The Demons of Diana Nyad

In a New Yorker profile, the marathon swimming queen reveals a dark and troubled past... including allegations of sexual abuse by Hall of Fame coach Jack Nelson when she was a teen... You could see it coming. We've heard this story before, we know the set up. "I had him on a pedestal - he was it," she says. "I was just dying for some leadership and I selected him."

I gulped, knowing what was coming next. And sure enough... Another tale that sounded darkly familiar. Young teenage girl, coach in his mid-30s. Girl is ambitious, trying to swim away from a bad home life, savors the guidance, the encouragement. Might even be in love with this older man who makes her feel so strong. He makes her feel like she can achieve anything. If only she does what he says. And then it happens. One afternoon when she's 14, he forces himself on her. He continues molesting her throughout high school, in hotel rooms away at meets, in his office off the deck, in his car.

No, we're not talking about Rick Curl. Diana Nyad is talking about her old coach, Jack Nelson. The same Jack Nelson who was the head coach of the U.S. Olympic women's team in 1976. The same guy who was an Olympian himself, in the 200 fly, back in 1956. The same Jack Nelson that I remember well, from his days leading the Ft. Lauderdale Swim Club. He was an irrepressible spark plug of a man, a short stocky presence of infectious cheer. In 1993, the city of Ft. Lauderdale named him its man of the year.

That was 29 years later. The allegations in question occurred long before he became so beloved and decorated as a coach. In an astonishing profile by Ariel Levy on Nyad in this week's New Yorker, she says that Nelson first abused her in 1964, when she was 14. He would have been 33 at the time. After years of the abuse, Nyad says she told a teammate about it. The teammate told her that Nelson had done the same to her. They reported him to the Headmaster of Pine Crest, where Nelson was coaching at the time, where Nyad was a student. He was asked to leave at the end of the school year. It didn't take him long to find another nearby job and continue his rise as a coach. Twelve years later, he reached the pinnacle of his profession, as the head coach of a U.S. Olympic team.

This abuse allegedly occurred half a century ago. The scars run deep. They clearly helped motivate her in that mad Quixote-esque quest to swim from Cuba to Florida. She's spoken of it before, through the years, but seldom named Nelson by name. Still, the story has been out there. Google 'Diana Nyad' and the first auto-fill that pops up after her name is 'Diana Nyad Jack Nelson.' Google 'Jack Nelson' and you get the same. However, Ariel Levy got her to open up in ways no one has ever done. It's the best profile ever published about her, and plenty has already been reported about a swimmer who's never been shy about selling her story.

Now, there are plenty in the swimming community who have their doubts about Nyad's truth-telling abilities. A lot of folks doubt that she really did legitimately make it, finally, on her fifth attempt, from Cuba to Florida. There are sections of the swim where her progress does indeed seem hard to believe. The word "unassisted" is murky when you're out there in the open ocean, hallucinating, with friends nearby who care deeply for you, who desperately want you to achieve your greatest dream. Maybe they did cross a line and help Nyad along. If you ask me, who cares? The woman accomplished something epic and inspiring, and if you're going to split hairs about it, then you're missing the point.

Feel free to doubt her achievement in the water all you like. But reading her words about the abuse she says she endured, it's hard to have any doubt there. Not when you read a passage like this: "With the coach, for me, it's not complicated," she said. "I've had all kinds of fantasies of being out in the woods and tying him to a tree and putting his penis on a marble slab and walking around with a hatchet and watching him cry and plead, and I'd say 'Oh, remember me? Remember when I was crying? You didn't seem to care too much about my feelings.' And then leaving him to bleed to death."

Those are words of imagined revenge for sins that run deeper than death. Read that again, and ask yourself if that sounds like a person who's lying?

So, was Jack Nelson ever questioned about all this? He was. Back in 2007, 43 years after the abuse allegedly began, Nelson was questioned by the Ft. Lauderdale police. He denied everything. His explanation? Nyad had said she "wanted to be a writer, and wanted to have the ability to write things that were not true and make people believe them."

Which is a clever and stunningly insulting way of saying: the girl is a liar. Apparently, having aspirations to write fiction makes a person inherently a liar who will make up horrible things about someone just because... well, just because that's what writers do, right?

Jack Nelson is now 82 years old and suffering from advanced Alzheimer's. If his 50-year-old abuse of Nyad is true, then he's gotten away with it.

But some things you can never out swim.

The Altered States of Swimming

As we enter the post-Phelps era, the sport finds itself reeling between robust health and on-going sickness... A new Olympiad has begun. Michael Phelps is gone. Ryan Lochte is becoming Derek Zoolander. Missy Franklin continues to resist millions so she can swim in college. That's the narrative of the big three, anyway. The three short hand stories of the sport that have spread into the mainstream. That's what your friends in the dry land world know about swimming. They might have also heard about some dark sex scandals, involving coaches and teenage swimmers, but we'll get to that in a bit...

