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Diana Nyad and Bonnie Stoll’s relationship is the highlight of Netflix’s new breakout film. But how much of it is real?

The story of long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad was always destined to be made into a movie. 

At the age of 64, she swam through jellyfish and shark-infested waters from Cuba to Florida in 2013.

She did not do this alone. By her side was swimming coach Bonnie Stoll, who is one half of the dynamic sporting duo that's the focus of the Netflix film Nyad. 

In the new movie, Annette Bening and Jodie Foster play Diana Nyad and Bonnie Stoll respectively, in two critically acclaimed performances that have already impressed their real-life counterparts. 

"The first time I watched it, I honestly thought I was watching myself," Bonnie said in an interview with Digital Spy.

"Jodie is just so down to earth, and just a really cool lady... I didn't have to tell her one thing, I learned things that I do from seeing her on screen. She is just a very observant person."

Jodie Foster in NYAD. Image: Netflix. 

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The movie is directed by married creative force Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, and adapted by Julia Cox from Nyad’s 2015 memoir Find a Way.

Since hitting Netflix, viewers have become obsessed not just with Diana's inspiring story of beating the odds to succeed, but her longstanding friendship with her trainer, Bonnie. 

Diana Nyad and Bonnie Stoll's first meeting and romantic relationship.

The pair met about 40 years ago with Bonnie first spotting Diana on a television segment. "The first time I saw Diana was on the Johnny Carson show. I saw her on TV and I thought, 'Oh my God, she's pretty cool, I might be friends with her,'" Stoll told Digital Spy.

But they actually ended up meeting because of racquetball. Stoll was a prominent racquetball player in the 1980s, and Diana asked for her help. "She started to come over and we'd work out, eventually becoming my fitness coach. Forty years later, I became her swimming coach. That's pretty cool," Stoll said. 

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Both women identify as lesbians and they dated briefly in the earlier phase of their relationship. “We were better at just being two golden retrievers running around together,” Stoll told The Guardian

Ultimately, they found their personalities clashed too much to maintain a romantic relationship. 

"We are very different people," Stoll told Digital Spy. "But I think we bring the best out of each other when we are together. I learned a lot from Diana, and I'm sure she's learned a lot from me too."

The women do share something more permanent than their fleeting romance: they have the same tattoo. “Diana and I have the same one... Mine is subtle. Hers is huge, covering part of her leg.” 

Their tattoo translates to ‘One heart, one mind’. And it makes sense, as the dynamic between the women is the beating heart of the film. 

“We were interested in this idea of chosen family and showing a platonic friendship between two women that is complex, where you can grow with one another,” director Vasarhelyi told NBC News. “The focus always was that Diana Nyad had to go on a journey of emotional growth, and it was only through the support and friendship of Bonnie [that] she was able to move beyond certain traumas and find the freedom to make it to the other shore.”

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The casting of two more mature-aged actors was an important element for the filmmaker. “People are uncomfortable with seeing aging bodies that are no longer 25 years old. Both Annette and Jodie were adamant that there was no touch-up to their bodies, there was no fixing of whatever," Vasarhelyi said.

Annette Bening in NYAD. Image: Netflix. 

"It seemed incredibly important to be able to create these roles for two of the best female actors of their generation where they could throw themselves into playing a complete woman.”

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Diana Nyad and Bonnie Stoll's enduring relationship.

But it wasn't always smooth sailing for the two women. 

Bonnie had trouble watching Diana struggle and being so stubborn to continue. Nyad made several attempts to swim from Cuba to Florida, firstly in 1978 at age 28, then twice in 2011, before she achieved her goal in 2013. 

"The first time getting the wrong medication, that was a tragedy, and then the jellyfish. At one point she wanted to go again, and I said, 'I'm not doing it, because I can't watch you die again.'," Stoll told Digital Spy

In between attempts, the women often stopped speaking. "For seven months we didn't talk one word about the swim. We'd see each other, we'd work out together, we'd eat together. It wasn't about the swim."

After Nyad nearly died from a jellyfish sting during her third attempt in 2011, Stoll decided to resign as her coach. Nyad and Stoll then enlisted the aid of the former head of Open Water Swimming, Steve Munatones, to act as a mediator between them.

“At the end of it all, I said, ‘Steve, is this swim humanly possible?’ And he thought about it, and he said, ‘Highly unlikely, but if anyone can do it, it’s Diana.’ We drove back an hour and a half — not one word was spoken between us; we’re both in our own thoughts,” Stoll told NBC News

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“I got out of the car, and the next morning, I called her. I said, ‘I’m in.’"

Diana Nyad and Bonnie Stoll in 2019. Image: Getty.

And it was a goal she would achieve, as Diana became the first person to swim from Havana to Florida without a shark cage. After the swim, she had to begin the road to recovery. 

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"She couldn't eat anything for three weeks, her mouth was so cut up from all the salt. She didn't speak well, which was a drag: the only thing she cares about other than swimming is talking, so that was a tragedy," Stoll remembered.

Diana is grateful to her friend and coach for staying by her side for all those years.

“There’s a generation of women who made certain life decisions that they probably didn’t have the luxury of their family’s support, and no one really talks about that often enough," Diana told NBC.

"I think that Bonnie made an extraordinary decision. It was better to be there with her friend, even though her friend might die, than not be part of maybe why she didn’t make it. I think that I was always kind of humbled by the strength of that commitment to one another, the respect that was required of one another.”

Diana and Bonnie have since found a way to continue working together which thankfully doesn't involve either person almost dying while swimming across the ocean.

The two friends founded EverWalk in 2016 to encourage people to get walking and meet new people. 

Above all, Bonnie Stoll hopes viewers take away one message from the Netflix movie. "I hope they find inspiration from her story, and I hope they realise how important friendship is."

Feature image: Netflix/Getty.

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