Duncan Mackay

It was at Seoul in 1988 that Anthony Nesty made history when he became the first black swimmer to win an Olympic gold medal, so it was fitting that on the 35th anniversary of that ground-breaking performance it should be announced that he would be the head coach for the United States men’s squad at Paris 2024.

He will become the first black head coach to lead the Olympics' most dominant swimming squad, one which has won more than twice as many medals as its nearest rival and more than three times as many golds.

Swimming is one of the sports which has appeared in every Olympics and the US has won a total of 257 golds, having topped the medals table in nine of the 32 editions of the Games, including the last eight, a run that started at Barcelona 1992.  

The last time that the US did not end top of the medals table was at Seoul 1988 when they finished behind the drug-fuelled East Germans, an Olympics also memorable for the remarkable triumph of Nesty in the 100 metres butterfly.

It gave Suriname, the smallest country in South America with a population of little more than half-a-million, its first - and so far, only - Olympic gold medal.

Nesty had won the 100m butterfly at the previous year's Pan American Games in Indianapolis, but little was known about him internationally. One British journalist even wrote that Nesty had learned to swim in the crocodile-infested jungle rivers in his home country. In those pre-internet days, many readers of that particular newspaper had no reason to disbelieve the story.

Anthony Nesty became the first black swimmer to win an Olympic gold medal in the 100m butterfly at Seoul 1988 ©Getty Images
Anthony Nesty became the first black swimmer to win an Olympic gold medal in the 100m butterfly at Seoul 1988 ©Getty Images

The reality was a lot less exotic. Nesty had been born in Port of Spain but his parents left Trinidad and Tobago when he was five months old to start a new life in Suriname, where he took up swimming at the age of five.

He represented Suriname in the 1983 Pan American Games in Caracas in Venezuela and the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, finishing 21st in the 100m butterfly. After those Games in California, Nesty enrolled in The Bolles School in Jacksonville, a prep school in Florida with an athletic programme known for training elite, world-class swimmers.

While training under highly regarded coach Gregg Troy, Nesty stepped up his training considerably and more than doubled the amount of hours each week he was spending in the pool. "The training under Coach Troy was tough compared to the training in Suriname," Nesty recalled in an interview with Swimming World. "In Suriname, we thought we were working hard. But, when I came to America, it was like night and day. I went from training 10 hours a week to 24 hours."

The hard work begun to pay off and Nesty broke a series of school records, including the 100m butterfly mark held by Pablo Morales, winner of the Olympic silver medal in the event at Los Angeles 1984.

Based in the US, Nesty’s progress was swift and remarkable. Nevertheless, his victory in South Korea at the age of 20 was still a huge upset as America’s Matt Biondi was the sport’s superstar of the time. He won a total of seven Olympic medals at Seoul 1988, including five gold. Up until 10 metres before the finish, Biondi looked like he was bringing home another gold in the 100m butterfly. But then Nesty reached out to touch the wall ahead of him by just 0.01 seconds.

In the commentary of the race on US television, the announcer calls the race like it is between Biondi and Germany’s Michael Gross, the defending champion, and Australia’s Jon Sieben. The first mention of Nesty is after he has won.

"They now have 10 metres to swim, Matt Biondi going for the gold. Jon Siebens coming hard on the outside," the commentator screams. "But Biondi looks like he’s going to take it to the wall. And they get…. NESTY! Nesty finally takes in lane three at the very last moment!"

Nesty was the first black male athlete and only the second black athlete to win an individual Olympic medal in swimming following The Netherlands’ Enith Brigitha, winner of bronze in the 100m and 200m freestyle at Montreal 1976. He was also only the second South American swimmer to win an Olympic gold medal after Argentina’s Alberto Zorrilla, winner of the 400m freestyle at Amsterdam 1928.

After the race, Nesty claimed he was better known in the US than at home. "They respect me there, but I haven’t been there for over a year," he said in the post-race interview. "Suriname has a lot of military coups and political things. My dad told me if I stayed there much longer I wouldn’t have much of a swimming career."

But, upon his return to Suriname, Nesty was met at the airport by 20,000 fans. The Government commemorated his gold-medal performance on a stamp and on gold and silver coins. A 25-guilders bank note portraying an illustration of a butterfly swimmer was printed in his honour. Suriname Airways named one of its planes after Nesty and the indoor stadium in the capital Paramaribo was renamed for him.

(As a footnote, there was a tragedy shortly after the plane was named in honour of Nesty when it crashed as it approached Paramaribo-Zanderij International Airport at the end of a flight from Amsterdam, killing 176 of the 187 on board.)

If critics thought Nesty’s victory in Seoul was a fluke, he proved them wrong as he went unbeaten in the 100m butterfly for three years and added a series of gold medals to his collection. He won the Pan Pacific Championships in Tokyo in 1990, the Goodwill Games in Seattle in 1990 and the World Championships in Perth and Pan American Games in Havana in 1991.

At the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, he put up a strong defence of his title, winning the bronze medal in a race won by Morales, the swimmer whose high school record he had broken.

"It's just an amazing story," Nesty told the Associated Press in an interview earlier this year. "Whether it was being in the right place at the right time or just luck or just God-given talent that I, of course, had, it's a unique story, that's for sure."

Anthony Nesty will become the first black coach to lead the United States men's swimming team at the Olympics when he takes charge at Paris 2024 ©Getty Images
Anthony Nesty will become the first black coach to lead the United States men's swimming team at the Olympics when he takes charge at Paris 2024 ©Getty Images

Having taken up a scholarship at the University of Florida following his Seoul 1988 victory, Nesty also enjoyed a successful collegiate career. After graduating in 1994, he applied what he had learned to helping others and returned to The Bolles School as an assistant coach working under Troy. In 1998, the pair moved to work together at the University of Florida.

Troy was the US men’s head coach at London 2012, and Nesty will now be following him. He already works with top American swimmers such as Katie Ledecky, Caeleb Dressel and Bobby Finke at the University of Florida, part of a group of 42 Olympians he has coached and which have won a total of 23 medals, including 11 gold.

Nesty was assistant coach of the US team at the re-arranged 2020 Olympics in Tokyo and headed last year’s World Aquatics Championships in Budapest. There, the US won 45 medals in the pool, surpassing the previous record of 38 by an individual country.

Though swimming is one of the most widely practised of all sports in rich and increasingly multicultural countries, at elite level, it remains dominated to a remarkable degree by white athletes. It remains rare to see a black swimmer competing at the Olympics, let alone one finishing on the podium. It is just as unusual to see a black coach poolside.

"You know you're a role model," Nesty, who is now 55, told the Associated Press. "You have to take that very seriously. Maybe it's why I work so hard at what I do. I try to be the best Anthony Nesty I can be."

Anthony Nesty has been swimming against the tide since he was a teenager and there’s no sign of him stopping anytime soon.