Epic swim from Cuba to Florida submerged in wave of doubt

Diana Nyad, the first person to make it from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage, may have been on boat part of way, say internet sceptics

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 September, 2013, 2:39am


The grandmother who became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage has been forced to deny cheating.

Diana Nyad, 64, who completed the 176-kilometre marathon at her fifth attempt eight days ago, has unleashed huge controversy on the internet.

Some fellow swimmers have even suggested she may have been on a boat for part of the way.

They are questioning how she was able to cover the distance in just under 53 hours considering that her average speed was only 2.7 km/h at the start and near the finish on the sands of Key West.

They also asked whether her two hand-picked, independent observers were truly independent. Nyad said she was not surprised. "I'm an above-board person who has never cheated on anything in my life," she said.

"When someone does something they've been trying to do for a long time and you know how difficult it is, it's only logical. I hope they're not questioning if I'm an honest person.

"They want to know how the facts came down so they can understand it. They have every right to ask these questions and we have every intention to honour the accurate information."

Her swim was not documented by independent news media, as were her previous attempts.

Nor did members of Nyad's crew take continuous video of the swim - a strange decision to some marathoners.

Evan Morrison, the San Francisco founder of Marathonswimmers.org said: "If I was doing a swim that had never been done before and everyone thought impossible, I'd have a video camera on me continuously."

But Steven Munatones, a former marathon swimmer and swimming official who has served on Nyad's earlier crews, said he had no doubts.

"I am 100 per cent satisfied based on the GPS data, marine information, written information and personal interviews that she did the swim," he said.

Munatones said he intended to review all the data with a panel of other experts, so they could answer all the questions from the swimming community.

Most questions concerned Nyad's speed and distance covered and the amount of push she got from the currents. Nyad is a plodder - she says she averages less than 3.2km/h. She was swimming at 2.7km/h when she started out from Cuba on August 31 and again near Key West.

Seattle swimmer Andrew Malinak, who is also a geotechnical engineer, used Firebug - a web development tool that collects code - to glean Nyad's GPS data from her website.

He surmised Nyad was travelling at an increasingly speedy clip on the swim's second day - from 3.2km/h to more than 9.6km/h around 31 hours into the swim.

After her crew made the data available with time stamps, Malinak revised his work and said that Nyad's top speed was nearly 7.2km/h for a stretch.

The pace was inconsistent, he said, with huge surges and then valleys, plunging her back to 3.2km/h. "The rapid increase and two subsequent rapid decreases in her speed, combined with the already fast pace, still leave me sceptical of her swim's authenticity," said Malinak.

Fellow swimmers have asked on an online forum if it is possible that Nyad was on a boat when those surges took place.

Nyad and some on board her flotilla said no. Her navigator, John Bartlett, a custom boat builder in the Florida Keys, says the fast water flows were predicted by a Connecticut physical oceanographer. Some of the fastest currents unfolded around noon on the swim's second day, moving close to 6.4km/h.

Critics also said Nyad's observers - typically people who have never met the athlete - were unknown in the swimming community, which was odd for such a high-profile event.

One, Janet Hinkle, a licensed Key West boat captain, said she never observed Nyad getting on board a boat during the swim or being pulled by a craft.

Nyad's fans called the critics "haters" who were jealous.