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Diana Nyad’s epic Cuba to Florida swim stirs debate in marathon swimming community

Simon Griffiths | H2Open Editor | Monday 02 September 2013

On 2 Sep 2013 Diana Nyad completed a staggering 103 mile swim from Cuba to Florida. She’s 64 and has attempted this swim four times previously. Other world class swimmers have also tried and failed, usually brought down by jellyfish stings but fickle weather and sheer exhaustion have also played a part.

Australian Susie Maroney completed the swim in 1997 using a shark cage but this is the first time it has been completed without such a device. Nyad first attempted the swim in 1978.

The swim took 52 hours, 54 minutes and 18 seconds, has attracted global coverage and wide acclaim. Nyad even received a Tweet from US President Barack Obama that read, “Congratulations to @DianaNyad. Never give up on your dreams.”

But not everyone is delighted.

In the world of marathon swimming, Nyad is a controversial figure. Like any sport, marathon swimming has developed a set of conventions. For certain well-known swims, such as the English Channel, there is a set of rules that must be followed for the swim to be ratified. Other significant crossings also have their own associations and rules, which usually closely resemble those for the English Channel.

When experienced marathon swimmers attempt new crossings or circumnavigations, the convention is that they will stick to English Channel rules.

Nyad is controversial because she has deviated from these conventions, although there are no specific rules in place for a Cuba to Florida swim. For example, she used a silicon mask and a full body costume to reduce the risk of jellyfish stings. To some, this is a sensible and logical precaution for a swim that is known for its jellies. To others it (admittedly only an extreme few) it disqualifies the swim from serious consideration.

The swim has also been described as something of a floating circus and there is some disquiet amongst marathon swimmers about the global attention it’s garnered. Perhaps this is because swimmers are used to plugging away quietly on solitarily on their swims far from the media’s attention. There is concern that the media attention may damage the sport.

However, the majority verdict seems to be something like, “even if she didn’t stick to our usual rules, it’s still an amazing achievement.”

You can see some of the views expressed by swimmers on www.marathonswimmers.org

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(c) Jeff Coble