In swimming, Anthony Nesty experiences a gold medal rush

Anthony Nesty
Courtney Culbreath/UAA Communications
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A new Olympic cycle often means a new era in U.S. swimming. A man from Suriname is at the front of it, now coaching the top three Americans from the Tokyo Games.

Anthony Nesty, the only Olympic medalist from the smallest nation in South America, makes it clear that he’s not the only one coaching Katie LedeckyCaeleb Dressel and Bobby Finke. Nesty couldn’t lead both the University of Florida men’s and women’s teams and the most accomplished pros in the country without help, a lot of it.

But his story — both to becoming an Olympic champion and becoming a coach of three gold medalists — is remarkable. This week is his first major meet at this helm, the world championships trials in Greensboro, N.C.

Coaching stars carries a sense of obligation, said Gregg Troy, who guided Ryan Lochte and Dressel and, for two decades, had Nesty on his UF coaching staff.

“I was always very good as an athlete performing under pressure, as a coach performing under pressure,” Nesty said. “Do I feel it? Of course, but it’s not something I dwell on.”

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In a span of four months last year, Nesty became a coach of three individual Olympic gold medalists. It began on the morning of July 29.

Bobby Finke, then a rising senior for Nesty’s Gators, went from fourth at 750 meters to win the 800m freestyle, becoming the first U.S. man to win an Olympic distance event since 1984. Finke came from nowhere in the pool and on paper, going into the Games with a personal best five seconds slower than the favorites and ranked ninth in the world for the year.

Finke, finding the energy to walk along the pool deck after the effort, reached Nesty, whom he had known since age 14. Nesty gave him a bear hug and said how proud he was.

Though Nesty has patrolled the deck at UF since 1998, Finke is his first gold medalist as a head coach. Nesty ascended in 2018 after Troy’s retirement.

So it made sense that Finke saw Nesty cry for the first time that morning in Tokyo. Nesty didn’t even shed a tear when he won Olympic gold in 1988 in Seoul.

“The first thing, I wanted to show him the medal,” Finke said of seeing the coach again minutes later after the victory ceremony. “He had my sisters on the phone already.”

Finke, like older sister Autumn, was recruited to UF by Nesty. He remembers hearing that deep voice for the first time, when Finke nervously called Nesty as a high school sophomore or junior looking for a college home. He remembers shaking Nesty’s had for the first time at a dinner before Autumn’s Senior Day in Gainesville.

“He’s part of my family,” Finke said.

Finke won the 1500m free with another late charge on the final day of pool swimming at the Games. A month later, Finke and Kieran Smith, another Nesty Gator who won 400m free bronze in Tokyo, were sitting inside Spurrier’s Gridiron Grill in Gainesville, having dinner with Ledecky.

Ledecky, after two golds and two silvers, was in the market for a new training base, looking to leave her college setup in Stanford for a place closer to her East Coast roots. She asked about Nesty, whom she got to know a little bit at a pre-Olympic training camp in Hawaii.

“I believe I told her he’s pretty much the reason why I came to Florida,” Finke said.

When Ledecky and Nesty spoke, the coach made it clear that he wasn’t going to try and woo her. Soon after, Ledecky announced she was moving to Gainesville. She had incredible success with three different coaches at the last three Olympics. Nesty is her first coach who also swam at an Olympics.

“He kind of knows the mental aspect of swimmers and what they go through,” said Ledecky, who like Nesty noted the group effort of having four or five coaches on staff available to help. “He’s also a really great coach and has proven himself to be a really great coach. So he kind of has this quiet confidence about the program, but he also brings so much energy to the pool deck.”

Then in November, Dressel announced he was staying in Gainesville but switching from Troy’s pro group to Nesty and Steve Jungbluth, the UF men’s associate head coach. Dressel said he was the only member of Troy’s group who was still swimming after Tokyo. Troy said he had a lack pool access in the area. So the move made sense.

In a span of four months, Nesty became a coach of three swimmers who combined to own at least one gold medal in every freestyle event from 50 meters through 1,500 meters. The University of Florida became the University of Freestyle, which is funny because Nesty’s gold medal came in the butterfly.

In 1988, Sports Illustrated did not pick Nesty to win a medal at the Seoul Games, though he was certainly in the mix.

He finished fifth in the 1986 World Championships 100m butterfly at age 18, then went .64 of a second faster to win the 1987 Pan American Games in a time that would have placed second at the more prestigious 1987 Pan Pacific Games and third at the 1987 European Championships.

Nesty, who graduated from The Bolles School in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1987 (Dressel later swam for the Bolles club team), did not swim collegiately as a University of Florida freshman in 1987-88. He didn’t score high enough on his college entrance exams to be eligible under Proposition 48 rules at the time. So he focused on Olympic prep.

“When you’ve spoken Dutch all your life, it’s pretty hard to pass that exam,” Nesty, who moved to the U.S. in 1985, said before the 1988 Games.

The training paid off on Sept. 21, 1988. Nesty overtook American Matt Biondi on his final stroke to win 100m fly gold by one hundredth of a second, ultimately denying Biondi what would have been a sixth gold medal in Seoul. Video is here.

