Historical Accuracy (Q&A):
Is the Netflix movie based on Diana Nyad's book?
Yes. Netflix's Diana Nyad movie is based on her 2015 memoir Find a Way: The Inspiring Story of One Woman's Pursuit of a Lifelong Dream. With regard to the book's accuracy, the World Open Water Swimming Association (WOWSA) advises viewers to not accept the critically-acclaimed book as a fully factual account of Nyad's swim. They stated that her book has not been rigorously fact-checked. "As audiences dive into Netflix's portrayal of Nyad's journey, it's essential to watch with discernment, keeping in mind the discrepancies surrounding the swim," they noted. Some of these discrepancies will be examined later in this article.
During an interview with Vanity Fair, Nyad director Jimmy Chin (Free Solo) responded to the controversy around her 2013 swim. "As documentary filmmakers, the first thing we did was to look into some of these criticisms—and found that they weren't valid," said Chin. A documentarian in the world of climbing, Chin likens some of the criticisms of Diana Nyad to the fact that she is at the forefront of her sport and in turn has a target on her back. "Especially if you're an outspoken athlete like Diana might be considered," says Chin.
The real Diana Nyad (left) prepares for a swim, and actress Annette Bening (right) is in the water in the Netflix movie.
Was Diana Nyad sexually abused as a teenager?Yes. According to Nyad, she was sexually assaulted by her swim coach for a period of several years starting when she was 14. In 2017 at the height of #MeToo, she wrote an article for The New York Times in which she discussed the intense physical and emotional trauma she experienced and its lasting effects on her life. As noted in her article, she first opened up publicly about the abuse when she was 21. She also learned that she wasn't the only one her coach had sexually assaulted.
"I walk down the street as though I own it. All the while, the trauma has lodged in an obscure corner of my soul," wrote Nyad. "I refuse to believe it's a lifelong imprint, yet, with age 70 in clear view, I admit to wondering whether I will ever entirely heal that young girl who was pinned down."
Did Diana Nyad swim around Manhattan?
Yes. According to the true story, she gained national attention in 1975 at age 26 when she swam around the circumference of Manhattan. She completed the swim in 7 hours 57 minutes. Though she more than once claimed to be the first woman to make the swim, including in her book Finding a Way, in which she states, "I was the first woman to swim around Manhattan Island," CNN fact-checked her claim in 2011 and discovered it was false. There were as many as a half-dozen women who swam around Manhattan Island prior to Nyad. The first that we know of was Ida Elionsky, who made the swim in 11 hours 35 minutes in September 1916.
As will be explained later, Nyad has owned up to and has admitted that she's exaggerated her accomplishments at times, something she's clearly not proud of. Pointing out her false claims is by no means an attempt to take away from her achievements, which are remarkable in their own right.
Is Diana Nyad's coach, Bonnie Stoll, an accomplished professional athlete as well?
Yes. A Nyad fact-check reveals that Bonnie Stoll, portrayed by Jodie Foster in the movie, had been a standout on the Professional Racquetball Tour in the early 1980s and earned the rank of #5 in the country. Interestingly, Diana Nyad was Bonnie's fitness coach/training partner at the time. Thirty years later, they switched roles. "When I revived my open-water swimming career, I became the athlete and Bonnie took on the role of my coach," Nyad stated in a 2023 Instagram post.
On the left are actresses Jodie Foster and Annette Bening in the Netflix movie. On the right are their real-life counterparts, Bonnie Stoll and Diana Nyad. Photo: Netflix / Instagram @diananyad
How many times did Diana Nyad fail in her attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida?Diana Nyad failed four times trying to make the Cuba-to-Florida swim. She was successful on her fifth attempt. The dates and descriptions of each failed attempt are listed below.
