By Mari Faiello, Correspondent
Lillie Nesty was about 3 years old when she truly grasped the depth of her father’s legacy.
The little girl would come with then-associate coach Anthony Nesty to the Wayne and Jimmie Carse Swimming and Diving Complex and hang out before her swim practices, never really realizing who her father was beside the household and generic titles — dad and coach.
But that all changed as the little girl walked around the main room and found herself looking up at the Olympic section of the complex — orange and blue walls decorated with photos of the Gator greats from the swimming program spanning back decades.
“Dad is up on that wall a lot of times,” she said.
The girl stared in awe as she saw her father’s face on multiple Olympic squads, his name posted on the medal count twice and an athletic photo of him accompanied by a short recognition, honoring him as the first male athlete from Florida to win an Olympic gold medal.
Erva Gilliam, the director of swimming operations, then pulled up Nesty’s gold medal race on YouTube for Lillie Nesty to watch for the first time. Her eyes grew as big as saucers as she finally realized the magnitude of her father’s career.
“It was a pretty neat moment when she connected the dots,” he said. “When she made the connection, it was priceless.”
The father’s legacy is too grand to justify with a single list, but includes that gold medal from the 100-meter fly at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, which crowned him as Suriname’s first-ever Olympic medalist; a bronze medal in the same race four years later at the Barcelona Olympic Games and many other accolades.
Nesty’s legacy also is concealed by his humility.
“I don’t like talking about myself,” he said quietly.
It’s that kind of humbleness that has led the former Gator and Olympian to his next achievement, a head coaching position for the Florida men’s swimming and diving program.
Nesty, 50 years old and entering his 21st season as a coach at the University of Florida, follows a tough act after the retirement of Gregg Troy, who was head coach of both the men’s and women’s swimming and diving programs since 1999.
But the new head coach isn’t too concerned.
“Everything is in place for our athletes to succeed,” he said. “We just have to put them in the right frame of mind and we got to make sure the plan is conducive to them.”
This is the first time the men’s and women’s programs have been split up since Troy took on the men’s team almost 20 years ago (he was already the head coach for the women’s program at the time).
“We’re (women’s coach Jeff Poppell) looking forward to the challenge,” he said. “The goal is to keep the University of Florida where it needs to be at the top.”
But keeping UF at the top isn’t the coach’s only goal as the program enters a new era. The next thing on the horizon is a national championship.
The men’s program hasn’t won a national title since its second in 1984. The women’s program won its second title in 2010.
“It’s all about how you start,” he said.
Nesty committed his life to swimming when he was about 13 years old. The Paramaribo, Suriname, native was pushed by his father, Ronald, to pursue an individual-based sport instead of a team sport like soccer, South America’s most popular sport.
“He was adamant that the discipline of an individual sport was better for your development, better for you later on in life,” Nesty said. “It’s just you.”
Because of swimming, Nesty learned how to deal with a demanding sport and accountability. More importantly, he learned discipline.
“It teaches you to overcome people and teach yourself you can do it,” Nesty said.
Nesty transitioned from Suriname to The Bolles School, a private boarding school in Jacksonville, in 1985. The 16-year-old boy needed a program that could develop his swimming talents and take them to the next level, which wasn’t likely if he stayed in his home country.
“In Suriname, I was the only show in town,” Nesty joked. “Going to Bolles, you’re like uh-oh, there are guys that are equally as good as you or better than you.”
At the time, Troy was the head coach at Bolles. He also was the only coach who responded to a letter Nesty’s dad sent to a handful of schools about his son coming to a boarding school in the U.S. for swimming.
After a year, Nesty got used to the more intensive training, going from 10 hours weekly to double that at Bolles under the instruction of Troy. At UF, it was another step up, but Nesty still found ways to succeed.
In 1990, Nesty was crowned an NCAA champion for the 100-yard fly. He won the same accolade the next two years.
Nesty also won an NCAA title in the 200-yard fly in 1990. The next year, he helped Florida win an NCAA title in the 400-yard medley relay.
He was rewarded for his triumphant career at Florida with an induction into its Hall of Fame in 2002.
After his collegiate career, Nesty returned to his alma mater, Bolles, before he took on a more intensive job in Sarasota as a club coach of Swim Florida in 1996.
But what he thought was just a coaching job turned into something more when he met his future wife, Deanne, a former University of Minnesota swimmer who coached at a rival club called the Sarasota Sharks.
They met during his first spring season at Swim Florida and both would coach the 5 a.m. practices for their respective clubs at the pool.
In 1998, he returned to Gainesville to take on an assistant coaching role with the men’s program.
And it wasn’t too difficult of a choice for Nesty.
“You couldn’t ask for anything more than that,” he said. “I’ve always felt that that was my calling and where I was meant to be.”