In a world full of “heroes” be your own shero

I’ve been watching a wave of hate roll in toward Diana Nyad increasing in intensity as NYAD the movie approaches its Netflix November 3rd release. It’s reminiscent of the tsunami that flooded the open water community in September 2013 when the at-the-time 64 year-old, on her 5th attempt, entered the water off Havana Cuba to swim her way to Key West Florida. I was new to the world of ultra-marathon swimming and at that time naively believed that what many call the pinnacle of the sport, the English Channel, would make or break you as a swimmer. I have since learned that what makes or breaks you often has nothing to do with swimming.

I am not suggesting by any means that one should not check the validity of a swim, particularly when a person is claiming a record. But as we do this, I believe it should be very systematic and focused on facts. It should not be done in a way that creates a space for and elicits personal attacks.

There are 17 feeds and 1,344 unique posts on the Marathon Swim Federation’s forum (a community that prides itself on integrity) devoted to Diana Nyad. In November 2017 one of the site’s administrators temporarily locked one of the feeds stating, “I will repeat that I personally want MSF to be seen as productive and positive for the sport and not be perceived as entirely driven by a negative obsession.” Soon after, the Diana Nyad Fact Check Site feed, discussing a website created by Daniel Slosberg, was locked down as the administrators grappled with the onslaught of new hate feeds being created warning “New posts on Diana Nyad will not be allowed without prior approval of the admins. Please confine discussion of the Cheat to existing discussions such as this or the other epic threads.”

At one point someone attempted to create a positive thread in the forum only to soon find it too became a wasteland of hate. The 17 existing Nyad related feeds are now closed with a warning to forum users that new feeds will be deleted without prior approval by the administrators. I feel that regardless of how one feels about an individual, our feelings about them should not be used to validate (or not) their swim.

I don’t want to spend my time debating whether Nyad did or didn’t swim all the way from Cuba to Florida, or if it was assisted or unassisted, or what rules she did or did not declare before entering the water; there’s a plethora of information and opinions about that all over the internet. What I have been spending my time thinking about however, are the constant references to the preservation of the integrity of the sport and how women’s achievements are being “erased” – a claim made by Slosberg and his reason for creating his Nyad FactCheck website – a website that long after the facts have been checked continues to this day to feed hate.

Following the quest for truth on what some saw as Nyad’s heroic swim and others saw as little more than a bid for fame, the marathon swim community may be prompted to one day scrutinize all such swims. This leaves me wondering what would happen to some of our heroes of the past? Would their swims withstand the test? Would some be erased or seen as less heroic?

As an example, Jon Erikson, Philip Rush, Alison Streeter, and Chloë McCardel have all completed 3-ways crossings of the English Channel – all heroic achievements. In 2019 Sarah Thomas surpassed them completing the first known 4 way crossing – an incredible feat by any standard. But what would happen if her swim was scrutinized the same way Nyad’s was? Would the observer(s) be able to produce the swim logs? What would be in them? Would they be as complete as the call for details from Nyad’s swim? And what other data would be requested?

I say this knowing that there are two questions currently floating around the marathon swim community related Thomas’ swim. They surfaced when the documentary about her swim, The Other Side, aired. On one of her crossings Thomas did not exit the water but rather touched the breakwater and then turned around. The rules she swam under state:

For a multiple crossing to be officially recognized, the swimmer must, as soon as they make contact with the ground, land as directly as possible in accordance with rule11(c). They must then return immediately to the water, where they may stand or sit for up to 10 minutes.” – ChannelSwimming and Piloting Federation

What does this mean in regards to the validity Thomas’ swim?

