Saturday, 25 August 2012

Much Ado About Nothing?

You'd have to be living in a cave not to have heard about Diana Nyad's "Xtreme Dream" swim attempt from Cuba to Florida this week. For those who haven't followed the story, or aren't familiar with the context, Nyad is a very controversial figure in the open water swimming world, with a reputation for audacious challenges, a very robust sense of self, and a vigorous (self-)publicity machine. This was her fourth attempt at the 103 mile swim - a challenge which involves highly unpredictable conditions and assorted aggressive / dangerous wildlife. And even in perfect conditions, it's hell of a long way, and I give her credit both for her ambition and her swimming abilities - I can only hope that I have as much energy and drive at 62. 

However, while the swim ended in a failure that is widely trumpeted as a gutsy, can-do success (not least by Nyad herself), within the wider open water swimming community, there is considerable disquiet and frustration, particularly with regard (a) to some of the unconventional practices during the swim; and (b) the very problematic representation of the swim both during and after. In the case of swimming practices, Nyad chose to adopt a number of practices that are widely viewed within the wider community as not in the spirit of the sport. For example, there is clear video footage of her holding on to the boat during feeds (an absolute no-no in Channel swimming). But perhaps the most egregious breach of customary practice is that she got out of the water during a particularly nasty squall, and then after a number of hours (details unclear), she got back in and resumed swimming (I understand that this was after returning to the GPS point where she exited the water). 

Now....I don't think that anyone would argue with the correctness of the decision to leave the water during the storm - this is a regular occurrence in open water swimming. This was demonstrated earlier this year in the English Channel when several swims were stopped after a bank of thick fog rolled in, with some swimmers just a few hundred metres from France. Safety first, however gutting. But...and this is a big conventional Channel swimming practice (and as applies to other big swims such as Catalina, the North Channel etc), this marks the end of the swim. There are some exceptions. The Manhattan Island Marathon Swim allows a brief suspension of swimming during a lightening storm before allowing the race to resume; swimmers of the Cook Straits are allowed to take a 10 minute 'shark break' following a close sighting to let it pass. (As an aside, I fully understand getting out under those conditions, but can't understand getting back in!). But Nyad's break was for multiple hours. By any standard measure, this marks the end of a solo, unassisted swim. 

In her position, and having invested a huge amount of time and money into the project, I would probably have done what she did; she turned it into a 'stage swim' - that is where a distance is covered in stages, returning each time to the point of stopping (for example, the next day). However, I would also have told people very clearly that that's what I'd done. No-one - and I mean, absolutely no-one - would have thought any less of her for this. It's still an impressively long swim under difficult conditions. But instead (and this is where we get to the issue of problematic representations), her blog has utterly obfuscated this point, including significant post-hoc revisions to the blog which make it even harder to see that there was a significant boat break in the middle. Instead, there is constant elision between the time taken for the whole venture, the time spent in the water, and the total swim time including the boat break; and yesterday, the total swim time was suddenly revised upwardly from just under 42 hours to just over 51 hours, without any explanation of such a massive miscount. 

So, it's all a bit of a rum do, and leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. I congratulate Nyad on her ambition, and on the long swim that she did before getting out of the water (30+ hours, I think). But there is absolutely no need to obfuscate, exaggerate or mislead, and it does nobody any favours in the long run. With more clarity and openness, I think that the swimming community could have got behind this swim, even if it didn't meet the stricter swim-rules that apply to English Channel swims (and similar). As it is, I think that Diana Nyad has discredited her attempt and achievements through a PR strategy of self-aggrandisement at the expense of transparency, and I would welcome her public clarification on the details of the swim. 

Ultimately, it's probably all much ado about nothing, and it will all fade quietly away; if the swim had succeeded, I think that there would have been much more glorifying press coverage and a much stronger need to challenge some of the claims about the swim, and some of its practices. I also think that it's important not to take Diana Nyad as seriously as she takes herself. There was something faintly ridiculous about the whole venture: the excited announcements of weird, warm-water dripping devices to fight off hypothermia, the flotilla of boats surrounding the swim, the magical post-hoc discovery of an additional 9+ hours of swimming. And I can't be the only one to enjoy the irony of Nyad literally blowing her own trumpet (well...bugle) to start her swim.

As a final aside in what has turned out to be a bit of a long post, I do think that at some point the wider swimming community should also discuss the ethics of this kind of swim (regardless of the rules under which it is conducted). I'm not entirely comfortable with the erasure of the terrible history of this stretch of water - the loss of thousands of lives of people trying to flee the Castro regime - that occurs when it is turned effectively into a leisure space for self-fulfillment. Is there a broader discussion to have about our political / social responsibilities in terms of where we swim? And secondly, I couldn't help but wonder about the use of shark spotters. As far as I could see, they were in the water alongside Nyad, and their job was to look out for wildlife (sharks and jellyfish primarily). Given that the diver in this film seems to be armed with a little stick, what is the risk to him? Elsewhere in the blog it also notes that one of the divers was stung by the very same jellyfish that Nyad describes as potentially lethal. So again, in terms of the bigger picture, rather than just about Nyad, is there a discussion to be had about the risks we might be willing to take on for ourselves versus the risks to which others are exposed?

I think that's enough from me for now. For those interested in reading more about the issues raised by Diana Nyad's swim, I suggest you visit, where there is a robust exchange of views that really gets you thinking. I particularly recommend this thread which opened with a debate about the underwater directional streamer that Nyad was using, and then was expanded to cover a range of issues around assistance, transparency and the definition of 'marathon swimming'. Another good one is the discussion around the anti-hypothermia device, which also expands into wider discussions about what 'unassisted' might mean in the context of long distance open water swimming. 


  1. Karen
    You wrote about some difficult subjects with great eloquence. After Ms Nyad's previous attempt I blogged that her swim seemed too tinged with narcissism to allow me unequivocal admiration. You've inspired me to one or more blogs on pursuing personal achievement in marathon swimming.
    At least for the moment, I've lost interest in trying to add 'a Channel notch to my swimming belt' because I've lost my appetite for long, solo, swims. I would love to attempt one or more marathons in the company of swimmers of complementary pacing ability.
    I'll be in England Oct 15 to 27 approx and would love to meet and swim with you while there.

  2. Thanks Terry - it would be great to meet up. Get in touch when you know your plans.