Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The last word on Diana Nyad*

*Not because I claim any authority on the subject. Hardly that!

(nervous laugh)

This is the last word on Diana Nyad's 110-mile swim from Cuba to Florida last week because it comes long after everyone else has exhausted the subject … and shortly before before Nyad goes on Ellen or ESPN with her odyssey, and launches the companion book/documentary/app/cologne.

(My friend Bob said he expected a Nyad post from me last week when I had instead gnashed about Syria. Though I told him I wouldn't, the story kept gnawing at me — in a different way than it bothers some others.)

You know the story: 64-year-old Nyad completed her fifth attempt to cross from Havana to Key West, a feat that took 53 hours — more than two days. After trying first in a shark cage in 1978, Nyad made three more attempts in the last two years — stopped by illness, weather, sharks and poisonous jellyfish, sometimes in combination — before last week's success.

She is the first person to have swum from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage. An Australian woman, Susie Maroney, completed the swim in 1997 in a shark cage.

You might have seen video of Nyad stumbling onto the beach in Key West, a meld of Rocky Balboa after 10 rounds and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, parting the sea of supporters and the curious before falling into the arms of a supporter.

You might have heard her inspiring words right after:
"I've got three messages. One is, we should never ever give up. Two is, you're never too old to chase your dreams. Three is, it looks like a solitary sport, but it's a team …"
The crowd cheered each message. The world watched her talk through swollen lips, her voice a sandpaper slur, her face crusted and red and misshapen, her fingers, numbering her messages, wrinkled and crooked.

I take her message to heart, having several projects on my desk and in my head, all worth doing, all trying to work against my horrible lifelong habit of giving up. The roar of time grows louder.

I compare swimming more than a hundred miles with the longest I've swum, six miles, and try to imagine swinging my arms for more than two days, let alone two or three hours, and I can't — not without shrugging my shoulders against phantom pain, anyway.

In a word, her swim is incredible.

Some others take that word literally.

I don't know how much news of this event reaches the swuggle (what some British swimmers I know call the non-swimming) world, but Nyad's swim is a point of controversy, notably for a group of competitive long-distance swimmers closely analyzing what details they can gather.

Chiefly through the Marathon Swimmers Forum, some — not all — of the elite marathon swimmers raise questions about the swim, and want answers and information from Nyad and her support team.

(Nyad reportedly will answer critics' questions today.)

The questions arise in the context of the marathon swimming culture, and the rules that govern the sport, in spirit if not letter. Competitive marathon swims usually abide by English Channel rules, which limit swimmers to a latex cap, goggles, a standard swim outfit, and maybe some body grease to prevent chafing. That's it. No touching the support boat or kayak or kayaker or any human during the swim. Feeds must be taken from a pole or tether extended off the support boat. Swims must start on dry land, and swimmers must reach dry land unassisted to complete the swim officially.
[The so-called Ocean's Seven swims, the most renowned of long-distance swims, are the English Channel between Britain and France; the Catalina Channel from Catalina Island to the California mainland; Cook Strait between New Zealand's two islands; the Irish Channel between Ireland and England; the Tsugaru Strait in northern Japan between Honshu (the main) and Hokkaido islands; the Strait of Gibraltar at the opening of the Mediterranean Sea; and the Molokai Channel between the Hawaiian islands of Molokai and Oahu.]
Nyad didn't follow all these rules (not that she said she would). She wore a special full-body suit and a custom rubber facemask at night to protect against box jellyfish, for one thing. She followed a streamer trailing alongside her pilot boat, and swam between kayakers trailing devices designed to deter sharks, more no-nos.

The critics have questioned the objectivity of the feat's independent observer, which is a requirement among major marathon swims.

With some data available but no released video of the swim, some critics raise questions about apparent discrepancies. Among them:
  • Nyad's speed during parts of the swim, which appear to have exceeded — and sometimes doubled — her established swim speed.
  • A 7 1/2-hour period in which Nyad did not take any feedings, which to some critics suggest she might have spent time on a support boat, or have been towed by one. Swimmers at long distances take feedings hourly if not fractions of hours.
  • The imagined difficulty of putting on the anti-jellyfish suit in the water without assistance.
Nyad is quoted as saying she didn't cheat, if that's what critics suggest, and her support staff said at times she benefited from fast current that sped her above her normal pace. The observer said she swam the entire route.

