The controversial story behind Diana Nyad’s epic Cuba to Florida swim

New Netflix film tells the incredible story of Diana Nyad’s quest to swim 110 miles over open water without the use of a shark cage

Thursday 09 November 2023 04:31 GMT
Annette Bening as Diana Nyad in ‘NYAD’
Annette Bening as Diana Nyad in ‘NYAD’ (Liz Parkinson/Netflix)

At approximately 2pm on 2 September 2013, Diana Nyad staggered onto the beach in Key West, Florida, about 53 hours after she first stepped into the water in Havana, Cuba. She fell at least twice. Her lips were swollen, her hands were bleached white and deeply wrinkled, and her legs were barely able to support her after the 110 miles she’d swam across shark-infested waters. “It looks like a solitary sport but it’s a team,” she told the astonished crowd of onlookers as she fell into the arms of her coach and best friend, Bonnie Stoll.

Nyad’s controversial achievement, which was not ratified by the World Open Water Swimming Association (WOWSA) or the Guinness World Book of Records, and her relationship with Stoll is explored in Netflix’s new drama, Nyad. Billed as “a remarkable true story of tenacity, friendship, and the triumph of the human spirit”, the film stars American Beauty’s Annette Bening as the eponymous American swimmer, while Jodie Foster plays her confidante and former lover. It is directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi – the filmmaking couple behind Free Solo, 2019’s breathtaking documentary about Alex Honnold and his free solo climb of El Capitan.

Beneath the Surface: The Nyad Saga

Nyad, which arrived on Netflix on 3 November, picks up on the swimmer’s 60th birthday, when, after decades away from the sport, she decides to prove that she can make the Florida Straits crossing “unassisted” (without a shark cage – as Walter Poenisch and Susie Maroney had done in 1978 and 1997, respectively). It took Nyad five attempts over 36 years to achieve the feat, as she became the first person ever to do so. “You didn’t make it when you were 28,” Foster’s Stoll tells her friend in the movie. “You’re 60!”

Jodie Foster as Bonnie Stoll and Annette Bening as Diana Nyad in NYAD (Kimberley French/Netflix)

Nyad’s record-setting swims began in the 1970s, gaining her national attention with spots on Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. In 1975, she broke the 45-year-old record for circling Manhattan Island, New York, in under eight hours. Over two days in 1979, Nyad swam from Bimini in the Bahamas to Florida, setting a distance record for both men and women for non-stop swimming without a wetsuit (102 miles).

The year before, Nyad had made her first attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida, within a steel cage protecting her from the sharks and jellyfish. She swam for nearly 42 hours over 76 miles before team doctors removed her due to strong swells that were slamming her against the cage and pushing her off-course towards Texas. “If I swam for 40 more hours, couldn’t I make it then?” Nyad reportedly asked her team after they pulled her out of the water.

After her record-setting achievement in 1979, Nyad transitioned to a career in sports journalism, taking a 30-year break from marathon swimming.

However, in 2010, aged 60, Nyad decided to finish what she’d started, working with a 25-strong team of experts to help her prepare for the 100-mile journey. “I’d like to prove to the other 60-year-olds that it is never too late to start your dreams,” she said at the time.

Diana Nyad, fresh from her record-breaking swim from Cuba to Florida, swims the last minutes of her 48-hour continuous ‘Swim For Relief’ benefiting Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts in 2013 (Getty Images)

She attempted the swim for a second time in August 2011 with the aid of a “shark shield” – two kayakers holding neoprene rods that emit electrical waves, deterring the predators. There was also a team of four shark divers with spears onboard her support boat in case the shield should fail. After 29 hours, Nyad abandoned her effort due to a combination of factors. Strong winds had pushed her off course, she was suffering pain in her shoulder and her asthma was flaring up.

Her third and fourth attempts in September 2011 and August 2012 were cut short by repeated box jellyfish and Portuguese man-of-war stings – both of which can be deadly. Though she was wearing a full protective suit, Nyad was repeatedly stung in the mouth by jellyfish. “Literally the only square inch exposed of my entire body was the lips. We just couldn’t design a way to protect the mouth and still breathe while swimming,” she said in a blog post on her website. “Yet these animals… are brilliant at finding animals to sting and they indeed found my lips. On both occasions, I suffered the paralysis, the otherworldly sensation of being burned alive.”

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On her fifth – ultimately successful – attempt, which began on the morning of 31 August 2013, Nyad wore a silicon mask to protect her face from Jellyfish. It was ultimately successful in protecting her from stings, but for the 13 hours she wore it, the mask’s small mouth opening resulted in her swallowing “tremendous volumes” of seawater, which in turn led to bouts of vomiting. “As difficult as the swimming was, I was not stung once,” she said. “Those deadly tentacles could not penetrate.”

Almost immediately after Nyad completed her mission, “fellow swimmers unleashed a barrage of censure and doubt”, The New York Times reported. Due to the lack of independent observers and incomplete records, neither WOWSA nor Guinness World Book of Records would ratify Nyad’s accomplishment. Nyad says she was never told that she needed to provide documentation for that recognition.

Annette Bening as Diana Nyad and Jodie Foster as Bonnie Stoll in ‘Nyad’ (Kimberley French/Netflix)

“I thought we had provided all the proof we needed,” Nyad told The Los Angeles Times this summer. “And maybe I had too much hubris, like, ‘I don’t need to prove this to anybody.’ That’s my bad. But it wasn’t to obfuscate the rules. We were never told, ‘You’ve got to do this or you won’t be ratified.’”

In an interview with Vanity Fair, the Nyad filmmakers said the “first thing” they did was to look into the criticisms the swimmer faced. They found they “weren’t valid”. “When you are at the forefront of your sport, you have a target on your back. Especially if you’re an outspoken athlete like Diana might be considered,” Chin said.

Vasarhelyi added: “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. 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.”

On whether the film takes a position on the matter, Vasarhelyi said: “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. It’s about this idea of truth.”

Nyad is out now on Netflix.

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