Before You Watch the 'Nyad' Movie Online: What Really Happened, What They Got Wrong, and The True Grit of Marathon Swimming

Before You Watch the ‘Nyad’ Movie Online: What Really Happened, What They Got Wrong, and The True Grit of Marathon Swimming

This guide contains minimal spoilers

When the silver screen takes on the vast expanse of open water, things are bound to get a little… wavy. For movie buffs and avid open water swimmers alike, the cinematic adaptation of Diana Nyad’s book, “Find a Way” offers a big splash of drama and a deep dive into Diana Nyad’s relentless pursuit of a dream. But not all films are 100% true to life, it’s important to remember that Hollywood has its own way of blending fact with fiction.

Picture this: a 40-member crew, each with their unique role, gets a Hollywood makeover and is transformed into a handful of characters. Multiple marathon swim attempts? Let’s merge them into a gripping montage for that edge-of-the-seat experience. It’s the magic of cinema, where screenwriters, like Julia Cox in this case, craft a narrative that’s both engaging for the popcorn-munching audience and evocative of the protagonist’s spirit.

But for those inspired to dive into the world of open water swimming after the credits roll, it’s crucial to differentiate between REEL life and real life. This report is your behind-the-scenes look into some of the actual practices, rules, and experiences of marathon swimming — the true story behind the movie ‘NYAD’ might just surprise you.

Pre-swim Planning

Expenses

🎬Movie Depiction: In the film, Diana Nyad mentions a budget of $500,000 for her marathon swim.

🌊Actual Costs for a Typical Solo Marathon Swim (Using the English Channel as an Example):

Registration and Pilot Fees:

  • Channel Swimming Association (CSA) or Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation (CS&PF) registration fee: Approximately $200-$400
  • Pilot boat cost: Approximately $4000

Additional Expenses:

  • Travel: Costs vary depending on the starting location, but international flights, local transportation, and potential visa fees should be considered.
  • Lodging: Prices can range depending on the type of accommodation (hotel, B&B, rental property) and the duration of stay.
  • Equipment: This includes the cost of swimsuits, goggles, swim caps, earplugs, and any other necessary gear.
  • Coaching: Fees can vary based on the coach’s expertise and the duration of training.

Total Estimated Cost: For the swim alone, excluding travel, lodging, equipment, and coaching, the cost is around $5,000. When factoring in all the additional expenses, the total can increase significantly but is still far from the $500,000 mentioned in the movie.

Key Distinction: While marathon swimming can be an expensive pursuit, it’s essential for aspiring swimmers to understand that the costs can vary widely based on the location, duration, and specific requirements of the swim. The figure mentioned in the movie is exceptionally high and not representative of typical marathon swims like the English Channel crossing.

🎬Movie Trivia: Vessels and Crew in Nyad’s Real Swim

In the film, Diana Nyad’s journey is primarily depicted with her being accompanied by a single vessel. The reality of her swim was much more intricate, involving multiple boats and a comprehensive crew.

🌊Actual Vessels and Crew Members

Vessels: Nyad’s real swim was supported by five vessels:

  1. Kinship (42’ Kadey Krogen provided by Florida Yacht Charters)
  2. Sentimental Journey (47’ Atlantic Trawler provided by Captain Dave and Beverly Magnone)
  3. Dreams Do Come True (41’ Fountaine Pajot Lipari provided by Florida Yacht Charters)
  4. Phat Dolphin (41’ Fountaine Pajot Lipari provided by Florida Yacht Charters)
  5. Voyager (32’ Coral Island Yachts built by Captain John Bartlett)

Crew Members:

