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Gators associate head swim coach, Anthony Nesty, left, remains a national hero back home in Suriname.

Tuesday December 10, 2013Golden Moment: Nesty's Historic Win in '88 Olympics Still Resonates in Suriname and Beyond

Gators associate head swim coach, Anthony Nesty, left, remains a national hero back home in Suriname.

By Jenna Perlman
GatorZone.com Writing Intern

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – UF associate head swim coach Anthony Nesty and his former coach, Kenneth McDonald, were eating lunch at a London pub during the 2012 Summer Olympics.

They were talking about days gone by and their memorable ride together.

Suddenly, a man from Australia leaned over to ask them where they were from and McDonald responded, “Suriname.”

“Wasn’t there a guy from Suriname?” asked the man.

McDonald pointed to Nesty, laughed and said, “Yeah, that’s him.”

Nesty captured a small country’s imagination 25 years ago when he won gold in the 100-meter butterfly at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. Nesty was the first black swimmer and first Surinamer to win an Olympic gold medal.

But before a gold medal could change Olympic and Suriname history, Nesty had his life changed by something much smaller: a hand-written letter.

“At the ’84 Olympics a coach from the U.S. stopped my coach and said, ‘Anthony is a pretty good swimmer; make sure he gets the opportunity to come to the states or to go to a school with a boarding school,’ ” Nesty recalled recently.

Nesty was 17 when he competed in his first Olympics in 1984, which were held in Los Angeles. He finished 21st in the 100 butterfly.

In reality, Nesty was out of his league. But at home in Suriname he was a big fish in a small pond.

After returning home from Los Angeles, Nesty’s father, Ronald, wrote two letters. One to current UF swim coach Gregg Troy, who at the time was the head coach at the Bolles School in Jacksonville.

Ronald Nesty’s other letter was mailed to the coach at Pine Crest School, a private preparatory school located in Boca Raton, Fla.

Troy was the only one to respond.

“I knew that if I continued swimming in Suriname I wouldn’t have improved the way I wanted to,” Nesty said. “Or I would have stopped when I was 18 or 19 because that’s kind of the pattern back home. No one sticks with it past high school.”

***

A year after arriving on the international scene at the 1984 Olympics, Nesty moved to Jacksonville to attend the Bolles School and train under Troy.

Nesty left his parents, older brother and one of his sisters in Suriname. Only his sister, Pauline, came with him. Pauline, two years older than Anthony, moved to attend Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville.

“He wanted me to get the opportunity because he saw my potential,” Nesty said of his father. “He saw the drive I had, and my coach back home saw it as well.”

Nesty struggled to transition to life in the U.S. and being away from his family. For the first several months, he would call home to tell his parents he didn’t know if he wanted to continue.

He stayed, able to push through with the support of fellow swimmers, coaches and his sister, who traveled to Jacksonville to watch him swim often.

By U.S. standards Nesty got a late start. He began swimming at age 6 but didn’t get serious until he was 13.

“My dad wanted me to do something other than a team sport where discipline was the key to succeeding,” Nesty said.

The youngest of five children, Nesty’s family moved to Suriname from Trinidad and Tobago when he was 9 months old. His family has no major athletic background, but his father encouraged all of the children to participate in sports.

At first Nesty didn’t want to swim. He stuck with it and eventually became a national hero back home.

Suriname is on the northeastern Atlantic coast of South America, a small country roughly the size of Florida with a population of approximately 530,000 people according to the latest census data.

The country’s main export is gold, which is ironic because until the 1988 Olympics no gold or any other Olympic medal had been brought back to the country. Athletes who competed in the Olympics for Suriname often had more in common with the spectators than the athletes they competed against.

But for a moment, Nesty changed all of that.

***

Nesty was ready for his second Olympics after three years of preparation under Troy at one of the nation’s most prestigious prep schools.

He had shown vast improvement and at the 1987 Pan American Games in Indianapolis, Nesty won gold in the 100 butterfly against a field that did not include any Americans.

“When I went to Bolles in ’85 I went to the state meet and competed fairly well,” Nesty said. “But it seemed that at every international meet I went to while attending Bolles I was swimming faster and faster. My senior year I was ranked top-16 in the world so the lights started to go off a little bit.

“At that time I was just thinking about if I got another opportunity to go to the Olympics, which I probably would because I was the only really good swimmer in Suriname at that time. So the chances of making the Olympics were 100 percent.”

Anthony Nesty

Nearly 10,000 miles away from Nesty’s home and family in Suriname, his climb to the top of the world in the 100 butterfly would be showcased for the world to see in Seoul.

The events were organized so preliminary races were one day and finals the following day, which benefits Nesty’s style of training.

