Setting the Record Straight on "Nyad": Addressing Press on the Actual First Swimmers to Cross Florida Straights, Walter Poenisch and Susan Maroney

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

After publishing “Nyad” on Netflix: The Swim, The Scandal, The Silence regarding Diana Nyad’s Cuba to Florida swim and upcoming film “Nyad,” there have been multiple press inquiries. This post addresses the most frequent questions as concisely as possible.

The Florida Straits Open Water Swimming Association, (FOWSA/FSOWSA), Does Not Exist

There is no global governing body for the sport of open water swimming. Local governing bodies take precedence and can make safety exceptions. If there is no local governing body swimmers submit for ratification to one of two organizations MSF or WOWSA. There was never a local governing body for the Florida Straits.

  • FOWSA and FSOWSA were only publicly mentioned in 2014, a year after the swim, in an Openwaterpedia entry for FOWSA1.
  • Steven Munatones wrote a draft blog post in 2019 (when Nyad applied again for ratification) about Florida Strait rules, post was never published1.
  • Rules for FOWSA were never finalized or posted before or after swim1.
  • In a 2022 interview, Nyad expressed that draft FSOWSA rules she had in her possession were not complete and required revisions1.
  • Neither Nyad nor Munatones have any final copies of the 2013 FOWSA/FSOWSA rules1.
  • Efforts to retrieve evidence only revealed draft rules for FOWSA/FSOWSA1.

Takeaway: There has never been a local governing body for the Florida Straits. The Florida Straits Open Water Swimming Association (FOWSA/FSOWSA) never existed beyond an Openwaterpedia entry created in 2014.

Diana Nyad’s Crossing Had No Rules

  • No rules were posted pre-swim or after the swim (to media during controversy, panel call, with ISHOF submission, on OWP, a blog post) to this day1.
  • Some written rules were available to the staff and crew under plastic1. (Be allowed to get out of the water for an undeclared amount of time if there is a shark and continue the swim.)
  • No full list of written rules were found during the investigation1.
  • Crew members were only told not to touch Diana or assist her forward progress1.

Takeaway: Observers cannot observe a swim for violations of rules if there are no rules. It is a requirement to declare rules before a swim.

Safety Exceptions are Only for Assisted Swims

  • Despite no global governing body for the sport of open water swimming, English Channel (EC) rules are the standard for unassisted marathon solo swims1.
  • Safety exceptions post-2011 are only for “Stage Swims” and “Assisted Swims”1.
  • Safety exceptions include touching, stinger suit, face mask, booties, gloves, tape, and streamer (as navigational aid)1.

Takeaway: Safety exceptions in 2013 were only for “assisted swims.” Diana Nyad broke rules required to qualify for an unassisted crossing.

Susie Maroney
Walter Poenisch

Nyad Was Not The First Person To Cross The Florida Straits From Cuba To Florida

Walter Poenisch was the first man to complete the swim. (128.8 miles in 34 hours 15 minutes at the age of 65 in 1978)

Equipment: Shark cage, swimsuit that does not extend past the groin or shoulders, sunscreen/anti-chafing ointment, swim cap, ear plugs, goggles, getting on boat (4 times within 5 minutes), snorkel, fins. Declared rules.

Susie Maroney was the first woman to complete the swim. (111 miles in 24 hours 31 minutes at the age of 22 in 1997)

Equipment: Shark cage, swimsuit that does not extend past the groin or shoulders, jellyfish screen/shield, sunscreen/anti-chafing ointment, swim cap, ear plugs, goggles, drafting off shark cage. Declared rules.

Takeaway: Walter Poenisch and Susie Maroney were the first people (man and woman) to cross the Florida Straits with safety exceptions categorized as assisted swims and declared rules.

Defamation lawsuit against Nyad

  • Before, during, and after Walter Poenisch’s Cuba–Florida swim in 1978,4 Nyad criticized him relentlessly in the press.
  • She referred to him as a “gimmick” stated, “He’s a cheat.” “He does not swim by the rules.” She stated, “A man who’s 65 years old and very overweight is not going to swim for two days nonstop.”
  • These comments were particularly significant as they publicly questioned the legitimacy of Poenisch’s achievement and cast doubt on his capabilities due to his age.
  • As a result of Nyad’s accusations, Poenisch’s sponsors abandoned him, effectively destroying his career. 
  • Poenisch sued Nyad for and won an out-of-court settlement and apology4.
  • The International Swimming Hall of Fame later recognized Poenisch’s legacy with a posthumous induction as a “Pioneer Open Water Swimmer” in August 20174.

Takeaway: Diana Nyad is well aware of the first two people to cross the Florida Straits, hence her ongoing determination to have her swim deemed unassisted to this day in order to claim a first.

Guinness World Record Revoked

Steven Munatones, in his capacity as then liaison for Guinness World Records, intentionally created a specialized category for Diana: “First to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage or fins.” This was a strategic move to bypass the accomplishments of Walter Poenisch, who utilized fins, and Susie Maroney, who use a shark cage. Nevertheless, this record has since been revoked. In the sport of open water swimming, distinctions are made between ‘assisted’ and ‘unassisted’ swims.

Walter Poenisch was the first assisted swimmer, followed by Susie Maroney for women, then Diana Nyad.

References:

  1. The Diana Nyad Cuba-Florida Swim 2013 Report 2022
  2. Swimming World Magazine
  3. Sydney Morning Herald
  4. Lost at Sea: Walter Poenisch, his Cuba-to-Florida swim, and his stolen honor

Notes

  1. Susie Maroney Carribean Swims notes on shark cage exception, drafting, holding cage to relieve oneself, shark cage etc.
  2. The Diana Nyad Cuba-Florida Swim 2013 Report 2022 notes on shark divers touching, absent observer, streamer as navigational aid, disappearing behind boat etc.

Bibliography

Walter Poenisch (pronounced pain-ish)

Susan Maroney

WOWSA