The book on the Tokyo 2020 Olympics hasn’t been fully closed. There is still competition remaining in 4 of the 5 aquatic disciplines, including open water, and plenty of other thrilling finishes across sports to win.
But we’re going to start looking at Paris 2024 anyway. And among the first orders of business in the condensed 3-year schedule is to figure out who will be the Team USA head coaches for the next Olympic Games.
Before Tokyo, those head coaches were named in late 2018 as Cal’s Dave Durden and Stanford’s Greg Meehan. Those picks made absolute sense – both coaches had hot hands at the time. Meehan’s Stanford team was the new wonder-child of the NCAA, having won two straight NCAA titles, and at the time he coached the two primo American superstars Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel.
Durden’s Cal team was, along with Texas, at the top of the men’s NCAA world, and he had sent a whopping four swimmers for just the American men’s team in Rio. That means he was the coach of a quarter of the Olympic Team.
There are a few criteria for choosing an Olympic Team head coach for the USA. Some are written, while others are sort of understood to frame the discussion but not really put out in public.
Here are the 5 written requirements:
- They must be a USA Swimming National Team staff member.
- They must be a United States citizen.
- The coaches must be in good health, and “able to withstand the physical rigors of traveling with and working with the team.”
- They must be available for the entirety of the Games.
- They must have previous USA Swimming team leader or USA Swimming managerial experience at high level competitions, i.e. Olympic Games, World Championships, Pan Pac Championships.
That leaves a fairly-large pool. In 2016, we identified 7 strong candidates and another 4 possible candidates for the job.
From there, the selections get more subjective. Coaches who are going to have a lot of athletes at the meet make sense. Coaches who are used to leading big groups makes sense. Coaches who have even demeanors and who have shown the ability to be accepting of different personalities and training styles will be viewed with a keener eye than those who might be more dogmatic in their ideas of “right” versus “wrong,” especially as training becomes more divergent around the country.
And remember that they have to be willing. They have to have the energy to both manage their ‘regular’ job and the Olympic head coaching job, which, by the way, is a volunteer position. This tends to lend itself to younger coaches in a relative sense – we probably won’t see 82-year old Eddie Reese leading the American team, even for all of his accomplishments.
While we could put together a big list of candidates (and we will at some point), in my mind, the two obvious choices have already emerged:
Stating the Cases
Todd DeSorbo, University of Virginia
For Todd DeSorbo, the case is simple: he is leading the hottest women’s swimming group in the country right now at the University of Virginia.
Virginia won the 2021 NCAA Championship in women’s swimming with a young team, and they probably would’ve won in 2020 too if those championships weren’t canceled.
What’s more, the Virginia training group sent 5 swimmers as part of Team USA at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. 4 of them were on that NCAA Championship team: Paige Madden, Kate Douglass, and Alex Walsh. Another, Emma Weyant, deferred the start of her Virginia career, but will be there next year. A 5th, Catie DeLoof, makes up the entirety of the Virginia post-grad group.
Every single one of them came home with an Olympic medal.
And that doesn’t include what they have coming in, ala Gretchen Walsh, who will be a freshman next season, and who is on an Olympic path as well.
Between now and Paris, it seems probable that the Virginia women will win most, or all, of the NCAA titles, and more top name swimmers will join the team (like the wave we saw from Greg Meehan and Stanford coming into the meet).
DeSorbo’s resume isn’t perfect, and we should acknowledge those weaknesses. He hasn’t been a head coach of anything for very long, only taking over the Virginia program in 2017. He also doesn’t have that much international coaching experience. The Olympics were his first official Team USA trip – that means no Jr. Pan Pacs, no Worlds, no World University Games, no Pan Am Games, no Pan Pacs. With the condensed schedule of Worlds-Worlds-Olympics coming up, there’s not a ton of time to fix that, but at a minimum he needs to be made the head coach of Team USA for the 2022 World Championships with a chance to prove that this is not an issue.
He also is the coach of a co-ed collegiate team. That takes a lot of work. Meehan and Durden both only coach one gender at their home colleges.
But none of this, if he’s willing, should override the obvious. He definitely brings a higher plane of energy to the pool deck than Meehan and Durden, and brings a more outward personality. But that’s not necessarily bad, so much as it’s different, and is maybe a change that the U.S. needs as they look to regain dominance on the Olympic stage.
Anthony Nesty, Head Coach, University of Florida
Like the Virginia women, the Florida men were the clear highlight of the Olympic Games. Kieran Smith (bronze in the 400 free) and Bobby Finke (gold in the 800 and 1500 free) re-wrote the narrative on American distance swimming. Caeleb Dressel lived up to the hype and is the face of Team USA, swimming or otherwise, at these Olympics so far.
After these performances, Florida recruiting, which was already pretty good, is going to take off – and just in time, as Nesty is now the head coach of both the men’s and women’s teams at Florida.
Dressel usually speaks primarily of Nesty’s predecessor, Gregg Troy, as “his coach,” though we know of course that Nesty was Troy’s understudy for a long time and that multiple coaches on that staff, including Steve Jungbluth, have a hand in his training.
But ultimately, the next 3 years are going to see a shift of the Florida program from the “post-Troy era” to the “full-blown Nesty era.”
He also brings an X-factor in that he’s an Olympic gold medalist. He is arguably, already, the most successful swim coach ever who has an Olympic gold medal. We know that’s not a requirement since so many of the world’s top coaches don’t have Olympic medals, but for a country looking to recapture some cachet, that could be an interesting psychological motivator.
Nesty’s shortcomings of resume are similar to DeSorbo’s. He hasn’t been a head coach for very long, taking over the Florida men 3 years ago and the women in the spring.
While he has more international experience than DeSorbo, most of it has been for smaller nations: assistant coach for Suriname at the 2004 Olympics, head coach at the 2008 Olympics, and an assistant on the Cayman Islands team at the World Championships in 2009, among others. While these trips still provide valuable experiences for him, that’s nowhere near the same scale of responsibility as Olympic head coach for Team USA.
He’s been on at least one US travel staff – he was on deck for the 2011 World University Games.
But this is still something where the U.S. will have to make sure they give him the opportunities to gain that experience before Paris.
While Nesty can certainly get his volume up when he needs to, he’s generally reserved and soft-spoken, so he and DeSorbo could prove to be good foils and balance each other.
It’s worth acknowledging that Nesty, already the first Black man to win an Olympic gold medal, would become the first Black man to lead Team USA at the Olympics. That could support a lot of domestic initiatives related to diversifying the sport in America. It won’t be part of USA Swimming’s decision-making process, but is an important outcome none-the-less.
There are a few other names who will be considered for this position: Ray Looze from Indiana and Jack Bauerle from Georgia chief among them. With only 3 years remaining until Paris, though, it’s going to be hard for anybody to do much to shift this decision away from DeSorbo in Nesty in my mind.