Tomorrow marks the one-year anniversary of this blog. It was started last September with a piece entitled The Phelps Effect. It detailed the ways that Michael Phelps's dominance may have killed off the depth and ambition in American swimming. There was evidence of that back at the World Championships in 2011. At the Games in London, the symptoms of this 'Phelps Effect' appear to have been killed off. Just ask Tyler Clary, Matt Grevers, and Nathan Adrian - three American guys not named Phelps or Lochte who raced to individual Olympic gold this summer.

Seventy-five stories later, this site has managed to piss off, provoke, and hopefully entertain and enlighten many in the swimming community. Just what I'd hoped for... And so it seems like a fine time to take a step back and examine the sport in its many altered states.

The contrasts are dizzying, like a too-heavy trip that throws your mind from transcendence to terror and back again. At the peak, an Olympics with grace and greatness on display at every turn. At the depths, scandal that threatens the foundation of the sport itself and delivers crushing blows to the reputation of coaches everywhere. So much to love, so much to hate.

First, the health... By damn near every standard, the sport of swimming has never been in better shape. Sure, Micheal the Meal Ticket has left the table, but he has left a feast of riches. The competition in London was as good as any Olympic swimming in history. Across the board. Thrilling upsets, epic relays, all-time moments every night. And despite the unfortunate tape delay by NBC, more viewers tuned in to watch swimmers than ever before.

At the age group level, there has never been more kids taking part in this sport. In the U.S., there are currently 362,700 registered competitive swimmers and almost 3,000 member clubs. That's a 17% increase from four years ago, and remember, four years ago was its own high water mark after Phelps's Beijing bonanza. Across the world, it's safe to say that the ranks of young swimmers in France and South Africa and Brazil are also swelling as we speak, thanks to overachieving performances in London and a Rio Games on the horizon. This is a sport on the rise, and not just within American borders.

The sport also appears to have finally turned a corner when it comes to diversity. Sure, it remains embarrassingly too-white at every meet. But that's changing - at the top, with the likes of Tony Ervin and Cullen Jones and Lia Neal - but also at the ground level, as grassroots programs like Make a Splash are reaching scores of young athletes who might never have been exposed to the pool.

Phelps did indeed change the sport, but he wasn't alone. The tide has been rising for a long time, well before he took the blocks as a teenager in Sydney, and it will continue to rise in the Olympiad ahead.

Now, the sickness... Swimming has an image problem. (And no, I don't mean Seth MacFarlane's mean-spirited mockery of Lochte on SNL last week.) Today, Rick Curl was banned for life from USA Swimming. Two decades too late, some might say. His namesake team, Curl-Burke, was renamed Nation's Capital Swim Club. Or NCAP for short. (One friend from the area quipped: "Does that stand for 'No Coitus After Practice'?")

On Monday, Mark Schubert was hauled into the ugliness, facing a lawsuit from a former assistant for unlawful firing. Basically, she accuses Schubert of Paterno'ing - that is, not doing anything after he was made aware of sexual abuse allegations against a close coaching colleague, Bill Jewell. Not doing anything except fire the whistle blower, that is. As wrote: "another embarrassing turn for a sport that has taken steps over the last two years to combat widespread claims of sexual misconduct."

Then the Schubert story gets crime novel crazy. The suit alleges that Schubert and Jewell were the less-than-masterminds behind Sean Hutchison's downfall at FAST. Word is that Schubert hired a private investigator to take pictures of Hutchison engaged in sexual activities with one of his swimmers. (An adult swimmer, it's worth noting...) Schubert then apparently took the pics from the P.I. and used them to blackmail USA Swimming to the tune of $625,000 to keep the compromising photos under wraps. If you believe all this, you're about as bright as the guy being sued. But the facts, whatever they are, are just part of the problem. Regardless of how this lawsuit ends, this is yet another blow to the image of our sport.

Think about it: Rick Curl and Mark Schubert. A pair of Hall of Famers. Their characters aside, these are two of the most successful and celebrated swim coaches in history. When parents looked for the very best programs for their children, when former swimmers chose to stay in the sport and become coaches, these two used to be the examples. The ones you turned to as pillars of the profession. Now they seem to exemplify an on-going sickness that still isn't cured.

Here's something else that remains deeply ill: the state of men's college swimming. How many Olympic medalists in London were the product of NCAA programs? 30, by my count, but feel free to fact check. Florida, Michigan, Cal, Northwestern, USC, and Georgia each produced individual Olympic champions in London. How many other international athletes were at the Games after developing their talents at U.S. universities?

Of course, that's all good and well, but Olympic medals don't pay for college athletic budgets and men's swimming remains at grave risk at dozens of schools. Gratefully, the women's programs appear to be well protected under Title IX provisions, but the growing ranks of young male swimmers are going to want some place to continue racing after they turn 18. Let's hope enough college teams can stick around to serve them.

It's easy to get wrapped up and warped in these extremes. Olympic triumphs, coaching sex scandals, college programs being cut... These are the Heavens and the Hells of a sport that continues to carry on day after day, lap after lap, in countless pools all over the world. Most of you will never experience any of this. The highs might inspire you and the lows might enrage you, but do they really change your own daily swimmer's reality? A reality that is drenched in chlorine and early mornings and worthy dreams.

