Jack Nelson (USA)
Honor Coach (1994)
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 since.
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 (1976 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 brothers, 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!”