This NYAD review was initially published during the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Since its publication, Diana Nyad has retracted her Washington Post op-ed and changed her stance on trans inclusion in women’s sports.
“I have come to understand that the science is far more complex than I thought, and there are clearly more educated experts than I who are creating policy to ensure that elite sports are both fair and inclusive of all women. I regret weighing in on that conversation and any harm I may have caused,” Nyad said. “Also, in recent times, the climate for the transgender community has turned dire and dangerous. I now see how all women are negatively affected by the ways transgender women are targeted by discrimination and abuse in sports and elsewhere.”
“I am today firmly on the side of inclusion. Trans women athletes deserve our utmost respect. I stand with them in the world of sports and in the fight for full equality for all trans people. We are all sisters and siblings under the blue sky, and we should all have equal opportunities to play the sports we choose, the sports we love.”
I applaud this new statement and Nyad’s willingness to publicly admit her error. It makes me love this movie about her even more.
It’s 2005. I’m a closeted trans dyke. My AIM screen name is SprtsFreek1224. And my heart has just been broken. Not by a girl, certainly not by a boy, but by the discovery that many of my favorite baseball players have been taking steroids.
I cared — and care — about justice. In 4th grade, I would only play handball with the 5th graders, because the kids my own age never followed the rules. The only thing I hated more than people who cut in line were people who cheated.
The steroid scandal devastated me. My dad raised me on stories of Babe Ruth calling his shot and the ball going through Buckner’s legs; on movies like The Sandlot and Field of Dreams. The baseball diamond was sacred and now it had been turned back to coal.
Whenever I talk to cis people about trans athletes, they bring up fairness. They want to be good allies, but it just doesn’t seem fair for cis women and trans women who transitioned after puberty to compete. Like medical transition for trans youth, it’s become an effective talking point, because it allows cis people to be against us on one subject while claiming to be for us in general. Few seem to realize their desire for trans people to wait until after puberty to medically transition and their desire for those same trans people not to compete effectively banishes trans women from the entire world of sports.
The well-meaning among them make me think about my child self. Like me, they are grasping onto an imagined idea of sports — one of underdog stories and dynasties, one where the best athletes triumph and football doesn’t cause concussions. Sports will always be as much about mythmaking as they are athleticism. Did Babe Ruth really call his shot? Did Diana Nyad really complete her swim without assistance?
Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s NYAD is a rousing masterpiece of a sports movie. Focusing on Nyad’s Herculean swim from Havana to Key West, the film is a thrilling tribute to its stubborn protagonist and the power of queer friendship. Annette Bening captures Diana in all her prickly complexity and Jodie Foster as Bonnie, Nyad’s best friend and coach, gives her best performance since the 90s. The co-directors with their experience in sports documentaries create the style, the pacing, the excitement; the performances and Julia Cox’s tight script create the humanity.
Most biopics falter when they try to go beyond a single moment in a person’s life. This film avoids that by deftly mixing documentary footage and impressionistic flashbacks only when Diana is swimming. We’re told early on she often hallucinates while swimming for hours and hours, days and days. These moments end up feeling like part of her dreamy hallucinations. They tell us just enough about Diana to inform her character without sticking around long enough to feel trite.
But this movie isn’t just about Diana. It’s about Diana and Bonnie, and that’s its greatest achievement. It’s rare to get a movie about 60-year-old lesbians and even rarer to get one that isn’t a romance. Diana and Bonnie might be gay — Diana even has a scene of failed flirting — but it’s their friendship that has emerged as the key relationship in their life. Their dynamic is so recognizably queer. It’s a joy to watch. And it’s a joy to witness Foster step fully into her dyke energy.
Now I have to admit something that’s undesirable as a critic. I watched this movie so I could give it a bad review. The first time I heard about Diana Nyad, it wasn’t due to her superhuman swims. It was in a Washington Post op-ed from last year where she wrote that trans women — specifically swimmer Lia Thomas — should not be allowed to compete against cis women. I expected the movie to be a mediocre biopic and an uncomplicated celebration of the woman whose story it told. I relished the possibility of tearing it down while explaining the fallacies of that op-ed.
My surprise while watching the film wasn’t just its quality. I was also taken by how easy it was to reconcile the Diana of the screen and the Diana of the op-ed. The film doesn’t avoid Nyad’s stubbornness, her selfishness, and her refusal to adjust her views upon learning new information. These qualities may have been overcome in order for her to finally achieve her goal. But I’m not surprised this real-life character pedals transphobia while thinking of herself as an enlightened ally.
The top of her op-ed contains this correction:
An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated that in two events Lia Thomas swam faster than any female college swimmer in history. She has swum faster this season. This version has been updated.
Diana wanted to believe that Thomas’ abilities were beyond that of a cis woman, so she wrote it in her piece. When it was revealed to be untrue, her argument remained the same.
Estrogen changes our bodies drastically. Trans women who have medically transitioned have more in common with cis women than cis men. But let’s say we didn’t. Let’s say trans women athletes really were at an advantage. Who decides that advantage is unfair? Who decides Michael Phelps’ genetic differences are natural and trans women are unnatural? Who decides that boxing is broken into weight class but basketball isn’t broken into height class? Who decides the most expensive coaching and equipment is an expectation rather than an inequity? Who decides Diana Nyad can have a team of people helping on her swim, but it counts as unassisted as long as she doesn’t touch the boat?
The irony is that many people believe Diana Nyad lied about this swim. Part of this is her past tendency to exaggerate her feats; part of this is nitpicking Nyad herself has described as “outrageously petty.” Here’s the thing: I agree with Nyad. Watching the film, whenever someone on her team made a fuss about handing her goo food but not directly touching her, it felt silly. If Bonnie held Diana’s hand for two seconds, would that take away from Nyad’s remarkable achievement? Of course not. Does Barry Bonds deserve to be in the baseball Hall of Fame despite his steroid use? I would now argue, absolutely.
I’ll ask again, who decides the rules of sports? This time, I will answer: It’s people. People decide. Just like people decide who among us we deem to be less human. There’s a reason transphobia in sports is so tied to racism. It’s certain people — racist people, transphobic people — deciding who they want to celebrate and who they do not.
As Diana approaches the shore, the filmmakers flash to someone holding up a pride flag. I started to cry. I couldn’t believe it. Okay, the filmmaking, the performances, my love of sports, it all had me wrapped up in the story. But a pride flag? Really? That’s what broke my rare seal of emotion? Then I realized. I wasn’t just watching a random person achieve her dream. For me, this 63 year old cis woman was a part of my community. I’m not a big fan of flags, but those rainbow colors belong to her, and they belong to me.
Not only do I see Diana Nyad as a person — I see her as a person who shares a core part of herself with me. I wish she felt the same. “To be clear, trans women are women,” she writes in the op-ed. But until she understands why we should be allowed to compete in women’s sports, she doesn’t really believe that.
The Diana Nyad of the film and the Diana Nyad of reality refused to give up. Many people told her no, and she told herself yes. She found other people who believed in what most viewed as a crazy dream. That’s the lesson I take from NYAD. Believe in yourself, believe in your convictions. Then find people who believe in them too.
If you disagree with my conviction that trans women should compete in women’s sports, then you’re believing in a myth. And when it comes to sports, we get to decide which myths to believe.
NYAD is now streaming on Netflix.