Hall in Flames

Strife at swimming's prime shrine threatens to wash away a local icon

On an objectively perfect weekday afternoon at Fort Lauderdale's Swimming Hall of Fame aquatic complex, dozens of squirming teenagers take laps in the 50-meter pool. Jack Nelson, stout as a runt pumpkin, with a mall-Santa belly and the built-in smile befitting a grandfather of 13, strides across the deck and reaches a deeply wrinkled hand into his USA Swimming polo shirt. The former coach of the U.S. women's Olympic team pulls out damp paper, like a KGB agent producing a dossier from a trench coat pocket. It's a copy of a letter from swimming demigod Mark Spitz that reads like many others Nelson has collected lately.

Spitz writes: "I have just returned from the Olympic Games and have learned that the Board of Directors of the International Swimming Hall of Fame [ISHOF] has not ... remove[d] current President and CEO, Mr. Sam Freas. Therefore, please accept this letter as a formal request to remove my name, likeness, and any memorabilia, from the Hall of Fame." That would presumably include the wax statue of Spitz on the second floor of the main museum building, and the seven faux-gold medals around its neck.

It's as though Teddy Roosevelt asked that his face be dynamited off Mount Rushmore.

Embattled Hall of Fame President Sam Freas
Colby Katz
Embattled Hall of Fame President Sam Freas
Fort Lauderdale's pools have hosted ten world records, the most recent by Michael Phelps in 2002.
Colby Katz
Fort Lauderdale's pools have hosted ten world records, the most recent by Michael Phelps in 2002.

"He just wanted to wait until after the Olympics," Nelson says. "That's the coup de grâce, as far as I'm concerned." Golden boy diver Greg Louganis has requested the same. So have butterfly maestros Mary T. Meagher and Melvin Stewart. And so have about 20 others, including Ron O'Brien, the eight-time Olympic diving coach who taught at the Hall of Fame pool for years and whose son, Tim O'Brien, trains divers there today. In July, John Neuberger, a revered former executive director of USA Swimming, the sport's national governing body, bailed as chairman of the Hall of Fame's board. In his resignation letter, Neuberger wrote that the hall "lacks credibility within broad segments of the aquatic community, and virtually all of the unhappiness emanates from the arrogance and self-interest of Mr. Freas."

This Fort Lauderdale landmark of nearly 40 years -- which claims to host 20,000 visitors annually -- is breaking apart in the spectacular and baffling fashion unique to things beloved. Freas and sundry developers have flirted with moving the hall to Hollywood, then Pompano Beach, and now Daytona Beach. A board member inspired ire when he suggested city pool employees and coaches cost too much; they've responded by lobbying honorees to jump ship. Though Freas, a massive, voluble man who's something of a legend himself, complains of "a sleeper cell" of board members aligned against him, the group recently renewed his contract for three more years. Local pols are sniping, and pool employees are exasperated.

The Hall of Fame meltdown is largely attributable to Freas' admitted political incorrectness, ambition, hubris, and naïveté. In his effort to expand the Swimming Hall of Fame's reach, he has lost enough friends and allies that some in Fort Lauderdale can't wait for him to pack up his landmark and scram.

The sharpest and perhaps most surprising criticism of Freas comes from Nelson, who last week received a letter from the swim hall CEO's lawyers warning him against distributing "false and defamatory" statements. Nelson has spent 54 years teaching practically everyone in Broward County to swim; he coached the national team eight times, and set three world records back in the day.

"There are intelligent people who are sucked into Sam Freas' lies," Nelson said before receiving the cease and desist order from Freas. "Have you ever known a person who never told the truth? I've known one.

"He's a goofball. He's a banana bread."

A tall fellow with short hair, a frosty goatee, and rectangular glasses, Freas wedges into a booth at Tommy D's American Eatery near Fort Lauderdale Beach, whence he launches his day with a Diet Coke, coffee, and jalapeño Tabasco sauce on white toast. While talking, he often gazes out the window, past dusty fake plants and a framed, autographed photo of Dolly Parton that sits on the sill. At one point in the breakfast, a miniature roach scuttles from the wall onto the table. Freas daubs it with a napkin and continues speaking, unfazed. He's not easily upset.

Freas has long bucked orthodoxy. Born in the late 1940s in Philadelphia, where his mother taught phys-ed and coached track, he was raised a Quaker. After stints at Peekskill Military Academy and West Point for two years, he graduated from Springfield College in Massachusetts. Why did he leave the military? "I had to figure, was I afraid, or was it my religious beliefs?" he says. "I still don't know."

He spent a year coaching at the State University of New York at Potsdam, then seven at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. He got married, and had a kid named Sam. He gained tenure. He worked like crazy, coaching swimming, soccer, and track. "I always had very, very big teams," he says. "I wouldn't cut anybody. We'd have 80 people on the swim team, including women when women weren't allowed to swim."

In 1976, he says, he felt God was nudging him away from coaching, so he left Allegheny for the University of Iowa to pursue a Ph.D. in Administration and Supervision in Physical Education and Athletics. He was there for a little more than a year when University of Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles recruited, then hired him to coach swimming.

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