Diana Nyad: Ignore the critics and just keep swimming

If you don't swim the English Channel, perhaps you don't have to abide by English Channel rules. Photo: repeatingislands.com

JUNO BEACH, Fla., September 13, 2013 — It is not every day that a 64-year-old woman swims 110 miles from Cuba to Florida. Come to think of it, it has only happened one other time, and that instance was without a shark cage. Diana Nyad, the  endurance swimmer from New York City, managed to swim 110 miles from Havana to Key West in 53 hours.

Quite impressive.

In the midst of celebrating her amazing athletic achievement, she is drawing criticism from other long distance swimmers and endurance athletes who say she violated the sport’s ethics during the course of her epic swim. They cite a long stretch of time where she attained double her average speed, as well as accusations that she propped herself up in the water using her support boat. These critics say that she violated English Channel rules of long distance swimming, to which Nyad responded she never said she was going to follow them in the first place.

One of the rules which reportedly exists in English Channel rules and an aspect of her swim which many people are criticizing her for is wearing a suit designed to protect her from dangerous jellyfish. Apparently English Channel rules have restrictions on what can be worn, the sleeve lengths, along with a lot of other boring rules which are decidedly British in nature.

The problem is that if you have ever been to South Florida, the Caribbean or anywhere in the area, you would know poisonous jellyfish are in abundance. They roam the Gulf Stream and the Straits of Florida like Mongol Hordes killing and stinging everything in their path. If you don’t know, jellyfish stick to you with their long creepy arms and inject poisonous barbs into your skin that can be quite excruciating and potentially fatal. One man o’ war can kill a human if it wraps you up in its alien arms. Imagine swimming with thousands of them.

We should not fault Nyad for wanting to wear a suit which protects her from roaming death clouds. We should remember that she swam over one hundred miles, at age 64, without a shark cage.

Another long distance swimmer comes to mind. We all remember Dory, the Blue Tang fish from the Disney animated film, “Finding Nemo.” “Finding Nemo” was a story about a clown fish trying to find his son Nemo, who had been taken by divers off of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Dory is a swimmer who, during her long journey, met with nearly disastrous results after swimming through a swarm of killer jellies.

How can we, the public, fault Diana Nyad for using an anti-jelly suit, when we were forced to watch on screen and endure the pain of seeing Dory nearly die after a jelly attack? It was only after her coach Marlin Clownfish, Nemo’s father, went back and brought her out did she even stand a chance of survival. It took the intervention of some passing sea-turtles in order to revive her and Marlin, who had suffered significant injury in the process of retrieving Dory. It is completely unreasonable, after seeing such an event unfold in front of your eyes, to criticize Nyad for taking all necessary precautions when swimming through jelly infested, poisonous barb tentacle filled waters.

Dory was able to finish the roughly 800 mile journey to Sydney, as well as a return trip with no other major incidents, having had a run-in with sharks early on in her journey which she managed to emerge with only a slight broken nose. It is reasonable to ask however, why she would undertake such a long swim without the use of any shark or jellyfish repelling gear, especially considering the abundance of such predators along her swim route. Everyone knows that everything in and around Australia wants to kill you, but Dory ignored all of it. Dory was asked for a comment some time ago, however it has been over a week and it is possible she has forgotten to return our call.

Nyad should be proud of her accomplishments in endurance swimming, and should ignore the accusations that her swim was not done in honor of English Channel rules. Considering that the most dangerous thing on the English Channel is the occasional errant French yachter, or Cockney crewed fishing trawler, it is surprising that sport aficionados are holding her to the same rules which she never said she was adhering to in the first place.

We have the English Channel, which is 21 miles across, with no discernible predators, with a maximum swim time of 27 hours, and a well regulated governing body of rules. Many people have made the swim, with many more signing up each year. The Cuba-Florida Swim is roughly 100 miles across, with many active predators, with no rule book to speak of. Many people have tried but only two have ever made it. Trying to take the English Channel rules and apply them to the Cuba-Florida Swim is like saying hopscotch rules apply to space travel.

Considering what we saw happen to Dory Blue-Tang, we should urge warm water long distance swimmers to take every precaution necessary to protect themselves from predators. This of course means using anything from helicopter spotters, to training dolphins to swim alongside you and offer emotional support and shark protection. One would find it difficult to find anything wrong with either of those support systems.

Perhaps Nyad did not adhere to English Channel rules because she did not swim the English Channel. Perhaps she wore a jelly suit, because she enjoys living and breathing and giant nebulas of swimming poisonous barb death are certainly detrimental to one’s existence.

Until people come together and realize that Channel rules pertain to the Channel, until Cuba-Florida swimmers develop their own body of rules, and until we can train dolphins to destroy meddlesome dream killing sharks, Diana Nyad should remember the greatest lesson Dory from “Finding Nemo” taught us.

Just keep swimming. 


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Conor Higgins

Conor Higgins has a B.A. from Catholic University in DC in American History, with a concentration on guerrilla warfare on American soil. He has an M.A. in US History from George Mason University in Fairfax, VA, with a concentration on Cold War insurgency. He believes that all news and all information should be taken with a grain of salt, and implores people everywhere to seek news stories everywhere. 

Higgins is also a fervent believer in the traditional role of media, in terms of acting as a balanced check on government policies and individuals regardless of party affiliation. But in the end, he believes that no matter how heated an issue is, there is nothing that can't be discussed over a smoke and some whiskey. 

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