- 1st Attempt - August 1978: One year after the Cuba travel restrictions that Kennedy imposed were lifted, Diana Nyad made her first attempt to swim from Havana, Cuba to Key West, Florida. She departed from Ortegosa Beach in Cuba at 2 pm on August 13 and swam inside a 20x40-foot steel shark cage. She traveled a distance of roughly 76 miles over the course of almost 42 hours before doctors removed her from the water due to the fact that eight-foot ocean swells were slamming her body into the inside of the cage. She had also been pushed off course in the direction of Texas (see map below).
- 2nd Attempt - August 2011: At 7:45 pm on August 7, 2011, Nyad left Havana, Cuba for Florida without a shark cage (she used an electronic shark repellent called Shark Shield). She did not wear a stinger suit to protect her from jellyfish and in turn endured a number of painful stings from box jellyfish. She ended up treading water for an hour in pain just several miles off the coast of Cuba (WOWSA). She stopped the swim in the early morning hours of August 9 after 29 hours in the water due to several factors. She was battling strong currents that had sent her miles off course, she had been suffering from shoulder pain since the third hour of her swim, and ultimately, her asthma had flared up in the last hour. She found herself constantly rolling on her back to catch her breath after taking only several strokes.
- 3rd Attempt - September 2011: After traveling roughly 67 nautical miles over 41 hours without a shark cage, Diana Nyad ended her swim due to stings from Portuguese man-of-war and box jellyfish, the latter of which stung her forearm and neck, causing respiratory distress. Ocean currents had also veered her off course.
- 4th Attempt - August 2012: Again embarking without a shark cage, Diana Nyad's Cuba-to-Florida swim commenced on August 18, 2012. She made it farther than she had in any of her previous attempts, ending the swim just before 1 am on August 21 due to nine jellyfish stings and two storms. Despite wearing a stinger suit, she was stung by a box jellyfish on her exposed lips (WOWSA).
Diana Nyad's paths from Havana toward Key West are highlighted above, including her four failed attempts and her 2013 success. Source: Derived from Wikipedia Graphic
When did Diana Nyad swim from Cuba to Florida successfully?After four failed attempts over the course of 35 years, Diana completed the swim on her 5th attempt, which began on the morning of August 31, 2013. As with her three previous attempts, the Nyad true story confirms that she swam without a shark cage, instead opting to use an electronic shark deterrent device known as Shark Shield, several of which were set up on the vessels that accompanied her. Though she wasn't expected to encounter sharks in the Florida Straits, four shark divers took turns rotating through six-hour shifts, looking after Diana's safety and providing an in-water support system to keep her enthused and on track. To protect herself from jellyfish stings, she wore a full stinger suit and a custom silicone face mask. She arrived on the beach in Key West at approximately 1:55 pm EDT on September 2, 2013. A crowd of onlookers and media cameras welcomed her.
Diana Nyad and Bonnie Stoll embrace on the beach in Key West at the end of Nyad's swim on September 2, 2013.
How long did it take Diana Nyad to swim from Cuba to Florida?
In examining the Nyad fact vs. fiction, we learned that it took her exactly 52 hours, 54 minutes and 18 seconds to complete the 110.86-mile swim (EverWalk). She began her journey on the morning of August 31, 2013 and arrived on the beach in Key West, Florida at approximately 1:55 pm EDT on September 2, 2013.
Did Diana Nyad encounter any sharks during her swim?Yes. Despite using an electronic shark deterrent, shark expert Luke Tipple, who was part of Nyad's team, posted a comment stating that they did encounter sharks along her route. While it doesn't appear she was ever in immediate danger, Tipple noted that Nyad was "followed by three oceanic whitetips, two very large hammerheads, and what I suspect to be a large bull shark … it was hard to identify but it was at least 8 feet long." -Slate
How old was Diana Nyad when she swam from Cuba to Florida?
Born August 22, 1949, Diana Nyad was 64 years old when she made the historic swim. In researching how accurate is Nyad, we learned that actress Annette Bening, who portrays Diana in the film, was roughly the same age (63) when production began in March 2022.