  • Navigator: Captain John Bartlett.
  • Captains: Captain Marlin Scott, Captain Austin Hopp, Captain Dave Magnone, Captain Seth Hopp, Captain Pam Morris, Captain Jeff Lewis, Captain John Duke, Captain Scott Thomas, and Captain John Berry.
  • Shark Team: Captain Niko Gazzale (Captain Shark Team), Cal Bucci, Ben Shepardson, and Jason Tiller.
  • Voyager Drivers: Dee Brady (Voyager Captain), Nancy Jordan, Dave Whidden, and Bruce Blomgren.
  • Media and Social Media: “Diver” Judy Montague (Media), Alex De Cordoba (Social Media), Candace Hogan (Journalist), and Katie Leigh (Social Media).
  • Photographers: Dianne Scott and Dawn Blomgren.
  • Kayakers: Don McCumber, Bucco Pantellis (Chief Kayaker), Mike Devlin, Brenda Anderson, Darlene Meadows, and Elke Thuerling.
  • Medical Team: Dr. Angel Yanigihara (Jellyfish Safety), Derek Covington (MD), and John Kot (MD).
  • Handlers: Bonnie Stoll, Pauline Berry, and Lois Ann.
  • Observers: Janet Hinkle and Roger Mcveigh.
  • Others: Beverly Magnone (Vessel Owner).

Key Distinction: The movie simplifies the depiction of Nyad’s support system, focusing primarily on one vessel. In reality, her swim was a massive undertaking, involving a fleet of boats and a crew of 40 members. According to the Nyad report, crew members were not paid salaries and worked for free. It’s worth noting that in many solo marathon swims, the support crew often consists of volunteers and is typically unpaid, emphasizing the community-driven nature of the sport.

Pre-swim Planning and Observer

🎬Movie Depiction: The film primarily focuses on the swimmer’s determination, training, and the challenges she faced. The role of the observers is not deeply explored, and their selection process is not depicted. What is depicted in many scenes in the movie is waiting for a “weather window”.

🌊Actual Open Water Swimming Pre-swim Planning:

Pre-Swim Planning:

  1. Experienced Pilot/Navigator: An experienced pilot or navigator is essential for any marathon swim. They understand the currents, weather patterns, and other nuances of the specific body of water. They also have the authority to call off the swim for safety reasons. John Bartlett, a seasoned navigator, played this role for Nyad in the 2013 swim.
  2. Selection of Observers: Observers play a crucial role in ensuring the swim adheres to established marathon swimming rules. They document the swim’s progress and validate its authenticity. Ideally, observers should be experienced and familiar with marathon swimming rules. However, due to the last-minute nature of the swim’s timing, Nyad selected observers a few hours before the attempt. Janet Hinkle and Roger McVeigh, both from Key West and acquainted with Nyad, were chosen. They were provided with brief instructions on their roles via email.

Key Distinctions: The movie does not delve into the intricacies of selecting and preparing observers for the swim. In reality, the choice of observers was made in a rush, a few hours before the swim. This lack of experience led to significant gaps in the documentation of the swim. Roger McVeigh, one of the observers, missed log entries during two critical shifts, resulting in a total of 9 hours without logs. This oversight underscores the importance of having trained and experienced observers for marathon swims.

Observers and Handlers

🎬Movie Depiction: In the cinematic portrayal, there’s a blending of roles where one individual both supports the swimmer with nutrition and simultaneously documents the swim’s progress and adherence to rules.

🌊Actual Open Water Swimming Roles:

Observer:

  • Purpose: The observer is an impartial official responsible for ensuring that the swim adheres to established marathon swimming rules.
  • Duties: They meticulously document the swim’s progress, including start and finish coordinates, swim time, air and water temperatures, wind speed, stroke rate, and feedings. Their records validate the authenticity and legitimacy of the swim.
  • Importance: An observer’s documentation is crucial for the swim to be recognized by governing bodies and to maintain the integrity of the sport.

Handler:

  • Purpose: The handler’s primary role is to support the swimmer’s nutritional needs during the swim.
  • Duties: They prepare and provide the swimmer with scheduled feedings, which can range from energy drinks to specific meals, ensuring the swimmer maintains energy and hydration levels.
  • Importance: Proper nutrition and hydration are vital for a swimmer’s endurance and safety during long swims. The handler ensures the swimmer receives timely and appropriate sustenance.

