Diana Nyad's essay on high school swim coach's sexual assaults is a gut-wrenching wakeup call

Swimming legend Diana Nyad, who swam 110.86 miles from Cuba to Florida at age 64, penned an absolutely breathtaking op-ed Thursday about being repeatedly sexually assaulted by her swim coach at Pine Crest high school in Fort Lauderdale.

Though Nyad didn't name the coach in this op-ed, she previously accused Jack Nelson, Pine Crest's coach at the time, of sexually abusing her. Nelson died in 2014.

“My particular case mirrors countless others,” Nyad writes. “I was 14. A naive 14, in 1964. I don’t think I could have given you a definition of intercourse.” 

She explains in vivid, heartbreaking detail the times her coach violated her trust and her body, robbing her, forever, of her childhood.

“Although I have joined the #MeToo movement, this is not by any means the first time I’ve told my harrowing story,” Nyad wrote on her Facebook page Thursday. “This (is) how we attack an epidemic. First we identify just how egregious and far reaching the crime extends. Speak up. Speak out. Speak your truth.”

Nyad first spoke out about the assaults at age 21, when she found the courage to tell her best friend from high school.

“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.”

Nyad had previously said – first in 1989, and later in her Hall of Fame induction speech – that Nelson's abuse happened several times starting in May 1964.

“These molestations were the cornerstone of my teenage life,” Nyad writes in the New York Times. “I studied. I had friends. I won awards. On the outside, I was a bold, overly confident, swaggering success. But the veneer was thin. On the inside, I lived the perpetual trauma of being held down, called misogynist names and ordered to be quiet. I wanted to be anywhere but here, anybody but me.”

She refused to let his assaults divert her from swimming greatness, and that’s an important detail to home in on. Far too often we look to a person’s achievements — especially a young person’s — to tell us whether there’s trouble. We miss signs. We see what we want to see.

Nyad’s story is a sobering reminder that greatness doesn’t always equal internal equanimity. Which isn’t a call for paranoia, but is certainly a reminder for vigilance.

“Statistics bear out the astonishing number of sexual abusers among us,” Nyad writes. “And therein lies the call for our speaking up. We need to construct an accurate archive of these abuses. And we need to prepare coming generations to speak up in the moment, rather than be coerced into years of mute helplessness.”

We’re witnessing a brutal onslaught of such accounts, each as gut-wrenching as the one before it. We need to keep our eyes and our hearts open to them, though, because ignorance helps no one, especially the survivors.

“I refuse to believe it’s a lifelong imprint,” Nyad writes, “yet, with age 70 in clear view, I admit to wondering whether I will ever entirely heal that young girl who was pinned down.”

I hope her words provide the vocabulary for other young people to speak out — and for the rest of us to respond properly: I believe you. I will help you. This stops now.

Anything less is unconscionable.

Nyad will participate in a Facebook Live conversation about her op-ed at 2 p.m. Nov. 17.


Twitter @heidistevens13

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