Starring two powerful actresses in their 60s and featuring a promotional poster of them sans glamour, the Netflix bio-flick Nyad is bound to be celebrated by women of a certain age. Annette Bening, in the title role, does all her own strokes playing the famous marathon swimmer and trained for over a year before shooting began. Jodie Foster also got into shape to play Bonnie Stoll, a trainer and former top-ranked professional racquetball player, who is also Nyad’s best friend, coach, and informal shrink.
But Diana Nyad’s physicality is only half the story.
Clearly, Nyad has her staunch supporters as well as detractors.
Previously, my knowledge of Diana Nyad was limited. I knew that she had swum around the island of Manhattan in 1975 in record time. When I learned that the movie would be taking on the story of her swim from Cuba to Florida, I had no idea how many attempts it would take and the kind of overwhelming passion and grit Nyad would need to finally succeed. Halfway through the movie’s running time, realizing how far Nyad was from fulfilling her dream despite what she had already endured, I settled in for the long haul.
Archival footage of Nyad is incorporated throughout the film, from scenes with the Twin Towers gracing the 1975 New York skyline to her 1979 appearance on the Johnny Carson show, trading quips with the star. Gradually, Nyad’s facial imagery morphs into a close-up of Bening. The script is based on Nyad’s book Find a Way, and the directors acknowledge her Phi Betta Kappa status and career as a broadcaster and motivational speaker. Questions about the veracity of some of her record claims have surfaced in tandem with Nyad. Clearly, she has her staunch supporters as well as detractors.
A Former Elite Athlete Turns 60
The story begins with Nyad’s 60th birthday and an introduction to the chemistry of her relationship with Stoll. Nyad insists she doesn’t want a surprise party and gripes, “You turn 60, and the world decides you’re a bag of bones.” Stoll deflects the grievance with humor, mentioning that since she is two years younger, she wouldn’t know.
Bening has never shied away from portraying difficult or unlikeable characters. She delivers a Nyad who is abrasive, self-centered, and complex—but hard not to admire even in her most alienating moments. Bening speaks in a range of deep vocal tonalities, especially noticeable when dispensing pronouncements about the world, such as, “Where is the excellence?”
The name Nyad means water nymphs in Greek, as the swimmer frequently tells people.
In a scene where Nyad tries on a bathing suit, she looks at her reflection with some confusion, as if questioning how the thickened body in the mirror could possibly be hers. After watching videos of her earlier achievements, she signs up for lane time at the local pool. She sings to herself (Simon and Garfunkel) as she begins her laps. Tapes of her father play in her head, along with his references to how the name Nyad means water nymphs in Greek.
Nyad shares her vision of a re-do of her attempted swim from Cuba to Florida with Stoll, whose initial reaction is a combination of disbelief and dismissal. Nyad hasn’t “put on goggles” in 30 years. The reply is boilerplate Nyad: “I don’t believe in limitations.” If anything, Nyad assesses that she is more emotionally equipped to take on the challenge than she was at 28—because then she was missing “the mindset.” Now, she points out, “I’ve more in me.”
No More Sitting on the Sidelines
Her first foray back into the pool doesn’t meet Nyad’s expectations of herself. After clocking only four hours and 14 minutes, she engages in a soliloquy of harsh negative self-talk. The next time in the water, Nyad mentally envisions being cheered by her school friends and coach. With a new musical soundtrack in her head spurring her on, Nyad doubles her swim time. She takes up a regimen of lifting weights and vigorous exercise. “No more sitting on the sidelines!” she says.
From seeking financial sponsors to assembling the best possible support team, the audience follows Nyad on her quest to reach her goal. Who knew the kind of planning that went into undertaking such an ambitious marathon swim?
After securing a top-notch navigator, John Bartlett (Rhys Ifans), Nyad announces that she will not use a shark cage for protection this time around. “I don’t want an asterisk next to my life’s greatest achievement.”
Failure and More Failure
Each failed endeavor brings new lessons on how to beat the odds of ferocious water currents, wind, and unpredictable weather. Bartlett pores over maps and computer information detailing precipitation trends and shifting tides. The crew expands to solve each problem that has previously stymied Nyad. Recruited are the best medical doctor, an expert on box-jellyfish, and the inventors of an electrical shield device to repel sharks. A specially designed body suit and mask are developed to protect Nyad from jellyfish attacks.
Nyad’s behavior is beyond exhausting.
The rules of the swim protocol are rigid. No one is allowed to physically touch Nyad. She is fed by a tube from the side of the boat. Physical reactions such as vomiting and hallucinations are not uncommon. Ramifications from the continued exposure to salt water are punishing. When Nyad holds a press conference in Cuba as she waits for the best window of opportunity to begin her swim, she tells those gathered that she has signed a contract with her soul to “Never, ever give up.”
At different times, Nyad severely alienates both Stoll and Bartlett. She is who she is. It’s impossible for her to publicly thank her crew without veering off into a self-congratulatory speech. Stoll, who has been integral to Nyad’s efforts, finally snaps and tells her, “Cut the shit! All this me, me, me, crap.”
Nyad’s behavior is beyond exhausting. Yet, when you watch the flashbacks of her early home life and the relationship with her swimming coach, Jack Nelson, they provide some context to her attitudes and coping strategies.
Nelson, an Olympic swimmer, head of the USA Women’s swim team at the 1976 Olympics, and member of the Swimming Hall of Fame, began sexually abusing Nyad when she was 14 years old. (Other female swimmers also accused him. A case was never prosecuted.) When Nelson dies, Nyad says to Bartlett plaintively, “Why didn’t I fight harder?” At that moment, her hard edges briefly appear to dissolve.
If at First You Don’t Succeed…
The film is a testament to the support and encouragement of long-time female friendship. Although not everyone is a Diana Nyad, her message of not giving up on a cherished pursuit is worthwhile. Or, as she says after another incomplete swim, “I’m free to keep trying.”
After another incomplete swim, she says, “I’m free to keep trying.”
On September 2, 2013, after 52 hours and 54 minutes in the water and five attempts over 35 years, Nyad completed her swim from Cuba to Florida. The actual distance was 103 miles, but with the currents, Nyad racked up 110 miles.
Both of her ankles had to be entirely out of the water for her finish to be considered official. When they were, in front of a cheering crowd wearing #FearlessNyad shirts and a slew of cameras, she fell exhausted into Stoll’s arms.
This time, she made a point of letting her admirers know that she couldn’t have done it alone and without the support of her crew.
Nyad also proclaims, “You’re never too old to chase your dreams.”