My Diana Nyad Problem — And Ours

Published August 13th, 2019, Uncategorized

by Irvin Muchnick

A year ago this month, in utmost quiet, the New York Times published a correction of a key passage in Diana Nyad’s 2017 op-ed page memoir of her alleged abuse at the hands of her high school coach. Though not named in the article, he is known to be Jack Nelson, an International Swimming Hall of Famer who died in 2014. Nelson had coached Nyad at the Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale in the 1960s.

In 2013, Nyad, then 64 years old, reputedly became the first person confirmed to swim from Cuba to Florida without the aid of a shark cage.

I recently became aware of the Times correction through Daniel Slosberg, a Southern California swimmer and blogger who has been a persistent critic of Nyad’s credibility in respect to not just her sexual abuse narrative but also all other aspects of her global celebrity. Slosberg himself had just come across the newspaper’s qualified walkback of the op-ed.

The upshot is that, after years of resisting Slosberg’s argument that Nyad is a phony, I have come to accept it. Here, I want to explain what I believe happened. I also want to evaluate the meaning of the likelihood that swimming’s most famous poster child for coach abuse has been misleading the public. She may be an abuse victim, by Nelson or others, and the experience might have informed things like her infamous rambling speech at a Hall of Fame gathering. But it almost certainly didn’t go down the way she has been marketing it in books, magazine articles, this op-ed piece, and now an off-Broadway show.

Mine is a complex, multi-faceted accounting, and is undergirded by these points:

(a) While I have never overly emphasized Nyad’s story in my own reporting on abuse, I have, like others, accepted it as gospel on those occasions when I’ve referred to it. And an accurate record is important.

(b) Independent of all this, my own reporting has established, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Jack Nelson was indeed a bad guy in swimming’s chapter of last-generation abuse — indirectly and perhaps even directly (more below on this complication).

(c) Though our culture’s obsession with fame makes such a flaw inevitable, characters like Nyad probably don’t belong at the forefront of journalism exposing abuse in youth sports programs under the auspices of the U.S. Olympic Committee. This last point gets into my critique of why the most popular assumed fixes of the sports system won’t work; why the most visible leaders of so-called reforms emphasize self-serving tactics and money, rather than youth education values; and just my general complaint that the media and the parents of kid athletes and others too often bring the wrong priorities to this discussion.

First, the Times correction.

On November 9, 2017, the Times op-ed page published an essay by Nyad under the headline “My Life After Sexual Assault.” See https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/09/opinion/diana-nyad-sexual-assault.html. Here’s the chilling foundational passage:

“I was dead asleep in the master bedroom when it happened. Out of nowhere, he was on top of me. He yanked my suit down. He grabbed at and drooled onto my breasts. He hyperventilated and moaned. I didn’t breathe for perhaps two full minutes, my body locked in an impenetrable flex. My arms trembled, pinned to my sides. He pleaded with me to open my legs, but they were pressed hard together. If breath gives us force, that day I could feel the strength in my body from the polar opposite — from not breathing. He ejaculated on my stomach, my athletic torso I was so proud of now suddenly violated with this strange and foul stuff.”

In its August 10, 2018, correction, the Times acknowledged that Nyad’s reference to this having occurred coincident with “the state swimming championships” was wrong:

An earlier version of this article incorrectly described an event associated with the initial assault on the author. It was a swim meet, not the state swimming championships.”

The Times editor involved in the preparation of the article, Alicia Wittmeyer, declined Concussion Inc.’s request to discuss the process behind the editor’s note. How did the error come to the attention of the Times? (The best guess, not acknowledged by the newspaper, is that it succumbed halfway to Slosberg’s voluminous documentation of numerous contradictions in Nyad’s account.) How was the author notified of this problem? Was the ultimate published correction language negotiated with her or was it unilateral?

“In this case, we published a thorough correction and don’t plan to comment beyond it,” emailed Wittmeyer, whose title is gender editor.

For her part, Nyad has not responded to our multiple requests for comment.

*****

On its face, the Times correction is a mere detail. Whether what allegedly happened to her occurred in association with the state championship meet is of decidedly secondary importance. This was the line I used in defense when Slosberg wrote me in 2017. Here’s exactly what I emailed back to him at the time:

“Nyad is not central to the narrative of my own site and work — except to the extent that she may be the highest-profile figure to have made a credible and on-the-record claim of having been abused by her swimming coach when she was underage.

