NewswireTrauma Tuesday: Diana Nyad and the Culture of Doubt

Trauma Tuesday: Diana Nyad and the Culture of Doubt

When did it come to this?

Is it the money? Is it the anonymous Internet? Is it the collective ego? The 24-hour news cycle? Boredom?

Last week, a 64-year-old woman named Diana Nyad swam across the ocean from Havana, Cuba to Key West, Florida becoming the first person to do so without the help of a shark cage. First off, how do you swim inside a shark cage? Second off, having the modifier of “without a shark cage” to your achievement is pretty much the most badass thing ever. Having achieved the 110-mile swim on her fifth attempt, this should have been a time of triumph for Nyad – an accomplished, record-setting long distance swimmer finally realizing her dream – and for a time it was. A very short time, like about 24 hours, before she was forced to defend herself.

People thought she had cheated.

Here are some other fun facts about Nyad culled from her Wikipedia page. She was a high school swimming champ who hoped to qualify for the 1968 Olympics before being derailed by an illness. She got kicked out of Emory for jumping out of a dorm window with a parachute – 4th floor. Nyad was once ranked 13 in the U.S. women’s squash rankings. She wrote a biography of former diva NFL wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson. Obviously, this woman has lived an extremely fulfilling and varied life.

Back to the swim. Nyad used GPS tracking during her 50+ hours in the water so fans could track her progress, as well as live blogs from her support team. Some are treating this data as a smoking gun, focusing on a period when she was going particularly fast (skeptics say she was being towed by or was on the support boat; support team says they currents were favorable), and another when she apparently didn’t stop to eat or drink for seven hours (skeptics again say she was on the boat; support team says…well they haven’t really addressed this, but let’s assume she swam on her bag and chugged protein shakes).

So here we are again. Person accomplishes seemingly unattainable athletic feat, celebrates for a brief moment in time, and then is forced with the burden of proving the feat. This is the pattern we have become accustomed to. You can blame Lance Armstrong, Ben Johnson, Rosie Ruiz or any of the other multitude of athletes over the decades that have cheated and been caught. There are undoubtedly many, many others who have not been caught, and never will be. My personal opinion is that there is a significant difference between cheating by ingesting performance enhancing drugs, and cheating by jumping in the race with a mile to go or riding in a boat for a quarter of a record swim. One is gaining an advantage by enhancing your body with what amounts to (super-advanced) medicine, but you are still a human who has to hit the ball, pedal the bike, or put one foot in front of the other. The other is a blatant circumnavigation of the physical rules of the game.

In Nyad’s case, the rules of the game are as murky as the water she swam last week. There are “English Channel” rules, which she broke by donning a wetsuit and protective mask – she never said she would adhere to EC rules as her previous attempts were stopped because of jellyfish stings. There is the shark cage thing, and as CBS News states:

“Since none of the various open-water swimming associations dictate how someone should swim from Cuba to Florida — officially accomplished only by Nyad and Susie Maroney, who used a shark cage — Nyad just had to follow generally accepted rules about not getting out of the water or using equipment such as fins.”

So, there are many questions: Why are accomplishments treated as guilty until proven innocent? Why are people so eager and quick to poke holes in someone’s achievements? Why all the cynicism? Have we been lied to, tricked, and fooled too many times to ever believe anyone ever again?

It is interesting to juxtapose Nyad’s accomplishment with some of the great athletic feats by athletes in the Blue Ridge. There is Jennifer Pharr Davis breaking the (unofficial) Appalachian Trail Speed record with no controversy over whether she hitched a ride from Damascus to Harpers Ferry. There is Matt Kirk breaking the record, and being congratulated by Davis. This is just one of many of the trail speed records that may be unofficial, but are no less noteworthy than Nyad’s swim. Is the trail running community that much more trustworthy and/or supportive? Is it because Nyad drew more national and international attention and not just regional admiration?

Of course, we can never answer these questions in their entirety, but we can take a step back and not buy into the whirlwind. The bottom line is this: because someone casts doubt, there will forever be doubt. As the saying goes, there are three sides to every story: your side, their side and the truth. It would appear to be pretty silly for her to attempt to cheat her way to this accomplishment given that there were over 30 people in her support staff, and publicly available GPS data (I also find it hard to believe there was not a documentary crew on board to record her swim). The real issue here is not whether she rode in the boat or not – because Diana Nyad swimming through shark infested waters for a long time between two land masses does not really have any effect on our day to day lives whatsoever – the real issue is the culture we have created where athletic glory can only be attained through means that aren’t physical stamina, mental perseverance, and pure will.

If Nyad indeed cheated, the truth will come out one way or another from the people that were there, we don’t need anonymous Internet forums and chat rooms to manufacture controversy when there isn’t one. If there is one positive that comes out of this possibly non-controversy, it will be a conversation (like this one) on why people feel the need to tear down a 64-year-old woman who just achieved her life’s goal.

What do you thing readers? Leave your opinion in the comments below.



Places to Go, Things to See: