Diana Nyad is an icon of strength and stamina: A long-distance swimmer, she swam the circumference of Manhattan (28 miles), from the Bahamas to Florida (102 miles) and, at age 64, from Cuba to Florida (110)—without the aid of a shark cage.
But as she revealed in a New York Times op-ed today, the sexual assault she endured as a teen at the hands of a swim coach left a lifelong mark on her as a swimmer, a woman, and a human being.
“Here I was, a strong-willed young athlete,” the out swimmer recalls of the incident, which took place in 1964. “There he was, a charismatic pillar of the community. But I’m the one who, all these many years later, at the age of 68, no matter how happy and together I may be, continues to deal with the rage and the shame that comes with being silenced.”
Nyad began working with that coach when she was 10, initially seeing him as “the father I had always yearned for.”
“He repeatedly told me I had all the talents to one day rock the world. I worshiped my coach. His word was The Word,” she writes. “I built a pedestal for him and gazed up at the center of my universe.”
But one day, as she was taking a nap at his house, he forced himself on top of her.
“He yanked my suit down. He grabbed at and drooled onto my breasts. He hyperventilated and moaned,” she recounted. “I didn’t breathe for perhaps two full minutes, my body locked in an impenetrable flex. My arms trembled, pinned to my sides. He pleaded with me to open my legs, but they were pressed hard together. If breath gives us force, that day I could feel the strength in my body from the polar opposite—from not breathing. He ejaculated on my stomach, my athletic torso I was so proud of now suddenly violated with this strange and foul stuff.”
The assault made her literally vomit, and teammates had to push her to compete later that night. Though they won, she didn’t feel like celebrating. Nyad said that she became reclusive after that, and would go to great lengths to avoid being alone with him.
But the abuse continued.
“I didn’t suffer the Holocaust. I’ve never been through the horrors of war. I don’t paint my youth as tragic,” she writes, “yet I spent every day of my high-school years terrified that it would be yet another day that he would summon me after practice, for a humiliating ride in his car or a disgusting hour in the motel down the street.”
He would refer to the abuse as their “secret,” and to Nyad as “little bitch.” When she was 21, she finally told her best friend what happened.
“The relief was palpable,” she writes. “I wept. My friend cried with me, hugged me, took a long pause and said, ’Well, Diana, hold on to your hat because the same thing happened to me.’ The same coach. The precise same words. The mattress in the office shower stall. The same covert manipulation. The same special secret. And we soon learned that it wasn’t just the two of us. It never is.”
The two confronted their coach, who denied their accusations. The principal at Nyad’s school said he’d heard rumors for years, though, and fired him. Still, Nyad says, the town and coaching community celebrated him, even in death. (He passed away in 2014.)
“He made it into halls of fame and to the top of the coaching pyramid, the Olympic Games,” Nyad writes. “And so is woven the fabric of the epidemic. These often charming individuals are lauded, presented with trophies for their leadership, from the piggish Weinsteins of Hollywood to the unscrupulous parental figures scattered throughout our suburbs. Statistics bear out the astonishing number of sexual abusers among us.”
Nyad has spoken about this sexual assault before—on speaking tours, in her memoir, Find A Way—but this time, she’s doing it to encourage others to speak about their experiences. Nearing 70, and having accomplished feats most couldn’t dream of, Nyad is still not sure if she’s fully healed. But, she says, one thing helps.
“Tell your story. Let us never again be silenced.”