A second incident was related to the use of prescription drugs. During the swim, Thomas consumed prescribed cancer medication that she used for nausea during her past cancer treatment. According to Thomas the medication was left over from her treatment and was on board for her mother to use in the event that her mother became nauseous. When Thomas became ill during the swim however, unable to hold down food, her crew crushed the medication and mixed it with a small amount of water for her to ingest. According to the rules she was following:

“The use of drugs by participants in Channel Swimming, other than for therapeutic reasons in accordance with medical advice, is regarded with complete disapproval and is considered contrary to the spirit of the sport.“ – Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation

What does this mean in the context of Thomas’ swim?  It appears  on the surface she did not follow the rules. Is there more to this story? And how do the swimmers that swam the 3-way crossing feel about her use of prescription medication? Slosberg accuses Nyad of erasing his friends swim history. How does he feel about Thomas’ deviation from the rules? Does he see her as erasing the significant achievements of Erikson, Rush, Streeter, and Chloë McCardel or has Thomas achieved something different?

My point here is to not take away from Thomas’ achievement – it was truly remarkable. If there is to be true integrity in the sport however, these swims should be treated equal in their review. We should not just scrutinize the swims by unpopular swimmers. Nyad and Thomas are, in my humble opinion, both heroes in their own way and have inspired thousands to better their circumstance. The other swimmers who came before them are also heroes as they pushed the limits of the sport and inspired us all. The challenge I have as a woman observing this, is that we are allowing others to define our achievements, and define our attempts as success or failure. We are allowing others to decide if we fit their predefined mold of who they think we should or should not be. 

Not too long ago Andy Donaldson became the first person to complete the Oceans Seven in just under 1 year. It reminded me of a project Beth French, a 42-year-old a single mom from the UK, originally conceived of and attempted. During the project, French, who reached out to a Cook Strait governing body was told she was too slow to attempt the swim which was required for Oceans 7. Wanting to control her own destiny, she arranged an independent swim and completed the Cook Strait. She was branded a “bandit swimmer” and was treated as a pariah for not using the Marathon Swim Federation’s (MSF) preferred organization. As I woman I thank her for standing up and demonstrating what we are capable of, even when others say no.

Jaimie Monahan, a well respected and established swimmer, completed 31 swims around Manhattan Island including 7 laps in 7 days and an incredible Quadruple (184km) swim. She commissioned New York Open Water for her second and third swim as well as a double, the remainder were with Urban Swim for safety reasons (see JEREMY WHELCHEL vs. NEW YORK OPEN WATER INC. and DAVID J. BARRA). MSF’s preferred association for hire is New York Open Water, who’s co-founder and President is David Barra, also a core team member of MSF.  Jaimie’s Urban Swims have been excluded from her profile in MSF’s database – it is as though they have been erased from her achievements. 

As Slosberg actively works with MSF in an attempt to prevent his friends swims from being erased, which interestingly are now more known because of the Nyad swim, I wonder if he has considered that the organization he is working with is in my opinion “erasing” the achievements of women? Even my own swim across Juan de Fuca Strait is not included on the MSF website. Although I tried to hire MSF’s preferred organization, the North West Open Water Swim Association, they pulled out of my swim the last hour leaving me with 3 options:  1) swim it with another organization, 2) wait another year and try with NOWSA again or 3) possibly never swim it at all as I awaited “permission” from NOWSA. I chose to swim under the Masters Swim Association of British Columbia who has been overseeing swims in the Salish Sea longer than both MSF and NOWSA have existed. MSF defended their exclusion of me from their long swims database by disregarding MSABC and suggesting they are nothing more that a group of masters swimmers. I was branded a bandit swimmer.

I also discovered that both Marilyn Bell’s and Vicki Keith’s swims were downgraded from 29km crossings to 16km crossings on the North West Open Water Swim Association’s website when their co-funder and president Andrew Malinak completed his 16km crossing. At the time NOWSA opted to have all crossings seen as the same regardless of the distance completed. This put Malinak in the position of having the fasted crossing on record.  Malinak is one of the founding members of MSF and part of their core team.

