DianaNyadFactCheck

 

 

 

The Best of the ’70s

 

Diana Nyad often claims that she was the greatest long-distance swimmer of the 1970s. She asserts this with such confidence and bravado that most people believe her. But she was never close.

 

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The 1970s abounded with great marathon swimmers. Diana Nyad, however, was not one of them. Here are twelve who were. I’ll explain why below.

 

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“I want to be known as the very best at something and have a reputation for that. I didn’t say be the best because I’ve been that for eight years.”

Diana Nyad, Miami News, 16 Jun 1978

 

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Well before bell-bottoms and the Bee Gees had gone out of style, Diana Nyad was calling herself the best marathon swimmer of the 1970s. A false claim, but tough to measure and refute. Later, her best-of-the-decade assertions — and those of her publicists — evolved into some version of: “In the 1970s, she became known as the world’s greatest long distance swimmer.”

Then, at a presentation in October 2019, she handed out a yardstick:

I became, in the 1970s, the best ocean swimmer in the world. I held all the major records on planet Earth, out in the open sea. (Wilshire Ebell)

With that, her claim became measurable.

If we define a major ocean swim of the 1970s as, say, a solo event of over ten miles with at least ten successes through 1979, we get the following list:

Major Ocean Swims Successes
through 1979
Successes
during the 1970s
English Channel 400 198
Catalina Channel 55 27
Cook Strait (New Zealand) 11 9
Bristol Channel (Great Britain) 11 5
Strait of Gibraltar (Spain–Morocco) 32 4

 

A major record “out in the open sea,” then, would be a record in any of those swims.

But Nyad never completed a single one, much less set records for them. Quite a leap between that and “I held all the major records on planet Earth.”

During Nyad’s entire career, she only set marks in three swims that anyone might consider major: In 1974, she swam Lake Ontario north to south, becoming the first person to do so; that same year, she also set a record in the Capri-Napoli race; the following year, she circled Manhattan in record time. Only Capri-Napoli, however, was “out in the open sea.”

In 1979, she completed a current-aided, warm-water crossing from Bimini to Florida. Again, though, not a major swim. So by her own measure, Nyad never came close to being the best long-distance swimmer in the world.

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Using Nyad’s criteria, we get eight nominees for The Greatest Marathon Swimmer of the 1970s. In alphabetical order, they are:

 

Cindy Cleveland

1976   

Catalina single

1977   

Catalina double

(1978   

Anacapa Island two-way — first Anacapa crossing ever and first double)   

1979   

first Catalina Island circumnavigation

 

Lynne Cox

1971   

Catalina Channel at age 14

1972   

English Channel record

1973   

another English Channel record

1974   

Catalina Channel record

1975   

first woman to swim Cook Strait

 

. . . and that’s just the first half of the first decade of Lynne Cox’s astounding career. For more, see this timeline of her swims.

 

Penny Dean

1976   

Catalina Channel record that still stands

1977   

Catalina Channel two-way record that still stands

1978   

English Channel in 7:40, the first sub-eight-hour EC crossing in history

 

Dean’s time was more than an hour faster than anyone had swum before. She held the overall record for sixteen years and the women’s record for twenty-eight. Only one person owned an English Channel solo record longer: Matthew Webb, EC swimmer #1.

1979   

Women’s WPMSF champion. The 2nd place swimmer trailed Dean by more than 1000 points.

 

Dean went on to coach many other marathoners, including Chad Hundeby, the swimmer who finally broke her overall record.

 

Jon Erikson

1975   

English Channel two-way

1979, 4 Aug   

English Channel single

1979, 19 Aug   

English Channel two-way

   

In 1981, Erikson became the first swimmer to complete an English Channel three-way.

 

Kevin Murphy

1970   

third person to complete English Channel double

1970   

North Channel (Ireland to Scotland, 22 miles)

1971   

first person to swim around the Isle of Wight (56 miles/35 hrs. 10min)

1971   

North Channel

1975   

pulled from the water on 3rd leg of EC triple crossing attempt after having swum 52 hours

1976   

English Channel twice (and Loch Ness)

   

. . . and too many more to include here. Murphy crossed the Channel nine times in the seventies — two doubles and five singles — on his way to 34 total.

