Last month the American Swimming Coaches Association (ASCA) named UF’s Anthony Nesty the George Haines Coach of the Year. For some coaches, winning the 61-year-old award would be the pinnacle moment for a career, but for Nesty it seemed like an inevitable next step in his rise to the top of the swimming world.
Nesty’s recognition came after he coached the most gold medalists from this past summer’s FINA World Championships in Budapest, Hungary. Caeleb Dressel, Bobby Finke and Kieran Smith—all former UF swimmers—and UF volunteer coach Katie Ledecky combined to win eight gold medals in individual and relay events.
Nesty, the third person ever to coach both UF swimming teams, just started his fifth year of coaching the men and his second year coaching the women. He has become one of the premier coaches in the United States and the world and, as a result, is attracting top swimmers to Gainesville.
But he is modest in the way he views the ASCA award: as a credit to his talented swimmers.
“It’s always great to be recognized by your peers,” Nesty, 54, said in a recent interview. “To get that award is a great honor. But, you know, the athletes make you look too good sometimes.”
Nesty would know. His own illustrious swimming career included an upset gold medal win over American Matt Biondi in the 100-meter butterfly at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, a bronze in the same event at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and five NCAA championships. He remains the only Olympic medalist for his home country of Suriname.
Despite his athletic success, the path to coaching was not always a clear choice. It simply seemed like something he should try.
“Like any college athlete, I graduated and tried to figure out what’s next,” he said. “My dad basically said, ‘Well, you’re on your own. I’ll help you, but basically you are on your own.’”
Helping other athletes become the best they could be—in and out of the water—appealed to Nesty.
“Getting them to develop and become great athletes in their respective events—that was always my goal,” he said. “Not right away, but I started with age group, then high school, then club and then college coaching.”
Nesty swam under coach Gregg Troy at Bolles High School in Jacksonville, where he won the 100-yard butterfly in 1985 and 1986. He broke Pablo Morales’ high school record in the 100-butterfly and set a state meet record (47.60) that lasted 26 years.
UF tapped Troy as head swimming coach in 1998—first as women’s coach, then adding the men’s team a year later. He hired Nesty as an assistant after Nesty had spent time coaching at Bolles, Ponte Vedra Beach’s Nease High and with the Swim Florida team in Sarasota. He credits his coaches for many of the traits that made him a successful athlete and coach.
“Obviously, my coaches back home, Randy Reese, Skip Foster, and, of course, Gregg all taught me to be consistent,” he said. “Because in our profession, you’re on deck numerous hours per week and the one thing you have to enjoy is the work—especially and, obviously, the swimmers you coach. They put in long hours, so you certainly have to enjoy it first and foremost.”
Though Nesty has trained under and worked with great coaches, he has developed his own style and training regimen in his long career. One of his core training methods started while he was swimming at UF.
“Obviously, I was a 100-yard sprinter, so they put me in the sprint lane, but they complained too much,” he said with a chuckle. “So I asked my coach if I could try and swim with the distance guys. Those guys seemed to have more fun, even though their practice was harder and longer.”
Nesty developed a penchant for doing long, arduous training sessions—which was groundbreaking for sprinters in the world of swimming. To this day, embracing the work and having a passion for swimming are part of the core values he preaches to his teams and what he looks for in his swimmers.
Even before earning the ASCA Coach of the Year award—the third in UF’s history—Nesty’s training methods and success began to attract the attention of the nation’s top swimmers. The most prominent is Ledecky, who has won 20 Olympic and World Championship medals—the most ever by a female swimmer.
After last year’s Olympics, Ledecky sought a change in her training. She chose Gainesville to work with Nesty and swim with Finke, Smith and the other distance swimmers. She also assumed a role as volunteer coach.
At this summer’s World Championships, Ledecky claimed three individual gold medals—the 400-meter, 800-meter, and 1,500-meter freestyle, plus the 4 x 200-meter freestyle relay gold.
Nesty said it has taken time for his coaching reputation to grow.
“People didn’t know me very well until I was fortunate enough to put two guys on the Olympic team and they swam pretty well,” he said. “I can say that most of those kids at the Olympic training camp are high quality athletes and they pay attention. I’m just speculating here, of course, but those kids really liked how I ran my practice. They really liked my demeanor and how I talk to my athletes.”
Nesty takes a holistic approach to coaching.
“First and foremost, athletes want to know that I care about them,” he said. “Then they look for somebody that does things differently. I’m really good with planning X’s and O’s.”
In team meetings, Nesty designates one of his swimmers to keep time. At 30 minutes, if he is still speaking, the timer calls time and the group is dismissed.
“If you talk too much, you’re going to be drowned out pretty quick, especially with kids,” he said. “My meetings are pretty straightforward—direct and straight to the point. Obviously, meetings have to be serious. But then again, they have to be funny. They expect the seriousness, but they expect a joke sooner or later. So you get their attention that way.”
Nesty’s passion for the sport and his swimmers is not obvious to those outside his team or to people outside swimming circles—mostly due to his reticent and stoic demeanor.
At last summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo, Nesty’s demeanor shifted dramatically out of character when American Bobby Finke came from behind to capture gold in the 800-meter freestyle. The cameras caught Nesty’s post-win celebration, which gave a glimpse of his passion and enthusiasm for his swimmers.
“That has been bottled up for what, 53 years, I guess,” he said of the miraculous victory that sent him into an unbridled display of emotion—jumping up and down, thrusting his arms into the air and hugging fellow coaches. “The reason why you coach is performances like that. At this level, that is the goal. In swimming, the Olympics is our Super Bowl. It doesn’t get any better.”
After the success of Ledecky, Finke, Dressel and Smith, more swimmers are taking notice. Sarasota native Emma Weyant, a University of Virginia standout and Olympic silver medalist, announced she would transfer to UF in July, and the University of Southern California’s Caroline Pennington, a PAC-12 title holder, followed suit in August.
The pair will be eligible to swim next season. They will be joined by Nesty’s first women’s recruiting class of 2023, which many regard as one of the best in the nation.
On the men’s side, Canadian Olympian Joshua Liendo will join current Gators Jacob Mitchell and Trey Freeman this season.
To complement the success in the pool, the University Athletic Association has invested $1.5 million in new, state-of-the-art locker rooms.
“The success we have had is a byproduct of having a really good staff, being a great university, and getting the support from the administration,” Nesty said. “It shows you the university cares about the athletes.”
The key ingredients are there to make a national championship run. Last year the men finished third and the women 13th. Florida last won the men’s championship in 1984, and the women won a title in 2010.
For now, Nesty is focused on the conference schedule.
“The main thing is the SEC Championships are in February, and anything can happen from now until February,” Nesty said. “So we have to be humble. We need to stay to core values and put in the work week in and week out and take care of each other, and I think we’ll be OK.”