On September 2, 2013, Diana Nyad finally accomplished the goal that had eluded her for more than 30 years: becoming the first person to swim from Havana, Cuba, to Key West, Florida, without a shark cage. She swam 110 miles over 53 hours, braving jellyfish, sharks and storms, stopping only to receive food and fluids while remaining in the water at all times. She was 64.
The path to her prodigious achievement is the story that unfolds in “Nyad,” the new Netflix drama written by Julia Cox and directed by the Oscar-winning “Free Solo” filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi in their narrative feature debut. Annette Bening plays the long-distance swimmer as a dogged force of nature who fulfills her lifelong ambition thanks in no small part to her unflappable coach and best friend, Bonnie Stoll, played by Jodie Foster.
When producers Andrew Lazar and Teddy Schwarzman approached Cox during the pandemic about adapting Nyad’s 2016 memoir about the swim, “Find a Way,” she was gobsmacked. “It’s the kind of commission you dream about as a writer because the details of what Diana accomplished — and this specific, extreme, intense, very esoteric dream that she had — were just fascinating,” she said.
The starting point for Cox’s screenplay was the memoir, but she had no shortage of additional source material: Nyad has been famous since 1975 when she swam around the island of Manhattan in record time. She also worked as a sports journalist, gave a well-known TED talk in 2011 and has sat for interviews with everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Sanjay Gupta.
But the most valuable resource, Cox said, was spending time with Nyad and Stoll and realizing that their singular relationship was the key to the entire story. “There were plenty of other important figures in Diana’s life, but Bonnie’s friendship is like this platonic love story,” Cox said. “They’re always ribbing each other and they just have this rapport. They might go off on a tangent and suddenly have a debate about their interpretation of Carl Sagan, or what to write on a note to a friend whose dog just died. I thought, this is gold. They’re like peas in a pod and total opposites and just the most beguiling partners in crime you could imagine.”
From these lively conversations emerged portraits of two formidable, very different women: Bonnie the selfless ballast to Diana’s hard-charging superathlete. The real Diana Nyad is known for her outsized personality and for making (and apologizing for) exaggerations about her athletic accomplishments. The movie does not soften these rough edges — Bening’s Diana can be prickly and single-minded to the point of selfishness — which has sparked the inevitable debates about her “likability.” For Cox, that’s a non-starter — a sexist one.
“I find the discourse around this character so remarkable because, gosh, our expectations of how women have to be, it never ceases to depress me what the standards are in life and in art,” she said. “How many fascinating, complicated, difficult men are we down to go on the ride with because we find them interesting? We’re curious about their perspective and titillated by their unusual psyches. And with women, it’s got to be this whole conversation.”
The Diana she wrote for “Nyad,” Cox added, is simply a complex human being just like the rest of us: “Annette wanted to play this character and show her rough edges and give her the space to grow and change and heal, if only a little bit, by leaning into those difficult parts of the character’s personality.”
A polarizing public persona is not the only bugbear that “Nyad” had to negotiate. There are also members of the marathon swimming community who question whether she accomplished the Cuba-to-Florida crossing officially, adhering to the strict rules of the World Open Water Swimming Association. To this day the organization still has not certified her swim. “Nyad” acknowledges this fact during the end credits, but for Cox, who researched the particulars of the 110-mile journey extensively, this is just “a lot of noise.”
For one, the crew accompanying Nyad on her journey through the Straits of Florida in 2013 numbered about 40, not the handful that we see in the film (which trimmed the crew size for narrative purposes). “In real life, Diana was followed by a flotilla of other boats with a bunch of people, from doctors to journalists to other handlers, and they all saw her complete the swim,” Cox said. “She has a few detractors out there, as I think any athlete at the top of their game probably does. I have absolutely no doubt that Diana completed her swim.”