Jack Nelson's swimmers have called him a second father. South Florida newspapers call him an icon. His lawyer says he's "a national treasure." And Diana Nyad, his former swimmer, says Nelson was a sexual predator. Nyad, a former distance swimming sensation who now works as a sports journalist, has claimed that Nelson sexually assaulted her and other young women while he was their high school swim coach. But more than 40 years have passed since the alleged incidents, and even if Nyad, now 58, could prove her charges, the statute of limitations has long since expired.
Still, Nyad has prosecuted the former Olympic head coach in the court of public opinion. Her damning accusations against him resurface every few years. Now Nelson, who is 75, is on the offensive, and his first legal maneuver has already kicked off at the Broward County Courthouse.
The latest flap began when a packet of materials that included a sworn statement by Nyad, police reports, and news stories was mysteriously delivered to Fort Lauderdale city commissioners in January. The documents purport to show that Nelson and two other coaches that he hired and retained are guilty of sexual misconduct and other misdeeds.
For three decades, Nelson has contracted with the City of Fort Lauderdale as head of the Fort Lauderdale Swim Team. Thousands of swimmers and Olympic hopefuls have come from around the world to train with him. Though Nelson retired from coaching in 2004, he and his daughter, Mary Jackson, currently have a contract with the city to operate the Jack Nelson Swim School at the Fort Lauderdale Aquatic Center (FLAC).
Nelson believes that another swim coach, Duffy Dillon, and a Fort Lauderdale attorney, Bob Nichols, gave the packet to city commissioners. So on March 21, Nelson and his daughter, who is director of the Jack Nelson Swim School, sued Dillon and Dillon's swimming program, Aquatic Management International, for defamation and interference with their business relationship with the City of Fort Lauderdale. The claims of Nyad and others in the packet have jeopardized their contract, according to Nelson's suit.
Nelson's complaint dismisses the sexual assault allegations as blatantly false. Nyad's claims are supported, however, by recent interviews and documents obtained from the State Attorney's Office.
The packet given to city commissioners paints an alarming picture of Nelson and some of the coaches he supervised.
In 2004, a swimmer in Nelson's program told Fort Lauderdale police that one of the coaches had child pornography on his computer and that the coach secretly videotaped male swimmers who lived with him as the swimmers undressed in a bathroom. The swimmer claimed he found a video camera hidden in an air conditioning vent. Another swimmer told police the same coach touched him inappropriately. According to the packet, Dillon told Nelson about the boys' accusations, but Nelson did not go to police. Instead, Dillon´s wife did. Fort Lauderdale police conducted an investigation, but it dead-ended when the coach denied the accusations. Nelson kept the coach on staff.
The same documents describe another of Nelson's coaches, Cecil Russell, who admitted under oath in 1996 that he helped incinerate the dismembered remains of a murder victim. In 1997, Russell was convicted of steroid trafficking and was banned for life from Canada swimming (and later from U.S. swimming). Nelson hired Russell the same year. Growing up, Russell had been one of Nelson's swimmers. After Nelson learned of the conviction that led to the bans, he wrote to Canada swimming officials, saying he found Russell to be "a man of integrity."
Nelson sheltered Russell because Nelson doesn't make hiring decisions "based on what he reads or hears in the newspapers," Nelson's attorney, Robert Cooke, told New Times last week.
In 2000, in Spain, Russell was arrested on a charge of trafficking in ecstasy. He spent two years in a Spanish prison before being released due to illegally obtained evidence. Extradited to the United States and facing similar charges, he pleaded guilty to conspiring to distribute ecstasy and was sentenced to four years in prison.
The Fort Lauderdale City Commission looked over this information and Nyad's claims and reconsidered whether Jack Nelson was a man it wanted to do business with. It postponed its January 17 vote on the contract for swimming programs at the FLAC and gave the packet to Fort Lauderdale police. Police interviewed Nyad and three other women, then gave their findings to the State Attorney's Office, which did not file charges. The statute of limitations on any applicable charges had run out, Assistant State Attorney Dennis Nicewander says.
The City Commission had been considering a deal that would grant the Jack Nelson Swim School a contract through January 31, 2008. After the investigation, it would extend the contract with Nelson for only one-month periods.