Pictured at the top are actress Annette Bening and her character's real-life counterpart, Diana Nyad. Below are actress Jodie Foster and the real Bonnie Stoll, the coach Foster portrays in the movie. Photo: Nyad Movie Facebook
What is the controversy surrounding Diana Nyad?While many people, including the media, have embraced Nyad's achievement, some members of the marathon swimming community have questioned her truthfulness when it comes to her accomplishments (Axios). Regarding the 2013 Cuba-to-Florida swim that brought her worldwide attention, critics alleged that she did not adhere to protocols for epic swims. They pointed out that she had been touched by her support crew when they used tape to seal her booties and stinger suit and that her swim was not filmed from beginning to end by independent media. They also attempted to raise further doubt about whether her swim was truly unassisted, pointing out that she used a special suit, custom-made mask, and lotions. Nyad told ESPN that the criticisms were "outrageously petty."
GPS data also showed her speeding up at one point, leading some to question whether she had gained forward momentum with the assistance of a vessel, object, or another person. The World Open Water Swimming Association (WOWSA) released a statement, saying that a significant gap of several hours in the logs from Nyad's swim, "particularly during a period when Nyad's condition shifted dramatically, calls for further expert analysis." The co-founder of the Marathon Swimmers Federation attempted to explain her increase in speed by attributing it to "a gyre in the Gulf Stream" (Axios). At the same time, he considers her swim 'assisted' "because of the repeated physical contact with her crew in putting on her stinger suit" (MarathonSwimmers.org).
As of the writing of this article, Diana Nyad's Cuba-to-Florida swim has been denied ratification by WOWSA, despite Nyad making two submissions for ratification to the organization. According to WOWSA, they found no evidence of cheating, but after a comprehensive review, they could not ratify the swim as "unassisted." The organization offered to conduct an "assisted" ratification review, but Nyad refused the offer. However, in the months before the film's release, she told the LA Times that she would now agree to an "assisted" ratification. As a result of WOWSA's ruling, Guinness World Records no longer recognizes Nyad's achievement as record-breaking, as impressive as it is.
Nyad's co-director, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, responded to the controversy by telling the LA Times, "Our film is not about a record. Our film is not about how many times someone was touched. It's about how a woman woke up at 60 and realized she wasn't finished, even though the world may be finished with her." The other director of the film, Jimmy Chin, who is Vasarhelyi's husband, said that "there's no question she swam 110 miles." Vasarhelyi commented that they don't state that Nyad is "based on a true story" or that it is one. "It's about this idea of truth," she said. However, the Netflix trailer describes the film as an "extraordinary true story" even though WOWSA told Netflix to add a disclaimer regarding the movie's "dramatized nature." -Swim Swam
Was Diana Nyad the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida?
No, but she was the first person to complete the swim without a shark cage. However, as explained in the previous question, there is controversy over whether her swim was truly unassisted due to the fact that she was touched by her crew during the swim and she wore a full-body stinger suit and silicone face mask.
Does Diana Nyad have a history of exaggerating her accomplishments?Yes. Some of the achievements Nyad appears to have exaggerated include claiming to have won the United States Nationals when she was 16, breaking a 100-meter backstroke world record later that summer, competing in the Olympic Trials, and being the first woman to swim around Manhattan Island. There's even an entire website called NyadFactCheck.com dedicated to analyzing the veracity of her claims. It was created by retired marathon swimmer Daniel Slosberg. The website states that it is "in search of the truth about Diana Nyad." Nyad co-directors Jimmy Chin and his wife Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi told the LA Times that they did their "due diligence" when it came to researching Diana Nyad and her past, pointing out that Nyad herself admits to her shortcomings.
"Am I embarrassed to have inflated my own record when my record is pretty good on its own? Yes, it makes me cringe," she told the Times, pointing out that some of the controversial statements she made that have been contested are "45 years old."