Key Distinction: In solo marathon swimming, the roles of observer and handler are usually distinct to ensure that each function is executed with precision and without conflict of interest. Combining these roles can compromise the accuracy of the swim’s documentation and the swimmer’s well-being. Additionally, in actual marathon swims, handlers would not typically jump into the water to give pep talks as depicted in the movie. For swims spanning many hours, handlers and observers would need to take shifts to ensure continuous support and observation.

🌊During the actual attempt in 2013 

Bonnie Stoll, Pauline Berry, Lois Ann Total: 3 handlers

Janet Hinkle (Independent Observer), Roger Mcveigh (Independent Observer): Total: 2 observers

Equipment and Rules in Open Water Swimming

🎬Movie Depiction: In the film, Diana Nyad is shown as being determined to achieve an “unassisted” swim. The emphasis is on her desire to complete the swim without any external aids. The movie does not depict or imply that touching the swimmer or assisting with equipment would disqualify the swim or make it “assisted.”

Line in movie: “a shark cage makes it an aided swim… no way… I don’t want an asterisk next to my life’s greatest achievement, I’ll be the first…I’m the swimmer it is my call”

🌊Actual Open Water Swimming Rules and Events:

One-Way Solo Marathon Swim (Point A to Point B):

  • Declaration of Swim Rules:
    Swim Rules must be declared by the observer before the swim begins.
  • Start and Finish:
    The swim starts when the swimmer enters the water from a natural shore and finishes when the swimmer clears the water on a natural shore.
  • No Supportive Contact:
    No intentional supportive contact with vessels, objects, or support personnel is allowed.
  • Drafting Restrictions:
    Intentional drafting behind escort vessels is not allowed, but swimming alongside is permitted.
  • Support Swimmers:
    Support swimmers can swim alongside the solo swimmer for 1 hour at a time, with 1 hour intervals between support swims. During the support swim, intentional physical contact between the support swimmer and the solo swimmer is not allowed.
  • Observer and Pilot Roles:
    The observer documents the swim, interprets and enforces the rules, and keeps official time. The pilot of the escort vessel holds authority in all other matters and can cancel the swim for safety reasons at any time. 

Unconventional Equipment Used by Nyad:

  • Jellyfish Face Mask
  • Stinger Suit
  • Swim Streamer (navigational aid)
  • Shark Divers & Electronic Shark Shields

Key Distinction: In the actual swim, Diana Nyad used several pieces of equipment for safety and navigational purposes. Some of this equipment required her to be touched, which goes against the “unassisted” classification. The movie does not highlight these nuances or the controversy surrounding the use of such equipment. Furthermore, while local governing bodies can sometimes make exceptions to the rules for specific bodies of water, there was no such body for the Florida Straits at the time of Nyad’s swim. 

Nyad’s attempt to establish the Florida Straits Open Water Swimming Association (FSOWSA) as a governing body after the swim was not legitimate, and the organization did not exist when she submitted her swim for ratification, though her submission suggested it did.  This discrepancy between the established rules and Nyad’s actions, combined with the portrayal in the movie, can lead to misunderstandings about the true nature of an “unassisted” open water swim.

Nyad Movie Trivia

🎬Movie Depiction: The film showcases a couple shark divers, a dramatic shark encounter, and a vivid hallucination of the Taj Mahal. 

🌊Actual 2013 Cuba to Florida Swim:

Shark Team: Niko Gazzale (Captain Shark Team), Cal Bucci, Ben Shepardson, Jason Tiller 

There were a total of four shark divers present during the actual swim. While movies often dramatize events for cinematic effect, it’s essential to differentiate between Hollywood’s portrayal and the actual events. There was no shark encounter during the 2013 swim. The hallucination of the Taj Mahal, while depicted in the movie, actually occurred during a storm in the real swim.