You and other swimming insiders document confusions and exaggerations by Nyad in various areas. I haven’t seen any such claims I’m interested in promoting. If I ever write a long piece on Nyad, I’ll consider including them.[…]

In the suddenly fashionable cascade of stories about men in power raping or molesting or harassing or mind-fucking women or girls under their thumbs, it’s inevitable that the good guys will get burned once or twice. Will Nyad prove to be that cautionary tale? I suppose it’s possible. But debunking Nyad in a ‘she said, he said’ scenario is the absolutely lousiest use of my platform, since I conclude that the evidence is compelling that Nelson did something very bad and very damaging to her. The headmaster at the time at Pine Crest told Miami’s New Times that Nyad was more right than wrong about that string of events.

I’ve also viewed Nelson through the lens of one of my many independent investigative threads. He blithely kept on his staff and covered up for an international human trafficker with a Peeping Tom fetish (Alex Pussieldi) and a drug dealer and accessory to murder (Cecil Russell). This weighs a hell of a lot more than Nyad’s possible hype and self-promotion.”

Again, the current essay marks my change of mind on the wisdom of highlighting Nyad’s contradictions — but not on the premise of Concussion Inc.’s work in exposing youth coach sexual abuse. My conclusion is  driven by the observation that the New York Times doesn’t casually publish corrections. And while it’s true that a wrong detail or two don’t invalidate the whole account, and I generally hate the nitpicking and aggressive cross-examination of abuse survivors’ stories, which has the effect of revictimizing them, it is simply not normal for a victim to misremember the setting of the core anecdote. If that testimony is unreliable, then the whole story becomes a house of cards.

Nyad’s story is distinct from others’ because her ethos of hype seems fundamental to every angle of her public figure. At his website Diana Nyad Fact Check, http://nyadfactcheck.com/, Slosberg takes on various keystones of her self-curated biography: not just the state championship meet discrepancy of the Jack Nelson abuse anecdote, but also things like Nyad’s shifting explanations of the illness that is said to have cost her a shot at making an Olympic team. Perhaps most sensationally yet persuasively, Slosberg argues technical irregularities in her epic and celebrated Havana-to-Key West swim.

Slosberg says, “Nyad is not so much a cautionary tale as she is a compulsive liar/con artist/sociopath for whom alleging sexual abuse is just one more way to get attention.”  One of the motivations for his project is that he believes the Nyad industry deflects credit and honor from other marathon swimmers he knows, such as Penny Dean and Cindy Cleveland, who are far more accomplished than Nyad and far more generous to other athletes, but suffer from self-effacement. Sarah Thomas swam a legitimate 67-hour current-neutral 104 miles in 2017. In her motivational speaking, Nyad denigrates the great Dutch swimmer Judith de Nijs, a far more accomplished athlete. Australian Chloë McCardel crossed the English Channel 29 times; Britain’s Alison Streeter, 43 times. By falsely claiming to be the first swimmer to complete the loop around Manhattan Island, Nyad attempts to erase from history the six women who preceded her.

And on and on.

To be clear, in an individual stunt sport juxtaposed against the reality that not many of us can so much as swim two laps in the controlled conditions of an indoor pool, I’m not confident accusing Nyad of having perpetrated a fraud by possibly cutting a few corners off the standards for certifying her Cuba-to-U.S. swim. That, dear readers, is deep-water insider stuff. But the point is, Daniel Slosberg has done his homework, so even if you regard with distaste his dedication of resources to debunking all things Nyad, you’re forced to admit that the problem isolated by the Times correction last year — touching on a central public health issue — has a rich context.

Bluntly, that context is that she is something of a fabulist who, in the way of today’s media environment, has exploited a trending theme, sexual abuse — but now has been caught and, quite appropriately, called out.

In our conversations, Slosberg pointed out one especially disturbing dimension to what he credibly calls Nyad’s abuse tall tale: evidence aligning with the plausibility of her having appropriated someone else’s story of abuse by Nelson.

