When Antoine Nesty won Olympic gold in the 100 butterfly at Seoul 1988he had no idea the positive impact it would have on him.
The swimming prodigy had become Suriname’s first (and to date, only) Olympic gold medalist, and a struggling politically and economically struggling nation came together to celebrate his achievement.
His victory was honored again years later as the flag bearer of the South American nation at the opening ceremony of Beijing 2008.
After winning a bronze medal at the 1992 Barcelona OlympicsNesty hung up his glasses and entered the world of coaching.
Applying the same dedication and hard work that won him two Olympic medals, he was eventually offered the prestigious head coaching position at the University of Florida in 2018.
This meant he would coach the best male swimmer in the world in Caeleb Dressel, fresh after winning three individual gold medals in the Tokyo 2020 Games.
Nesty’s intense yet empathetic training philosophy caught on quickly, and it wasn’t long before the greatest swimmer of all time in Katie Ledecky decided to join Nesty’s training team in the Sunshine State.
In February 2022, he was named head coach of the United States men’s swimming team for the 2022 FINA World Championships in Budapest.
In doing so, Nesty will become the first black head coach to lead Team USA to world championships.
Olympics.com caught up with the trailblazing athlete and coach, who explained the societal impact of his gold medal, why his training philosophies attracted the world’s best athletes and revealed the mantra that helped him break barriers in sport.
Olympics.com: Winning Suriname’s first Olympic gold medal caused an overnight sensation at home. Tell us about your welcome, and how you managed to unite a nation…
Antoine Nesty: At that time, Suriname had a lot of problems, political problems, inflation, the usual stuff for a third world country. And I think that was probably the first time people had something to hold on to that was very positive, enlightening. Me winning, I think it made people forget their problems. For me, it was so gratifying to know that 53 seconds could do that. And I think at that time people were very proud of the country, were obviously proud of me, and I was proud of them.
When I arrived in Suriname, I was a little blown away. I had to land and go to the football stadium. When we flew over it and saw how crowded it was I was like “Wow”. From the airport it takes about 30, 45 minutes to get to the capital Paramaribo, but people were queuing all the way down the street, which was a special moment for me because a week before I was thinking of going back to school and go to practice, but seeing it made me feel that I had made a difference at that time for the whole country.
Anthony Conrad NESTY
O: You had similar success as a coach at the University of Florida. I know empathy and individuality are important to you, but how would you describe your coaching philosophy?
A: The most important thing is that you have to have good people. Coaches, athletes, staff – we have core values and my thing is that if you adhere to those core values, athletes are going to care about themselves and care about other athletes around them, and so it will be a success and I tell my team all the time: good things happen to good people, and if you have good people in your program, it may not happen this year and it may not happen this year. next year, but at some point, they’re going to see success, whether it’s in the pool, or whether it’s in their after life skills, or their jobs.
I tell our athletes, “It’s mind, body and soul. These three must all be going in the right direction, because you can’t get where you need to be without them forming a cohesive unit. We need to keep the stress at a level where it’s manageable because at that level, with all that going on on social media and the expectation of these athletes to make everyone happy…kids are reading it, and it’s hindering your ability to perform at a very high level. . Consistency and moderation.
Finally, I believe that we can always learn, which I do every day. Some coaches think they have all the answers, but I don’t. I like to hear other people’s opinions on how they do things. How can Anthony Nesta improve and be a better coach, be a better husband, be a better father, be a better friend?
O: After the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in 2021, Caeleb Dressel joined your UFL practice squad. What were your impressions of the seven-time gold medalist?
A: I’m a big F1 guy, I get a lot out of this sport because these cars are so responsive and it’s a collective team effort. It’s about going fast while being as reliable as possible, just like our athletes. Caeleb is the fastest, so he’s like the Ferrari because right now they’re the fastest. But if you look at his career, his longevity at the highest level, he’s probably a Mercedes, right? These guys have been so successful for so long. Even when you think the Mercs are struggling now, Caeleb had times when he struggled. But at the end of the day, you have to trust your engineers, you have to trust the people in the factory. The support staff here, the coaching staff here, are always going to get him back on track.
I think he’s probably one of the most athletic athletes I’ve seen. He’s a freak and you see him all the time in the weight room, because the kid is so athletic. He’s also a thinker, and he thinks a lot, whatever you do, he likes to talk about it. But that’s what you get when you have really good athletes. He is quite funny. And the thing about Caeleb is that he has a big heart. He will go above and beyond to help anyone. If my car breaks down 30 miles from here, probably 9 out of 10 times, he’ll come help me. That’s the kind of kid he is.
After the Olympics, he needed a break. I think it lit a fire in his stomach again once he got back to the routine, having other guys around, having other people around. So I think that was probably the main reason his head was where it needed to be.
O: Arguably the world’s greatest swimmer, Katie Ledecky, joined her in your training group shortly thereafter. What was the reason for her change and what kind of impression did she make on you?
A: When I got the email from her saying she wanted to talk about her plans to come and train here, she then came over and said, “I’m on fire.” So that just told me that she wants to keep doing that, keep doing that at a high level, obviously in a different environment. And I think that’s her motivation, because she didn’t like losing in Tokyo either. You know, these athletes at this level, it’s easy to motivate them if they lose because they’ll get back on the horse and do what they can to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
He’s a great person. She has a big heart, cares about people. Just to see her in training post moments that are “Wow!” and beat our guys. So that’s probably the most impressive thing. She makes us better and we make her better.
O: How do you improve a seven-time gold medalist?
A: I think technically she wasn’t where she needed to be for years. The most important thing for her is to be comfortable, confident with her stroke, and that’s where we are because I’ve only been working with her since October. It is a work in progress. But obviously, she is twenty-five years old. Rio (2016 Olympics) was probably his best competition ever. Can she get back to that level? Well, we will definitely try.
She gives 100% all the time. You must therefore be careful that it does not push so hard that its motor breaks. It’s a good thing that she’s really committed, works hard, but at some point she has to realize, yes, she’s a machine, but has to realize that a machine can break. That’s probably the hardest part for me as a coach, because it says very little. She keeps everything inside, you know, but we’re getting better. So she gets better at speaking her mind, knowing where she stands.
O: In 2021, you were named the USA Men’s Head Coach for the 2022 FINA World Championships – It’s an incredible achievement to become the first-ever black head coach to lead Team USA in a world. How did you feel when you were offered the job and what kind of difference do you think you can make?
A: I’m the first, so that’s a big deal. Looking back on my career, I seem to be doing the first of everything. I am very grateful to be able to be the first black coach in the United States. And it just shows you that no matter where you’re from or who you are, if you do things the right way, we call it the Gator Way, it’s like I said before: good things happen to the right people. If you are consistent in what you do, if you are honest, respectful, you work hard, you are disciplined, if you are honest and respectful, I think people are more inclined to help you. Some teams, some coaches tend to neglect this aspect.
I tell our team all the time, if you say thank you, please people will bend over backwards to help you.
O: Such an exciting position, where you have one of the best athletes in the sport at your disposal, also comes with a lot of expectations. How do you find that?
A: That’s why I don’t have any hair on my head! First of all, you have to trust yourself at this particular moment. Working with talented athletes is always an added pressure. Being in the United States, everyone is watching. We had a lot of success at the Tokyo Olympics where we won the most medals, and of course the world championships are just as important and the stakes are high. But I’m pretty confident about the staff we’ll have and the athletes they can compete with. Our goal is always to win the most medals.
American coach Anthony Nesty won gold in the 100m butterfly at the 1988 Seoul Olympics for Suriname.
Photo courtesy of 2012 Getty Images