“Can’t believe it,” Nesty, who became the first Black swimmer to win an Olympic gold medal, said on the NBC broadcast.

Twenty years later, Michael Phelps edged Serbian Milorad Cavic by one hundredth in the Olympic 100m fly final in similar fashion: Biondi and Cavic, both Cal bears, both glided into the wall rather than take an extra half-stroke.

Nesty didn’t always gravitate to the fame, which included a national victory ceremony that reportedly drew 60,000 of the nation’s 370,000 people, his own stamp and coin and, 20 years later, the honor of carrying the flag into the Opening Ceremony. Rarely is a retired athlete a flag bearer.

He didn’t always latch onto the sport, either. In 1982, he told his father, Ron, that he didn’t want to swim anymore. His dad made him a deal: enter the annual 10 1/2-mile race in the Suriname River. If you don’t finish top three, you can quit. Nesty resolved and won it.

Later, Ron learned about Troy and Bolles in a swimming publication, wrote the coach a letter, and eventually sent his son to the boarding school. That began a three-decade relationship with Troy. After finishing his swim career and graduating from UF in 1994, Nesty joined Troy’s staff at Bolles, then followed Troy to UF in the late 1990s.

“He’s seen it all levels, everything from a boys club working in an average facility to working with a big club program that had all the ages involved, and so many coaches don’t have that full experience,” Troy said. “He’s seen some different styles and ways to do things, which has allowed him to put those things together to have his own style.”

Like any coach, Nesty has his trademarks. He wears a bracelet with the names Master Sgt. William R. Posch, Capt. Mark Weber and Staff Sgt. Carl Enis, airmen who were killed in 2018 when a helicopter crashed in western Iraq.

Twice, Nesty was part of coaching staffs that took Gators swimmers to Patrick Air Force Base in Central Florida for an abbreviated version of a boot camp. Enis was the pararescue jumper who guided the swimmers at a 2014 visit.

Finke said that Nesty regularly shares quotes before meets from 1600s Japanese swordsman and philosopher Miyamoto Musashi.

For Finke, the most memorable one came before the Tokyo Games: “There is nothing outside of yourself that can ever enable you to get better, stronger, richer, quicker, or smarter. Everything is within. Everything exists.”

Nesty attributes his success, both as a swimmer and as a teacher of swimmers, to the coaches around him.

“Hard work,” he said, “and a little bit of luck.”

NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

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How did U.S. women’s basketball replace its legends? It starts with Alyssa Thomas.

Alyssa Thomas
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If this FIBA World Cup marks the beginning of a new era of U.S. women’s basketball, it is notable, if not remarkable, that no player has been more visible than Alyssa Thomas.

Thomas is making her global championship debut in Sydney. She is the only woman on the team in her 30s. Rarely, if ever, has a player who waited this long to put on a U.S. uniform made such an impact out of the gate. Certainly not since the last major tournament in Australia, when 30-year-old Yolanda Griffith starred at the 2000 Olympics.

Over the last week, Thomas leads the U.S. in minutes played and is one of two players to start all seven games along with Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP. She ranks fourth on the team in scoring (10.6 points per game), is tied for second in rebounding (6.7), second in assists (4.6) and first in steals (2.7).

The Americans, with their new breakthrough power forward, face China in Saturday’s final, seeking a fourth consecutive world title and 60th consecutive victory between Olympic and world championship play dating to 2006.

“She takes a lot of pressure off of us,” two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson said after Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a quarterfinal win over Serbia. “I think she’s the glue of this team, the X-factor of this team, because that’s her game and that’s her style.”

Thomas earned the nickname “Baby Bron Bron” at the University of Maryland for her LeBron James-like play. USA Basketball took notice in 2013, when she was one of six collegians named to a 33-player national team training camp.

But that participation was the last of Thomas’ bullet points on her USA Basketball bio for another nine years, until she was named to the FIBA World Cup qualifying team last February.

Thomas had to wait her turn.

The U.S. was loaded in the frontcourt in the 2010s with older veterans — Candace ParkerTina CharlesSylvia FowlesBrittney GrinerElena Delle Donne — and then Stewart and Wilson came along, becoming arguably the two most valuable Americans in the last Olympic cycle.

Thomas produced, to that point, the best WNBA season of her career in 2020, but tore an Achilles playing overseas in January 2021, ruling out any chance of making the Tokyo Olympic team.

The combination of players’ absences this year — Charles, after three Olympic golds, ceded to younger players, Fowles retired and Griner is being detained in Russia — and Cheryl Reeve becoming head coach created an opportunity.

Thomas seized it, leading the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals, where she recorded triple-doubles in the last two games of a series loss to the Las Vegas Aces. Then she boarded a plane to Sydney for her first major international experience and has similarly flourished.

Jennifer Rizzotti, part of the USA Basketball selection committee, said the 6-foot-2 Thomas combines the movement of Lindsay Whalen, the passing of Parker and the physicality of Rebekkah Brunson. She plays with labrum tears in each shoulder. There’s no single player like her.