I don't think the critics are saying Nyad cheated, despite a lot of online vitriol and sneer over her swim. As close as I can tell, critics are essentially asking, "What was your game? Because there may be some swimmers who want to beat you at it."

Aside from the immense distances, the elite marathon swimmers desire to be first to complete a treacherous swim, or the fastest if they can't be first. Or cover the course two times, or even three times, or reverse the route.

Some of these swimmers would like to be first to swim that distance by Channel rules.

But Nyad's swim may demonstrate that's next to impossible. Stopped each of the last three swims, Nyad and her support team regrouped and devised other ways to mitigate dangers, hence the body suit and the Skeletor mask.

Age may not be the limiting factor. 49-year-old Penny Palfrey, an Australian, was thwarted by strong currents — plus jellyfish stings and threat of hammerhead sharks — in her Channel rules attempt last year. Swarms of jellyfish stymied 28-year-old Australian Chloe McArdel's Channel rules swim earlier this summer.

Money may be a major limiter, though. Nyad has said the four attempts cost about $1 million, though one source pegged her second attempt, in 2011, at more than $300,000. An English Channel swim costs somewhere between $4,400 and $4,700, according to the Channel Swimming Association — not counting travel and potentially lengthy lodging. 

I see the marathon swimmers' concern, though as more of a swuggle than a swimmer I have difficulty appreciating their viewpoint. Some of these same critics also raised ire among themselves last month over footage of Australian Trent Grimsey's record-setting English Channel crossing, which showed him flinging an empty plastic feed cup into the water has he twirled back into his stroke. A battle of words ensued over whether champion swimmers get leniency in trashing the environment to pursue records.

But Nyad's feat will prevail over the criticisms, even if some prove true.

Why? Because Nyad is Nyad. And that's my problem with the whole thing.

Diana Nyad is engaging, a masterful storyteller, a wit — a motivational speaker, sometime reporter, occasional National Public Radio commentator. She is brash and loud and brassy and opinionated. I get it, such people get things done, squeaky wheels and all that. Lacking such personality, I chafe at personalities like hers, especially sports personalities.

Nyad will not let this feat stand on its own merit. She will smother it with the mother of all promotions. Just wait.

Her latest string of Cuba-to-Florida swim attempts coincided with my use of facebook™©. Through one connection and another, I came across some item about Nyad and her swim.

Interesting! I said to myself. I'll click "like." This was immediately before I realized that liking an entity or a business opened me up to an onslaught of advertising and constant chatter promoting the entity or business.

I clicked "Diana Nyad" and the woman. Would not. Shut up.

Even when she was not swimming she was broadcasting ruminations on the most mundane moments in her life. Hers is the epitome of social media corruption, in which people think other people crave to know their everyday doings and thinkings.

They do not, I can assure you.

Much of Nyad's meditations had nothing to do with swimming. They had nothing to do with anything. They were just variations on "Me! Me! Me!" Unrelenting and loud. Nyad's the best, and that ain't good.

Palfrey and McArdel may be well known among marathon swimmers and occasional swimmers like me, and revered in Australia where the sport itself is revered, but they don't transcend the sport the way Nyad does. Maybe they don't want to. Maybe they don't know how to.

I finally figured out how to block Nyad after she posted a selfie of her naked bronzed back, the tan lines from various swimsuits forming a freeway cloverleaf across her scapulae.

I've done such a good job of blocking Nyad that I didn't know about each swim attempt — and subsequent vow that each would be the last — until she was already in the water.

So it was with this swim. I followed it vaguely online, heard she made it, saw the video, reflected on her messages of perseverance. Then, through the same facebook©™ that put me face to face with Nyad's media machine, I started reading the chatter of criticism.

I think deep down we're all just jealous, for different reasons.

You can learn more than you want by simply googling "Nyad criticism."

I'll leave the last word to The Onion, a satirical media machine, and its unique angle on the story, headlined, "Jellyfish Falls Short of Dreams to Kill Diana Nyad."

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