Records: Unassisted and Assisted

🎬Movie Depiction: In the film, Diana Nyad confidently proclaims, “a shark cage makes it an aided swim.. no way I don’t want an asterisk next to my life’s greatest achievement, I’ll be the first…I’m the swimmer it is my call.” This line implies that Nyad believes she would be the first to complete the swim without any assistance, emphasizing her desire for a pure, unassisted achievement.

🌊Actual Historical Context:

Walter Poenisch:

  • Achievement: First man to swim across the Florida Straits from Cuba to Florida.
  • Distance & Time: 128.8 miles in 34 hours and 15 minutes in 1978, at the age of 65.
  • Equipment Used: Shark cage, standard swimsuit, sunscreen/anti-chafing ointment, swim cap, earplugs, goggles, snorkel, fins. He also briefly got on the boat four times.
  • Swim Category: Assisted, due to the use of a shark cage and other equipment.

Susie Maroney:

  • Achievement: First woman to swim across the Florida Straits from Cuba to Florida.
  • Distance & Time: 111 miles in 24 hours and 31 minutes in 1997, at the age of 22.
  • Equipment Used: Shark cage, standard swimsuit, jellyfish screen/shield, sunscreen/anti-chafing ointment, swim cap, earplugs, goggles. She also drafted off the shark cage.
  • Swim Category: Assisted, due to the use of a shark cage and other equipment.

Key Distinction: The movie suggests that Nyad perceived her swim as unassisted, aiming to be the first to achieve this. However, in reality, she used equipment and received physical assistance, which would categorize her swim as assisted. The distinction between “assisted” and “unassisted” is pivotal in marathon swimming especially for swims claiming records. Recently, prior to the movie’s release, Nyad publicly appealed for her swim to be recognized and ratified as ‘assisted’ finally but due to significant discrepancies, including significant gaps in the observer logs and the false claim of a non-existent governing body overseeing the swim, she was denied ratification.

🎬Movie Depiction: In a scene leading up to the swim, Bonnie voices a concern to the equipment team, stating, “I can’t see her at night.” The film portrays this as a logistical challenge, one among many, like sharks and jellyfish, that the team prepares for.

🌊Actual Event:

Nighttime Discrepancies, Speed Anomalies, and Missing Observer Logs: The real swim’s integrity is brought into question by events that transpired during the night. It’s during these crucial nighttime hours, specifically from 8:30 PM to 1 AM, that the observer logs are absent. This gap coincides with a storm, intensifying the need for accurate documentation.

During this period, Nyad was reportedly behind the boat, but the specifics of her location and actions are muddled by conflicting narratives from crew members:

  1. One account claims that a doctor and a jellyfish specialist diver went under the pontoon to intercept and guide Nyad to safety.
  2. Another version suggests that a handler intervened to guide Nyad.
  3. Yet another observer’s account indicates that a shark diver assisted Nyad back to a designated area.

During this challenging nighttime period, Nyad’s swim speed was recorded at 3.2 miles per hour. This speed is fast, especially if one considers she was potentially waiting out a storm surrounded by shark divers. While her swim speeds in other hours were corroborated by currents, this particular speed during such conditions adds to the concerns about the swim’s authenticity. Most online articles echo the reports from 2013, highlighting Nyad’s swim speed of around 4.9 miles per hour on the second day (Hours 27-31). While this speed was confirmed in the 2022 Nyad report for Hours 27-31, the biggest area of contention actually lies presently between Hour 35 to Hour 40, spanning from 8:30 PM to nearly 2 AM the following day.

Key Distinction: The night presented some of the most contentious moments of Nyad’s swim. The missing observer logs during this critical period, combined with the storm, the conflicting accounts of Nyad’s whereabouts and actions, and her swim speed, cast a lot of doubt over the legitimacy of the swim.