If he was able to make it to the finals, Nesty knew he would be able to swim faster in that race than he did in prelims.

Going into Seoul Olympics the heavy favorite in the 100 butterfly was American Matt Biondi, who won a gold medal as a member of the 1984 U.S. 4x100 freestyle team and had been selected as NCAA Swimmer of the Year in ’85, ’86 and ‘87.

As he leapt into the pool Nesty felt confident about his chance to at least finish third in the race and bring home the first Olympic medal for Suriname.

With 75 meters remaining, Nesty’s mind raced.

“There’s no way I’m going to beat Matt Biondi,’’ he recalled.

And any other day, in any other race, he may have been right.

But not on this day: Sept. 20, 1988.

Nesty’s ability to position himself with the leaders kept him in contention throughout. With 10 meters left Nesty knew he had second place and the silver medal.

Perhaps indicative of his personality and work ethic, Nesty pushed through the last 10 meters. And instead of standing at the podium with a silver medal around his neck, Nesty won gold -- by a mere 0.01 seconds.

***

This was a bittersweet day for Matt Biondi in Olympic swimming. It was a wonderful day for Anthony Nesty of Suriname, an almost obscure swimmer from an obscure nation that had never won an Olympic medal in any sport. – The New York Times, Sept. 21, 1988

“I think when I won they were scrambling because they didn’t expect to play the national anthem for Suriname,” Nesty said.

Nesty’s father was the only family member who made the trip to Seoul.

Still, twenty-five years later the memory remains fresh for everyone close to Nesty, who later won three consecutive NCAA butterfly titles at UF and returned to his alma mater as an assistant coach in 1998.

“I was in Gainesville when he was swimming,” Pauline said. “I went to UF, and I had exams the next day, but I stayed up and watched. I was screaming and the neighbors were worried something was wrong.

 “A couple of Surinamers were at UF at the time, and they all came to my house. It was a very big moment. I told my teacher I couldn’t study for the exam and he said that was the best excuse he’d ever heard.”

 Nesty’s older brother, Ian, was in Suriname with the rest of the family.

 “The race was on delay. It had just started when a friend of mine from the Netherlands called and said, ‘congratulations,’ ’’ Ian said. “And I said, ‘congratulations for what?’ I dropped the phone and hung up.”

Nesty barely cracks a smile when he talks about the race that made him a household name in Suriname, which later printed money with his likeness on bills.

“Lucky to have touched the wall first,’’ he said.

You would think he was talking about winning a first-grade spelling bee rather than winning a gold medal at the Olympics.

“It comes down to the discipline,” Ian said. “He didn’t need anybody. He would just get up and swim. He was very disciplined and focused and that paid off.” 

***

Suriname brought four athletes to the 1988 Olympics: a track athlete, a Judo athlete, a cyclist and Nesty. Suriname needed three hotel rooms while other countries had 10 floors.

In 1988 Suriname was in the middle of an economic recession and the country’s people faced extremely difficult times.

In a matter of seconds Nesty not only changed his life forever, but also lifted the spirits of an entire country in need of something to celebrate.

“It was 53 seconds where they had something to cheer about rather than to be stressed about,” Nesty said. “As a country it was a blessing for those people to have something they could cherish and take as something of their own.”

Suriname celebrated Nesty’s win for two weeks.

The Suriname National Indoor 50-meter swimming stadium and DC-8 airplane were named after him and 25-Guilders bank notes featured him on the front. The government also commemorated him on a stamp, and gold and silver coins.

Although the 25 Guilders are no longer in circulation, Nesty admits to having spent himself on more than one occasion.

A reflection of the importance of Nesty’s victory to Suriname was represented on the 20th anniversary of Nesty winning the gold medal.

At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Nesty was the flag bearer during the opening ceremonies, which he never attended when he competed at the Olympics.

“It was a great honor for them to ask me because it obviously meant so much for Suriname,” Nesty said.

On the actual day of the 25th anniversary of his historic win in Seoul, Nesty was in Whistler, Canada, for a swim clinic.

Text messages from his friends in Suriname, UF swimmers and family began to pour into his phone. At first he wasn’t sure what they were talking about when they said, “Happy anniversary,” or “Congratulations.”

It’s hard to imagine that someone might forget the date of such a big accomplishment, but that is Nesty’s humble nature.

For a swimmer who has had immense national and international success, Nesty is as humble as they come. He’s done a handful of interviews, no TV talk shows and certainly no commercials.

And that’s just fine with him.

“For me it’s more about seeing other people doing the same thing I did,” Nesty said. “Those people who come from less fortunate countries or less fortunate socioeconomic backgrounds, to see that happen is a reminder of what I’ve done to give those people hope.”

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