After the 2017 publication of the Times op-ed, Slosberg was contacted by a slightly younger Pine Crest School swimmer from Nyad’s era. She told him this:

“I was about 12 (and I can’t give an exact date, likely either beginning of fall semester when I was 11, or spring semester when I turned 12 – most likely), that Coach Nelson molested me, as he was telling me I should quit the team because I wasn’t going to be big enough/fast enough to make the Nationals or Olympics, and I was taking up valuable pool space. But I can tell you that while I cannot corroborate what Coach Nelson did to Diana, he called me into his office, shut the door, and had me sit on his lap. He rubbed my chest, between my legs, my arms, legs — and I thought the chair was uncomfortable and poking me. I rationalized that he needed to check how ‘developed’ I was, so it was alright. And when I read the op-ed, I realized that the discomfort of the chair was an erection, that at that age I would have been clueless and also “explained” it to myself that somehow it was the chair.”

*****

The above is about as much as I want to say about Nyad qua Nyad, at least in this round of the discussion. I want to move on to my larger concern, which is the uses and misuses of the Diana Nyads of the world — as affirmation, symbol, totem.

In order to tell it fully, I go back to 2014, when, in collaboration with fellow writer Tim Joyce, I broke the story of the decade-plus cover-up in South Florida swimming of a sexually abusive Brazilian-American coach, Alex Pussieldi. Documents from a public records act request to the city of Fort Lauderdale — which I successfully litigated in Florida state court — revealed a conspiracy including Jack Nelson and his team (which rented the International Hall of Fame swimming complex); Fort Lauderdale police and officials of the city’s parks and recreation department; and a despicable Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel swimming journalist, Sharon Robb, who counseled Pussieldi on how to lie low while he was being investigated for peeping through a hidden bathroom camera on foreign swimmers he was housing, until he could surface again in his next coaching jobs.

At the same time, a campaign was mounting to cancel the scheduled induction into the International Swimming Hall of Fame of Chuck Wielgus, the CEO of USA Swimming, who presided over a generation of cover-ups of abuses by coaches high and low, legendary and obscure, of swimmers female and male, Olympians and journeypeople alike. This campaign and an amplification of my Pussieldi coverage were the basis of a cover story in the New Times alternative weeklies throughout South Florida (which some years earlier also had visited Diana Nyad’s allegations against Jack Nelson somewhat earlier than most other publications).

In the case of at least one of the USA Swimming cover-ups, that of coach Andy King, Wielgus committed what any district attorney worthy of indicting a ham sandwich could have persuaded a grand jury was probable cause for a charge of criminal perjury.

The anti-Wielgus campaign took the form of a well-organized online petition put together by Olympic gold medal swimmer and Women’s Sports Foundation advocate Nancy Hogshead-Makar, who would soon start her own group, Champion Women. The lead signatory and attention magnet of the petition was Nyad.

And the campaign was successful, as narrowly defined. Jointly, the Hall of Fame board and would-be honoree Wielgus decided that enshrinement might be a tad … divisive. Wielgus fell on his sword and withdrew from the annual weekend festivities.

But some of us discussing the petition campaign with insiders thought keeping Wielgus out of the Hall was an awfully pale victory. Why was he still making more than a million dollars a year running the national sport governing body four years after making a jackass out of himself on ABC’s 20/20 and ESPN’s Outside the Lines in interviews about decades of widespread and systematic abuse? The outcome reminded me of the warning in those Department of Motor Vehicles manuals: “If you are caught driving drunk and without a license before you are 16 years old, then you will be barred from being able to apply for a driver’s license until you are 16 years old.”

I don’t want to exaggerate my own importance in the petition deliberations, nor my vociferousness at the time in opposition to letting Wielgus off the hook. I am quite used to the mealy-mouthed incremental adjudications. The more outspoken member of our circle was Tony Austin, a Southern California swimmer who has blogged extensively about abuses in the sport. (Tony and I got to know each other during my 2013 writings on the athlete-against-athlete assaults and harassment at Michael Phelps’ North Baltimore Aquatic Club, which went unpunished and covered up by Bob Bowman, then the head coach there.)

Austin bitterly complained that Nancy Hogshead-Makar and her main supporter on the Hall of Fame board, Donna de Varona, were sellouts for shutting down the campaign on the basis of such a milquetoast outcome.