Sportsmanship in Open Water Swimming: A Closer Look

Open water swimming, like all sports, is built on the pillars of respect, integrity, and sportsmanship. These values not only guide the actions of the athletes but also shape the spirit of the community. Here, we delve into some instances from Diana Nyad’s journey that have sparked discussions about sportsmanship.

🌊Criticizing Other Swimmers:

Walter Poenisch’s Swim: Before, during, and after Walter Poenisch’s Cuba–Florida swim in 1978, Nyad was vocal in her criticism of him. She referred to him as a “gimmick,” labeled him a “cheat,” and publicly questioned his ability, stating, “A man who’s 65 years old and very overweight is not going to swim for two days nonstop.” Such comments not only publicly questioned the legitimacy of Poenisch’s achievement but also cast doubt on his capabilities due to his age. This led to Poenisch losing his sponsors, which severely impacted his career. Poenisch sued Nyad for and won an out-of-court settlement and apology. In 2017, the International Swimming Hall of Fame posthumously inducted Poenisch as a “Pioneer Open Water Swimmer,” recognizing his contributions to the sport.

🎬Movie Scene Reaction to Chloë McCardel’s Failed Attempt: The movie depicts a scene where Nyad and Bonnie are shown rejoicing upon hearing that fellow swimmer Chloë McCardel (who completed 44 English Channel crossings) had to abandon her attempt for the same Cuba-Florida swim due to jellyfish stings. True sportsmanship involves supporting peers, understanding the immense challenges each faces, and not celebrating another’s misfortune.

🎬Movie Depiction:

In the film, Diana Nyad is shown confidently stating in a talk, “The English Channel is 21 miles. I can swim that in 7 1/2 hours even in the cold.”

🌊Actual Open Water Swimming Facts:

Nyad attempted to swim the English Channel three times and did not succeed in any of these attempts. As of the time depicted in the movie, fewer than 10 people had ever swum the English Channel in under 7 ½ hours out of thousands.  

🌊Declaring a Record: While Nyad declared her swim a record upon completion, the proper protocol is that records are announced only after ratification by the governing body overseeing the swim. It’s worth noting that Guinness World Records recently revoked her record because the swim was never ratified by a governing body. 

Key Distinction: Sportsmanship goes beyond the act of competing; it encompasses how athletes treat each other, how they handle successes and failures, and how they respect the established protocols of the sport. The open water swimming community thrives on mutual respect and support. Upholding these values ensures the sport’s growth and the continued camaraderie among its members.

Remember to take a moment post-movie to explore the true story. After all, reality can be just as captivating, if not more so, than its on-screen portrayal.

Resources

Diana Nyad’s Swimming Brought Her Glory Fame and an Adversary Dedicated to Exposing Her Lies (Defector)

Diana Nyad’s Swimming-World Controversy Meets Oscar-Season Scrutiny (Vanity Fair)

Inflated Claims Cast Pall Over Netflix Oscar Hopeful ‘Nyad’ (LA Times)

The Diana Nyad Cuba-Florida Swim 2013 Report 2022 (WOWSA)

WOWSA Advisory Board’s Decision on Diana Nyad’s 2013 Cuba to Florida Swim; 38 Advisory Board Members Review & Deny Ratification (WOWSA)

“Nyad” on Netflix: The Swim, The Scandal, The Silence (WOWSA)

Report on the Diana Nyad Cuba-Florida Swim (2013) Issues Index (WOWSA)

Setting the Record Straight on “Nyad”: Addressing Press on the Actual First Swimmers to Cross Florida Straights, Walter Poenisch and Susan Maroney (WOWSA)

Walter Poenisch (Diana Nyad Fact Check)

Rating: PG-13
Genre: Biography, Drama
Original Language: English
Director: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin
Producer: Andrew Lazar, Teddy Schwarzman
Writer: Julia Cox
Release Date (Theaters): Oct 20, 2023 limited
Release Date (Streaming): Nov 3, 2023 Runtime: 2h 1m
Distributor: Netflix
Production Co: Black Bear Pictures, Mad Chance

WOWSA