NOWSA has also wrongfully, in my opinion, bestowed the title of first women to swim the chilly strait upon Amy Hiland not Marilyn Bell. The original swim at that time was from Port Angeles to Victoria. Hiland and Laughren were swept down the strait to Metchosin by a massive current, completing only 16km of the crossing. Technically, the did not complete the 29km intended swim. Marilyn Bell is deserving of the title.

screen capture from the NOWSA website

As I witness the erosion of swim history through what appears to be the manipulation of swim records and the exclusion of women’s achievements from those records – those women who dared to swim outside of the confines of MSF – I find myself wondering why people who claim integrity allow this to happen and actively participate in the degradation of other women. And I ask, why as women are we allowing others to define what we can and can not do. Why are we not standing beside each other and saying “I see you, I value your achievements, and I celebrate you” – regardless of what those achievements are.

Be a shero and please stand with those who are brave enough to break with a patriarchal norms that continue to place limits on and govern what women can and cannot do. One day you too may find your self at the ultra-marathon swim pulpit begging for your opportunity and being denied, when in reality you should not have to ask.

As the bullies come out and scrutinize all that those who dared to be different and those who stand beside them, try not get caught-up in a culture that does not allow you to decide who your heroes are. 

15 thoughts on “In a world full of “heroes” be your own shero

  1. Wowza! What a messy situation. Thank you for sharing! I’m going to see the movie tomorrow and I’m so glad you set the record straight (in many ways). Sorry it’s gotten so complicated. We should value all these amazing accomplishments!

  2. No need to be a Shero because the original Hero was a woman.
    Who was Hero? Hero was a priestess of Aphrodite in Greek mythology, who lived in a tower in Sestos, on the western shores of the Hellespont.

  3. Well said!

    Point the direction and go,
    apply safe guards to insure both your safety and those around you
    Have a plan for accountability
    Challenge what you know to be true when it gets tough
    Return home to the ones you love….

    E’ry one else can bugger off

  4. Susan, the politics and logistics of these organizations leave me baffled.
    At the end of the day though, I am in awe of what you and your marathon colleagues do. Just keep shining a light on these amazing accomplishments and let the rest of us mere mortals know how we can amplify that light.

  5. Sounds like a bias conflict of interest and unless your on MSF’s members board and male your not on their list.

    Sea swimming is unpredictable and bloody hard with months and hours of training, so when the time and weather is all good and the safety team are there ready, it’s all hands on deck and swim!

    You go girl! Swimming and in the ocean is another strength we have and you know you did it, and any other sea swimmer shouldn’t take that away from anyone, when they know themselves how hard it is!

  6. Great, compelling and insightful read, Susan! Please keep doing what you do and holding your head up high (except, of course, during your swims)!

  7. Thank you for writing this.
    I learned about Diana Nyad when I was very ill with ulcerative colitis and not able to do any sports. I watched her Ted videos, read her book, and was incredibly inspired by her. When I finally had my colon removed and was able to swim – I did so because of Diana Nyad.
    While I can’t comment on the validity of Diana Nyad’s swim – I can attest that she is a big reason for why I swim. She inspired me to try something new. I believed that if she could overcome so much, then so can I.
    I will watch the Netflix documentary. I expect to be inspired again. I expect to start dreaming about swimming goals.
    No hero is bulletproof.

  8. Susan, you are listed as a member of the WOWSA advisory board. Do you endorse their denial of ratification for Diana Nyad’s swim? How did you vote, personally?

  9. Susan, I know you’re suppressing comments that reveal your utter hypocrisy. So as long as I have your attention, how is your effort to create a new association going?

    Susan, please keep lashing out to fill your empty life. Everyone knows what you’re up to.

    • Hi there anonymous person. If you would like to know the status of I suggest you ask who ever owns the domain.

  10. Susan, I see you, I value your achievements, and I celebrate you.”

    You are an exceptional woman and I am so thankful for your work. You are a hero to so very many!

  11. Whoa! Anonymous person, I would suggest perhaps you look inwards at your own presumably empty life rather than hurl that hilarious accusation at a woman whose life is anything but. I know everyone says haters gonna hate, but maybe some therapy would help you out.

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