Swim coach pooled talents to avoid KP

Phil Jackman

May 19, 1993|By Phil Jackman

The subject was swimming and the Alamo Challenge forerunner to the World Championships this summer, and the host coach from the Fort Lauderdale Swim Club, Jack Nelson, was extolling the virtues of the meet, which can be seen on TNT May 29 at 5 p.m.

The former Olympian and longtime coach of swimmers at all levels was asked if, in this day and age, there's any such thing as a walk-on in the sport.

"Highly improbable," he answered. "In fact, next to impossible. Because even if a youngster isn't scoped out early, to be able to swim the great times of today, someone would have taken note. Besides, even a person with great talent couldn't do it without extensive training."

The conversation then wended its way through the stars who will take part in the meet, what's good and bad about the administration of the sport and the progress of American swimmers as they move toward the big events leading to the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

Nelson is from a small town in Georgia, La Fayette, not far from Atlanta, and someone asked him how he got involved in the sport.

"You're going to be sorry you asked that," he started.

"I learned to swim in a creek in Georgia at 5 years old. But swimming wasn't even a sport as far as we were concerned, everyone playing football, basketball and baseball in school. When I was in high school, I was a halfback and the other one

was [All-America] Leon Hardeman, who went on to a great career at Georgia Tech.

"We had only 13 guys on the team and won a state championship and afterward, when Hardeman went on to Tech, I joined the Air Force. It was the early '50s. I played football there and, when the season was over, was looking for something to do to avoid pulling guard duty or being on KP all the time. I told them I played basketball, but once I got a look at some of those giraffes, officers who had played in college, I backed off. 'That's not the game I played in a small town in Georgia.'

"They asked me if I had any other sport and I told them I used to dive off a plank when I was a kid. I made the team, but they were looking for me to compete in more than that one event. They timed me in the 25 meters, something I hadn't done before, swum for time, and the coach said I was faster than anyone else on the team."

It wasn't long before the Service Championships rolled around and Nelson, a veteran of a couple of months by now, won every race from 25 meters to 1,500 meters.

"I knew I could cover any distance they wanted," he said, "because I never drank or smoked, had played all sports and never walked anywhere in my life; I ran."

Nelson was just getting started. "In 1954, they legalized the butterfly kick and two months after they taught me how to do it, I beat the world record. Of course, the event hadn't been an official event that long. Subsequently, Jack Nelson went back to school [University of Miami] and, as a collegian, made Pan-American and Olympic teams."

And he ended up coaching at Miami, too, besides being the head man for the 1976 Olympic team.

Alas, the original question was answered: Yes, there are walk-ons in the sport of swimming. Or should they be referred to as swim-ons?

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