism of Diana Nyad,” she continued. “I do think she’s a big talker. I do think she’s made some factual mistakes and misstatements. They have photos of her being touched by her crew for medical reasons, or she wore a stinger suit — things like that. But I think they’ve used that to kind of create this idea that she just slept on a boat and rode the jet stream on the boat and didn’t swim the distance. I think that’s ridiculous. There were a lot of people involved, and people would know if it was something as large as that.

“To be really frank, I think a lot of it is that we’re in a really small sport,” Monahan added. “We should be lifting each other up, not pulling people down. I think some people are upset, like ‘Oh, I’ve swam even more than that, I should have a movie.” A lot of it is kind of ageism, even misogyny, I think even homophobia comes into play. They try to be very factual in what they’re attacking, but I think that it’s, ‘This 64-year-old woman can’t do it.’ It’s just a little jealousy and a lot of different factors.”

Nyad, Munatones, and Chin were contacted for comment last week, but they have yet to respond.

UPDATE: WOWSA responded to this story on Friday in a post on its website. “We remain optimistic as we recognize this is an opportunity to refocus our efforts to prevent similar issues in the future,” the organization said. “By embracing this perspective, we can collectively shift our attention towards fostering meaningful dialogue and progress.”

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1 day ago

Considering that she was attempting to get this ratified, was she drug tested?

Daniel Slosberg
Reply to  GTS
1 day ago

I would guess that only the established open-water swimming governing organizations that oversee particular bodies of water perform drug tests. There was no such organization for Nyad’s crossing. Having said that, I’m unaware of any accusations of drug use.

Reply to  Daniel Slosberg
9 hours ago

Mr. Slosberg: Here’s where I was going with that. On one of her previous attempts, she was reportedly given prednisone after a jellyfish sting. She reportedly continued to swim thereafter. As you are probably well aware, that violates every rule imaginable, as prednisone is a steroid.

Swimmers have been lit up by jellyfish stings in multiple bodies of water around the planet, particularly the North Channel, which is one of the most difficult swims of all. If a steroid like that is given, the swimmer is automatically disqualified.

With all the questions about the veracity of some of her swims, transparency from myriad angles is of the utmost importance.

1 day ago

We shouldn’t reduce people to only one part of who they are. We can recognize a whole person, acknowledging their good and bad pieces, simultaneously. In the same way that Thomas Jefferson was both an undeniably important contributor to the formation of the United states AND a slave owning rapist…in the same way that Elvis Presley was perhaps one of the greatest entertainers of all time AND a pedophile…in the same way that Joe Paterno was a “great” college footbal coach AND an enabler of sexual abuse against his athletes…in the same way some Nobel Prize winners are also war criminals, Diana Nyad is a good swimmer with an admirable enthusiastic stage presence AND a narcissist liar with a hero… Read more »

Fraser Thorpe
1 day ago

The character that’s being described in the comments here and the marathon swimming community at large actually sounds like a compelling character for a film – sadly it sounds like the film will be the PR version she’s created.

Daniel Slosberg
Reply to  Fraser Thorpe
1 day ago

You’re absolutely right — the real Diana Nyad is fascinating. The one she pretends to be and wrote about in her memoir, not so much.

1 day ago

Chloe. Penny. Sarah. Ali. How about we start with those record-breaking swimmers? There’s as much impartial evidence of Nyad’s swim as there is of my 42.00 100 breast. (LCM)

The White Whale
2 days ago

“To be really frank, I think a lot of it is that we’re in a really small sport,” Monahan added. “We should be lifting each other up, not pulling people down.”

IMO, we should be lifting up those who deserve to be. People who lie about their achievements are not in that category.

The worm
2 days ago

Embarrassing fumble here. If they were looking for a swimming “Honnold” Lynn Cox is it. She is easily one of the greatest open water swimmers of all time with 10x the accolades and stories that dwarf Nyad’s (and without the controversy). She was a purist in the way she did her swims with no wetsuit while completing some of the hardest and coldest swims of all time. Read about her if you have a minute…

George Taylor
2 days ago

Nyad, the Lance Armstrong of swimming.

Reply to  George Taylor
1 day ago

To be fair, she didn’t cheat and swindle hundreds of millions of dollars through doping and then threaten people that found out the truth.

Charles Slosberg
Reply to  Sub13
1 day ago

She did cheat. She made “millions” by writing books and going on speaking about her swims. These books were based on the false premise that she actually accomplished these endeavors. In essence she had swindled millions of dollars. This movie may be the biggest swindle of all.

Reply to  Charles Slosberg
1 day ago

Not to mention she received jobs (and pay) based on her “achievements”

2 days ago

In November 2015 Steven Munatones sent me the five primary documents of Ms. Nyad’s claim to have swam from Cuba to the United States and requested that I review them.  

Spent nearly two months reviewing the documents and concluded that there is no possible way that she completed the swim – in any form, regardless of rules.

It was only later that I learned of her background of fabrication.  

She did not complete the swim. There is no evidence that she completed the swim. 

If any logical and unbiased person were to take the time to simply read the combined Observer Reports, they would come to the same conclusion.  

Happy to share everything I have with swimswam if there is an… Read more »

Reply to  Anthony
16 hours ago

I am very interested to hear your thoughts and opinions for a piece I am doing. What would be a good way to reach you?

About Riley Overend

Riley is an associate editor interested in the stories taking place outside of the pool just as much as the drama between the lane lines. A 2019 graduate of Boston College, he arrived at SwimSwam in April of 2022 after three years as a sports reporter and sports editor at newspapers …

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