 

Cindy Nicholas

(1974    Lake Ontario at age 16)

1975   

English Channel

1976   

English Channel twice

1977   

first woman to complete an English Channel double. Her 19:55 smashed the previous overall record, Jon Erikson’s 29:50, by almost 10 hours.

1978   

English Channel

1978   

Queen of the Channel (1978-1992)

1979   

English Channel double, breaking her own record

1979   

English Channel twice

 

 

Michael Read

1970-1979   

16 English Channel crossings

1973   

Around Isle of Wight

1975, 1976   

The Wash

1979-1980    

King of the Channel (and 1980-2000, 2004-2006)

 

 

Des Renford

1970-1979   

16 English Channel crossings

1975-1979   

King of the Channel (and for a time in 1980)

 

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In remaining faithful to Nyad’s constraints, the above list omits several other great marathoners of the 1970s, in particular:

  1. Sandra Bucha and John Kinsella, both of whom dominated the pro race circuit. But those races occurred mainly in lakes, not “out in the open sea.” Kinsella swam the English Channel in 1979.
  2. Horacio Iglesias and Claudio Plit also excelled on the pro circuit. Like Kinsella, Plitt crossed the English Channel in 1979.

 

Nyad never finished close to Bucha, Kinsella, Iglesias, or Plit when she swam against them in professional races.

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“There are greater swimmers in the world. But I’m the one with charisma. I have the asset of being articulate. I can get out of the water and make people interested in my story.”

Diana Nyad, Miami Herald, 31 July 1978

 

So who was the best swimmer of the 1970s? Heck if I know. But one thing’s for sure: It wasn’t Diana Nyad.

On the other hand, no marathon swimmer in history has combined her knack for PR with her lust for attention and ease with deceit. And that’s why Diana Nyad became known as The Greatest.

 

 

The Greatest: In order of appearance — Jennie McNulty (in Walking Funny With…Diana Nyad); unknown (in 2015 Lake Forest College Commencement Speech - Diana Nyad; Claudia Bestor (in Hammer Conversations: Diana Nyad and Catherine Opie); Diana Nyad (89th National FFA Convention & Expo); Catherine Opie (in Hammer Conversations . . . ).

Music: Kevin MacLeod, “Deuces.”

 

 


Further Reading

 

Want a second opinion?

How about we consult James “Doc” Counsilman, the Hall of Fame swim coach who led Indiana University to six NCAA championships during his 33-year tenure. Counsilman coached over 60 Olympians. In 1979, at age 58, he swam the English Channel:

 

By taking on the Channel, Counsilman also hoped to help plot a truer course for a sport that he feels is being exploited by “phony-baloney promoters.” He cites the example of Diana Nyad, “a very mediocre swimmer with a very good publicist. Most of her swims have been failures. . . . Still, when she gets into the tide off the Bahamas and rides it to Florida, a swim that truly great marathoners like John Kinsella could do with one arm tied behind their backs, she gets all the attention.” (Sports Illustrated, 24 Sep 1979)
 

 
 

Image from “Go For the Gold, Doc.” Original caption reads: “Hetzel comforted Counsilman, who said, ‘It only hurt once — from the beginning to the end.’” (Photo: Terence Spencer.)

 

 

A third and a fourth?

Tom Hetzel swam the English Channel eight times:

 

“She has a tremendous reputation for not finishing races,” complains Tom Hetzel, seven-time conqueror of the English Channel. “She has gotten more publicity for doing less than anyone I know.” (People Magazine, 1976)

 

John Kinsella, Olympic medalist, world record holder, and 5-time World Professional Marathon Swimming champion:

 

Diana is such a joke to anybody who knows anything about marathons. (Chicago Tribune, 27 Aug 1978)

 

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