“There’s definitely some post players that have that point forward mentality, but not quite with the guard skills that Alyssa has,” Rizzotti said. “I don’t see anybody, including guards, that can do what she does in the open court. Then you talk about how disruptive she is defensively and her ability to guard one through five. A’ja can guard one through five, Stewie can guard one through five, but nobody’s as disruptive as Alyssa is. On the perimeter and off the ball.”

Thomas also fit what Reeve, who succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, was looking for in retooling the roster following the retirement of Sue Bird and possible end of Diana Taurasi‘s national team career at age 40.

“[Reeve] made it clear that she was hoping with the guard turnover that we would be able to play faster, more athletically, more possessions in the game,” Rizzotti said. “And therefore, she wanted to have post players that could push tempo, that could facilitate and kind of fit in with a ball-handling, passing mentality from the trail spot.”

Still, Thomas did not expect to be putting on a USA jersey this year. “Shocked” is the word USA Basketball chose to describe her reaction to making this team.

“It was kind of a surprise,” she said, according to USA Basketball. “I had just really taken my name out of it.”

Rizzotti said Thomas is an example — a very successful one, it turns out — of an asset in the eyes of the selection committee: patience.

“I think a lot of players feel like if they don’t make the USA national team right away, it’s never going to happen,” she said. “You get the comments like, oh, it’s political, or they keep inviting the same guys back. And it’s not true.”

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U.S., China set for FIBA Women’s World Cup gold-medal game

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SYDNEY — Breanna Stewart and the United States used a dominant defensive effort to beat Canada and reach the gold-medal game of the FIBA Women’s World Cup for the fourth consecutive tournament.

Stewart scored 17 points and the Americans raced out to an early lead to put away Canada 83-43 on Friday, reaching a Saturday gold-medal game with China. The 43 points was the fewest scored in a semifinal game in World Cup history.

“Canada has been playing really well all tournament and the goal was just to come out there and really limit them,” said U.S. forward Alyssa Thomas. “We were really locked in from the jump with our game plan.”

China edged host Australia 61-59 in the later semifinal to reach its first global championship game since the 1994 Worlds, the last time it won a medal of any color. The U.S. beat China 77-63 in group play last Saturday, the Americans’ closest game of the tournament.

“Our goal was to to win a gold medal and we’re in position to do that,” U.S. coach Cheryl Reeve said.

The U.S. (7-0), which is on a record pace for points and margin of victory in the tournament, took control of the game early scoring the first 15 points. The Americans contested every shot on the defensive end as the Canadians missed their first nine attempts from the field. On the offensive end, Stewart, A’ja Wilson and Thomas basically got any shot they wanted.

“I think after that punch, it really took the air out of them,” Thomas said. “They didn’t know what to do with their offense anymore after that.”

MORE: FIBA World Cup Schedule, Results

Laeticia Amihere, who plays at South Carolina for former U.S. coach Dawn Staley, finally got Canada on the board nearly 5 minutes into the game making a driving layup.

By the end of the quarter the U.S. led 27-7. Canada had committed four turnovers — the same number the team had against Puerto Rico in the quarterfinals which was the lowest total in a game in 30 years.

The Americans were up 45-21 at the half and the lead kept expanding in the final 20 minutes. The win was the biggest margin for the U.S. in the medal round topping the 36-point victory over Spain in the 2010 World Cup.

Canada (5-2) advanced to the medal round for the first time since 1986 and has a chance to win its first medal since taking the bronze that year.

“We didn’t get it done today, but what we’re going to do is take this with what we learned today and how we can turn it up tomorrow,” Canada captain Natalie Achonwa said. “It’s still a game for a medal and it’s just as important for us.”

The U.S. has won seven of the eight meetings with Canada in the World Cup, although the last one came in 2010. The lone victory for Canada came in 1975.

The victory was the 29th in a row in World Cup play for the Americans, who haven’t lost since the 2006 semifinals against Russia. The Soviet Union holds the World Cup record with 56 straight wins from 1959-86. This is only the second time in the Americans’ storied history they’ve reached four consecutive gold-medal contests. They also did it from 1979-90, winning three times.

This U.S. team, which has so many new faces on it, is on pace to break many of the team’s records that include scoring margin and points per game. The Americans also continued to dominate the paint even without 6-foot-8 Brittney Griner, outscoring its opponents by an average of 55-24.

Amihere led Canada with eight points.

RECORD BREAKING

The low point total broke the mark of 53 that South Korea scored against Russia in 2002.

“We’re starting to build that identity,” Wilson said of the defensive effort. “We’re quick and scrappy and I think that’s our identity.”

The U.S. is averaging 101 points a game. The team’s best mark ever coming into the tournament was 99.1 set in 1994.

STILL RECOVERING

Kahleah Copper sat out after injuring her left hip in the win over Serbia in the quarterfinals. Copper landed hard on her hip driving to the basket and had to be helped off the court. She hopes to play on Saturday. Betnijah Laney, who also got hurt in the Serbia game, did play against Canada.

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