When you're under water and on an interval, all this stuff ceases to matter. All that exists is that pure altered state of swimming.

Hot Water

Fran Crippen, One Year Later The water was 88 degrees, the air almost 100. Like swimming through soup, under an unyielding Shanghai summer sun. If you'd been tanning on the beach, a quick dip in these waters would not cool you off. If you were planning on racing 25km, over 15 miles, in these conditions, forget about it. Reckless Endangerment would be the first two words to come to mind. Wikipedia defines this term as such: "A person commits the crime of reckless endangerment if the person recklessly engages in conduct which creates a substantial risk of serious physical injury to another person." Sounds about right.

So, back in July at the World Championships, what exactly was FINA doing, allowing the world's greatest open water swimmers to compete in water this hot? As Team USA's Alex Meyer said at the time: "It's like, did you not learn your lesson? Do you not remember what happened last time?"

Yes, last time. One year ago this Sunday. The day that Fran Crippen died, in water cooler than this, in a race near Dubai. On the eve of this tragic anniversary, it feels appropriate to take a look at exactly what has changed in the sport Fran died for -- and what has not. The temperature of the water being most troubling of all...

I sought out Germany's Thomas Lurz for some perspective. Lurz, in case you're a follower of only what happens in the pool, is open water's reigning king, a three-time winner of Swimming World's Open Water Swimmer of the Year, and the favorite for gold next year in London. In Shanghai at Worlds, he won gold in the 10km race. A few days later, he was one of many who pulled out of the 25km race, refusing to enter water that hot, with dark memories of that October day in Dubai. When Crippen never emerged from those waters, Lurz was one of the guys who charged back in to search for his missing friend.

When I emailed him, this was the first line of his reply: "Some things changed, but still not enough... Still no temperature limits."

How could this be? We all realize that there were many factors that contributed to Crippen's death -- from the negligence of race organizers in Dubai to the lack of basic safety requirements in sanctioned open water events. But at its core, wasn't it about the conditions? About extreme exertion in a very very hot environment, without considering the potentially disastrous consequences?

In Shanghai, the official response from FINA was that the proposed temperature limits were "a guideline, not a rule." Translation: Making, and then breaking, rules brings legal accountability. Setting, and then disregarding, guidelines brings, well, a shrug. Make it a judgement call and you're in the clear. Make it a rule and it's your ass on the line.

FINA's supreme ruler (sorry, 'Executive Director') Cornel Marculescu followed with the political 'we're working it', saying that FINA and the IOC are working with a New Zealand university on establishing a clear temperature limit, adding that "the target is to be ready by the end of this year and it will be included in the rules for 2012 and the Olympics."

Ok... But is a university study really necessary to confirm a range that's already abundantly clear to the athletes in the water? Said Lurz: "A limit between 17-28C (63-83F) would be great. Perhaps then you can make a 0.5 degree (range of error) up and down to get the race started, but a race under 16C (61F) and over 29 (84F) shouldn't be started." Like the one in Shanghai, which wasn't even close to this proposed range...

Before this turns into a FINA-bashing fest, some credit is due. Lurz was quick to point out that there have indeed been a great many changes to open water events across the globe. He notes that there are more safety boats on courses than ever before. He cited a race in Cancun as one impressive example, as scuba divers were positioned throughout the course, particularly around the turning buoys where there are often the greatest threats to safety.

Unfortunately, low-lights remain at certain destinations. With dry understatement, he noted that "Hong Kong is a nice place, but swimming inside the shark nets would be nice." And in Santos, Brazil, he paints a nasty picture of diseased water: "Not so nice. Dirty water with huge pieces of wood with nails on it. Dead fish, turtles, and rats." One can only hope that tetanus shots were available at the finish.

Anyone familiar with the wild west history of open water swimming knows that this sort of thing sometimes comes with the territory. In her incredible memoir, Swimming to Antarctica, Lynne Cox writes of stomach-turning aquatic adventures, including a race in the Nile River, strewn with animal carcasses, that unsurprisingly resulted in a severe case of dysentery.

Still, that was then, and the adventures of Cox and other frontiersmen and women are a different game. The challenge and danger of the unknown is the point. It is about overcoming and reaching, eventually, slowly, excruciatingly, the other shore, no matter how long it takes. It is not about winning a race. When competition enters the equation, certain regulation becomes essential. It becomes a matter of fairness, but more than that, a matter of safety. Athletes immersed in intense competition are seldom the best judges of their personal safety. (As the concussion epidemic in sports like football and hockey so grimly illustrate...)

One year ago it didn't seem possible. That a swimmer, one of our own, could die in the midst of a race. As we quickly learned, it was a death that was preventable. This wasn't a freak heart attack, a there-by-the-grace-of-God sickness so inexplicable we couldn't hope to understand. The causes of Fran Crippen's death were understandable. Too much so, uncomfortably so. He was involved in a race of extreme negligence and dangerous conditions. In the end, the water was too hot. It should never be again.