Every swimmer in the world seems to know this flamboyant and friendly coach
whose energy and smile so motivates his athletes. Few know that he didn't
start his own swimming career until he was 21, just drafted in to the Air Force
and looking for a fun way to get out of washing dishes and peeling potatoes.
There never was a more unlikely swimmer, yet within three years, Jack swam the
100 and 200 meter butterfly in world record times and was on the U.S. Olympic
team headed for Australia. He has been swimming or coaching swimmers ever
Jack Nelson was a football player, short but built like a tank, sort of a Don
Nottingham type "human cannonball." At the Melbourne Olympic Village in
1956, everybody asked how this wrestler (or weight lifter) got into the swimming
compound, but once competition started they knew, as he muscled his way to a
fourth place finish in the new power stroke called butterfly.
Nelson was hooked on the sport that has made him a household name among
swimmers the world over. He is the only man in swimming ever to hold the
distinction of placing in the finals at the Olympics and then going on to serve
as an Olympic head coach (1986 women's Montreal team). No one should
forget the 24 women on the 1976 Olympic team who were at that time the breakers
of four world records and nine American records. In 1976, Nelson was also
named National High School Coach of the Year. He won a total of 30
combined boys and girls State Championships during his tenure at three Florida
high schools: Ransom, Pine Crest and Fort Lauderdale.
As a swimmer, Jack learned his basics from several great coaches including
Buddy Baarcke, Tom Lamar, Phil Moriarty, Charles Silvia and the Casey brother,
Willis and Ralph; but, like so many great coaches, Jack's coaching is something
he comes by instinctively with hands-on personal attention, hard work and great
enthusiasm. His philosophy, "Access to success is through the mind" has
inspired numerous Olympians and hundreds of All Americans. He wrapped up
40 years of coaching by winning six national team titles, men's/women's or
combined. "Not everybody is going to win a gold medal, but everyone who tries is
a winner," says Coach Nelson.
Among the great athletes he has coached are: Joel Thomas, 1992 Olympic gold
medalist; Seth van Neerden, American record holder 100 meter breast 1991-1994;
Todd Pace, 1991 Pan Am gold medalist; Laurie Lehner, world record holder in the
50 meter free and the fastest 100 meter butterfly in 1980; Bonnie Brown, 1975
Pan Am gold medalist; Ann Marshall, 1972 Olympian and world record breaker in
the 200 meter free; Andy Coan, considered by many, to be the world's all time
greatest high school swimmer and world record holder in the 100 meter freestyle;
Dave Edgar, world record holder and 1972 Olympic gold medalist; Shirley Stobbs,
1960 Olympic gold medalist, Marilyn Corson, 1968 Olympic bronze medalist; Thom
McAneney, who was his first American record holder. Among additional great
Nelson swimmers are: Paige Zemina, Margie Moffit, Artur Wojdat, David Fox, Todd
Torres and Brian Alderman.
His swimmers certainly agree that "Jack has the ability to say whatever makes
you feel better about yourself. He is a super motivator, and if he could,
he'd get up on the blocks and swim the race for you." Nelson's office is a
photo testimony to all the swimmers he has believed in and who have believed in
him - the ultimate test of a coach.
Jack is a member of four other Halls of Fame: Florida, North Carolina, Fort
Lauderdale and the University of Miami. He graduated from Miami in 1960
and served as head swimming coach there from 1986-1990.
His most recent honor is the City of Fort Lauderdale's Man of the Year for
1993. This award came from his "home" town. Nationally, his peers
named him president of the American Swim Coaches Association 1974-1976.
1993 was his 40th year in coaching, but if you think that puts him close to
retirement, Jack Nelson will jump up and down and say, "What do you mean,
retire? I didn't start swimming until I was 21!"