I found myself agreeing more with Austin months later, after Wielgus published the equivalent of a hostage-tape teleprompter apology, saying he wished he’d been more vigilant about the abuse problem over the years. Commenting on ESPN, T.J. Quinn reported the apology as a curious, out-of-nowhere gesture; bizarrely, Quinn failed to link it either to the Hall of Fame petition or — even more importantly in my view — to the upcoming climax of of an announced investigation of USA Swimming by the soon-retiring Congressman George Miller of California. I emailed Quinn, pointing out my special disappointment in his performance in light of his having been the reporter who had so effectively confronted Wielgus on camera on Outside the Lines four years earlier. I came away with the impression that ESPN had thrown Quinn onto the air unprepared, in the way that networks always try to “brand” stories with their high-profile correspondents, whether or not they have anything further to contribute to them.

(Wielgus would remain CEO of USA Swimming up to his death in 2017.)

My appraisal of the fizzled Wielgus campaign turned to Tony Austin-type seething at the denouement of Congressman Miller’s USA Swimming “investigation”: a tepid, low-energy punt of letters with an unknown Federal Bureau of Investigation official — accompanied by no field hearings, no press conferences — before the congressman slinked off to the typical double-dipping retirement lobbying sinecure. Concussion Inc.’s work on USA Swimming abuse would go nowhere until the higher-octane Indianapolis Star and CBS’s 60 Minutes skillfully blew up USA Gymnastics and Dr. Larry Nassar in 2018.

I also disagreed with Hogshead-Makar’s organizing decision to put all of Champion Women’s eggs in the basket of a piece of legislation called the Safe Sport Act. In the wake of Nassar, this law passed with Politburo-level near-unanimity — for who can argue against having a U.S. Center for Safe Sport (or, excuse me, SafeSport ™)? When the center proved overwhelmed, underfunded, and clearly in the pocket of the U.S. Olympic Committee not already occupied by its individual sports groups’ safe sport departments — as many of us had warned it would — Hogshead-Makar ignored that she had been the key architect of this costly, momentum-killing measure; she simply pivoted to vacuuming up our criticisms of the beleaguered center, as though they had sprung forth whole from her brow.

The basic contradiction is that Champion Women and other organizations like to maneuver for seats at the table of the division of the spoils of the multibillion-dollar Olympic system much more concertedly than they seek solutions to the root causes of sports coach sexual abuse. This motivates them to triage cases on the basis of their projected headlines and dollar signs. Their orientation is toward complainants whose faces have been on Wheaties boxes, or at least wanted to be.

Not only do cases like that of Sarah Burt — an obscure Illinois teenager who killed herself in 2010 after her club coach statutorily raped and impregnated her — not make the radar of these alpha women; the sub-celebrity cases don’t even rate engagement and the direction of helpful resources. There is no serious attempt to educate the public, the totality of whose knowledge of swimming is summarized in around a fortnight of NBC television coverage every leap year summer, that nearly a half-million kids and their families’ USA Swimming dues and volunteer labor, and accompanying artificially low-rent municipal and community college pool access, subsidize their divertissement.

No one is eager to suggest that this — not the creation of new-and-improved internal affairs departments designed to help Olympic Committee apparatchiks throw selected bad actors under the bus — should be the focus of long-overdue overhaul of the Amateur Sports Act.

And what about the two-continent campaign to bring to justice fugitive American permanent resident alien George Gibney, the two-time Irish Olympic swimming head coach? Hogshead-Makar didn’t have the courtesy to respond to my polite and professional overtures for help prior to my recent trip to Dublin to meet with Irish government officials and journalists.

Yet Ed Williams, a lawyer who works with Hogshead on Olympic sports accountability, was stunned when I declined to push out press releases for “Team Integrity,” the group they co-chair. I explained, in part, that far more formidable outlets, such as USA Today, routinely cover Team Integrity’s message, which I find inadequate as well as intermittently selfish.

“My view,” I emailed Williams (who had initiated our exchange), “is that the reform cause isn’t just about the labor-management dynamic for elite athletes, but also about the systemic pathologies that expose all kids — including those never aspiring to be Olympians — to sexual abuse.”

Diana Nyad is an example of an athlete who takes up far too much of the oxygen of this urgent national conversation. And that is why I am sharing what Daniel Slosberg has found out about her deeply flawed tale.