Readings: Diana Nyad, Did She or Didn't She?

Diana Nyad’s triumphant 110-miles in 53 hours swim from Cuba to Key West a week ago has moved from a warm-glow of shared sunshine to what I like to call a “give-it-a-week” possible non-event. A “give-it-a-week” happening is one that gets instant sensational and uncritical attention, but which looks different a week later because of either public reaction or new information we should have known about a week before.

It had all the marks of a summer “feel good” happening. No one had completed that swim before. This was Nyad's fifth try and she was 64 years old. She even suggested the three inspiring lessons we could all take from it: One should never give up; you are never too old to chase your dreams; and this swim—indeed all swimming—was not a singular accomplishment, it was teamwork.

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The correspondents on the Huffington Post that day joined in. “Amazing” a man in his 60s wrote, “this exemplifies the strength of the human spirit.” “This story makes us all feel good.” However there’s a comment signed by 322fans: “NO human being can swim over two miles an hour for 48 hours,” anticipating the groundswell leading to a New York Times report on September 9.

I met Diana briefly about 30 years ago when she was working at the National Public Radio station in Los Angeles. The bright, attractive face I saw then was now swollen and battered by the salt sea. As a not very fast but enthusiastic swimmer I have always held her is some awe, and I had planned to build this piece around the larger issue that a scandalous number of young Americans never learn to swim. Ten people drown every day. Most are young, and black victims outnumber the white 3 to 1. It’s not hard to figure why. Whites have more money and belong to country clubs with pools and swimming programs and they go to schools with pools.

But the broad public uproar, mostly from fellow swimmers, claims that what she said she did was impossible; therefore she did not do it without artificial help. One suggests she was towed part of the way. Others claim the only witnesses were her staff who would cover for her. Another griped that the whole adventure was not recorded on film. A defender told the Times that she was swept along by a long counterclockwise rotating current that no more than once a month moves from the Gulf of Mexico into the Keys. Meanwhile, sadly, swimming, a sport which as far as I know, has a clean record, has joined football, baseball, and hockey, and horse racing with all their blasted brains, doped batters and dead horses. Eventually there will an investigation and the truth will come out and I am reasonably confident that she will be cleared. Meanwhile the gripers have spoiled a summer day.

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