Netflix Biopic ‘Nyad’ Directors Push Back Against Criticism of Cuba-Florida Swim

Annette Bening stars as Diana Nyad, whose 2013 swim raised questions from some in the community

Annette Bening and Jodie Foster in "Nyad" (Netflix)

One of the films Netflix is pinning its awards hopes on this year, “Nyad,” is facing criticism amid continuing accusations about the swimmer Diana Nyad’s 2013 Cuba-to-Florida swim, but the filmmakers — and Nyad herself — seem undeterred.

The Los Angeles Times reported that the biopic, the narrative feature debut of documentary filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and “Free Solo” Oscar winner Jimmy Chin that is debuting at Telluride this week, has generated vociferous complaints online from the world of marathon swimming and resurfaced questions over her most famous accomplishment, the 110-mile swim across the shark-infested Florida Straits.

With Annette Benning as Nyad and Jodie Foster as her close friend Bonnie Stoll, the film is considered one of Netflix’s biggest contenders for an Oscar.

“When you are pushing the edges of your sport, you have a target on your back — and, it seems, particularly if you’re an outspoken gay woman in her 60s,” Chin told the Los Angeles Times. “A lot of the athletes that I’ve worked with haven’t been universally loved because they’re dedicated and committed.”

Right from the beginning, the 110-mile swim, which Nyad completed in her fourth attempt, raised questions. The World Open Water Swimming Association., one of the sport’s two main global organizations, has a scathing piece on its website, “‘Nyad’ on Netflix: The Swim, The Scandal, The Silence,” stating that she improvised rules for her swim, which lacks official ratification as a record (ratification that Nyad’s allies are still pushing for).

The post slams her for not releasing observer logs and GPS data from the swim and claims that there is a “significant gap in the records, particularly during a period when Nyad’s condition shifted dramatically,” that “calls for further expert analysis.”

In an open letter to the swimming community in 2023 in which he pushed back on criticism of her swim, International Swimming Hall of Fame Honor Administrator Evan Morrison pleaded with the community to stop attacking Nyad.

“I’ve been as staunch and vocal a defender of traditional solo marathon swimming rules and standards as anyone,” he said. “But I believe the continued criticism of Diana no longer serves our community, at a time when potentially millions will be exposed to marathon swimming through a major motion picture. If even a tiny fraction of these viewers are inspired to dip their toes in the open water for the first time, this translates into a vast influx of new swimmers.”

Part of what is at issue is Nyad’s self-aggrandizing personality.

“Diana is like a Trumpian figure in this space,” Elaine K. Howley, a marathon swimmer and journalist told the Times. “Whether you like her or not, she sucks up all of the oxygen in the room with her boastfulness and exaggeration and narcissism. There are conflicted feelings because finally this really cool, really hard sport we love is getting the feature movie that it deserves — and there are a lot of us who feel, like, really? You’re going to make it about her?”

Vasarhelyi countered that attacks against Nyad drip with misogyny.

“Self-aggrandizing? I don’t know if we’d say that if we were talking about a man,” she told the LA Times. “I think Diana is just not afraid to say what she thinks and talk about what she has done. That is incredibly inspiring, and I want my daughter to see that film.”

The filmmaker added that the film covers the questions about Nyad’s swim.

“You see it all in the film,” she told the LA Times. “It makes me really sad that we are scrutinizing things that happened 30 years ago and not acknowledging and celebrating the extraordinary achievement. Because I think as a society, we’ve witnessed a lot worse and celebrated a lot worse.”

Nyad herself acknowledged to the Los Angeles Times that she’s not afraid of the limelight.

“I think I have a natural propensity to be a public figure,” Nyad says now. “You can tell when people are shy. Steffi Graf is the greatest woman tennis player ever and she doesn’t ever want to appear anywhere — and there’s no criticism. And Serena Williams is a born star. I think I’ve had a tendency to be public.”

“Nyad” is set for release on Oct. 20.

Editor’s note: A prior version of this story neglected to include statements from the filmmakers and Nyad countering the attacks on her swim.