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The Demons of Diana Nyad

Feb 11, 2014  - Casey Barrett

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 ago. 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.