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Diana Nyad defends herself to skeptics of Cuba-Florida swim

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press
Wednesday, September 11, 2013 - 8:18 am

MIAMI — Addressing her skeptics, Diana Nyad claimed the right to set the ground rules for future swims from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage.

Speculation that she had gotten into or held onto a boat during part of her 53-hour journey drove Nyad and her team to hold a lengthy conference call Tuesday night with about a dozen members of the marathon swimming community.

Nyad said it was her understanding of the sport that the first person to make a crossing got to set the rules for that body of water. She said her "Florida Straits Rules" would largely maintain what they all agree on: no flippers, no shark cage, no getting out of the water, never holding on to the boat, never holding on to the kayak, never being supported by another human being or being lifted up or helped with buoyancy.

She would allow innovations such as the protective full-body suit and mask she wore to shield herself from the venomous jellyfish that can alter a swim as much as a strong current. Marathon swimming purists had questioned whether that gear violated the traditions of the sport.

"It is the only way. The swim requires it," Nyad said. "I don't mean to fly in the face of your rules, but for my own life's safety, a literal life-and-death measure, that's the way we did it."

Nyad said she never left the water or allowed her support team to help her beyond handing her food and assisting her with her jellyfish suit.

"I swam. We made it, our team, from the rocks of Cuba to the beach of Florida, in squeaky-clean, ethical fashion," Nyad said.

Her critics have been skeptical about long stretches of the 53-hour swim were Nyad appeared to have either picked up incredible speed or to have gone without food or drink. Since Nyad finished her swim Sept. 2 in Key West, Fla., long-distance swimmers have been debating the topic on social media and in online forums.

After the call, Evan Morrison said Nyad and her team addressed most of the issues that concerned the members of the online Marathon Swimmers Forum, which he co-founded.

He was pleased by Nyad's pledge that all the observations and notes taken by her navigator, John Bartlett, and two official observers of the swim will be made available for public examination.

"I wouldn't expect to discover anything untoward, but I think it will help us understand a lot better what happened and give us a fuller picture of the achievement," Morrison told The Associated Press. "That's just part of the process. This was a great first step."

Nyad's speed, at some points more than doubling her average of 1.5 mph, has drawn particular scrutiny. Bartlett attributed her speed to the fast-moving Gulf Stream flowing in her favor.

Nyad's fastest speed averaged about 3.97 mph over a 5.5-hour period over about 19 miles on Sept. 1, crossing the strongest parts of the Gulf Stream, which was flowing at a favorable angle, Bartlett said.

"What you're seeing is the combination of the speed of Diana propelling herself in the water and the speed of the current carrying us across the bottom," he said.

Nyad and her team said published statements by her doctors that she went seven hours without eating or drinking were mistakes, and while there were hours when she didn't eat solid food, she never went more than 45 minutes without water once she was well on her way from Cuba.

Not all of the open water swimmers on the call questioned Nyad's methods or track.

"I feel sorry for the questions you were just asked, understanding that when you're the first person to do something, the questions you're asked are rather ridiculous," said Penny Dean, who set records swimming across the English and Catalina channels. "I think the only thing she needs to show are the logs of the swim."

Nyad attempted the swim from Cuba to Florida four times before finally completing the journey on her fifth attempt, making her the first to make it without the aid of a shark cage.

Nyad said she had not known about all the controversy over her methods and speed until it made national news.

"First of all, I was trying to feel some joy," she said.