Dillon also had vied for the city contract to run the swim programs at FLAC. Apparently, there weren't enough young swimmers to go around, which pitted Dillon, who ran the competitive swim program, against Nelson, who ran the instructional swim program. "It was like McDonald's and Burger King trying to sell the same thing under the same roof," said Stu Marvin, the former FLAC manager.
Dillon declined to comment to New Times, citing the ongoing litigation. If he is the author of the damning packet, as Nelson believes, it marks a break in his relations with Nelson. Nelson was Dillon's own coach starting when Dillon was 6 years old. In 2004, Dillon referred to him as "my second father."
A lot of people including Diana Nyad saw in Nelson a father figure. His charm and larger-than-life personality coupled with his winning record had swimmers from all over the world looking to him for guidance and leadership.
Over four decades, Nelson has coached the Fort Lauderdale swim team, 30 high school state championship teams, the University of Miami swim team, the U.S. National Team, the U.S. 1976 Women's Olympic team, and a total of 40 Olympians, including gold medalists and American record holders. In 1993, the Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce named him Man of the Year. He's been inducted into six halls of fame, including the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
Nyad's career has been less orthodox. She swam for Nelson at the Pine Crest Preparatory School in Fort Lauderdale and later found fame as a marathon swimmer, sometimes in solo events of her own devising. In September 1975, she tried to set the record for the fastest 27-mile swim around Manhattan. Instead, she wound up hospitalized for exhaustion. But 11 days later, she swam the island in 7:37:13, breaking the unofficial record by 59 minutes. In 1978, she attempted the first recorded swim from Cuba to the Florida Keys but was thwarted by rough water, fatigue, and poisonous jellyfish. Until 1997, Nyad held the world record for the longest unaided ocean swim for a man or a woman: Over two days, she swam 102.5 miles from the Bahamas to Florida.
Nyad subsequently worked as a Fox Sports News senior correspondent, a CNBC host, and an ABC Sports announcer. She has hosted a national weekly radio show, The Savvy Traveler, and is a sports correspondent for National Public Radio's Marketplace. Now she's working on a series of children's books about athletes who overcame tough childhoods. For a long time, she's been talking about hers.
In 1989, Nyad appeared on a live TV talk show People Are Talking with the caption "Raped by Coach" beneath her name. Intensely angry still, she recounted Nelson's abuse, saying it began when she was 14. He told her that she started it by writing "I love coach Nelson" on her notebook, she said, and that their relationship was so special that no one else would understand. Nyad didn't tell her mother what was going on, she said, because they weren't very close and she didn't want to embarrass her. "She was a single parent," she said. "This would show she had been a failure as a mother." In 2003, Nyad brought up Nelson's alleged abuse again, this time in her induction speech into the International Swimming Hall of Fame at FLAC.
Still, no newspaper in South Florida has ever mentioned Nyad's accusations, according to the Nexis database. Nelson's lawyer, Cooke, says he knows why. "They don't want to bring bad light on Fort Lauderdale," he said recently. "In a lot of these cases, this is public responsibility. Where was the public? Where were the police? How come they didn't do anything?" Cooke theorizes that an editor would say, "OK, Diana Nyad is a nut... That's why they aren't publishing it."
In statements to police and the affidavit given to city commissioners, Nyad says the first incident with Nelson took place in Nelson's home in May 1964, when she was a 14-year-old freshman at Pine Crest. Nyad was supposed to be resting for a state swim meet later that day. "Without any warning or provocation whatsoever, Jack Nelson violently ripped off my swimsuit," Nyad says.
She recalled Nelson breathing hard, shoving his tongue in her ear and mouth, and saying he loved her over and over. "He put his penis into the opening of my vagina," she told police. "But I was locked up tight as a drum, and he couldn't enter me." Nyad says Nelson ejaculated on her stomach, then got up and left. Nyad says she then vomited on the bed, washed up, and told herself, "This never happened."
Later that night, for the first time in two years, she lost at the state meet. Afterward, she says she swam to the bottom of the pool and screamed into the water, "This is not going to ruin my life!"
The second incident occurred in either 1965 or 1966 in Nelson's office at Pine Crest, Nyad says. He had called all the swimmers in, one by one, to talk about the U.S. national swim meet, which was to take place the next day. But the coach had other plans for Nyad, she says. As soon as she sat down, he "turned into a gargoyle," she says. His voice got husky. He approached her, yanked up her shirt, and took her bathing suit down.
"He started saying, It doesn't matter what you swim... We're not going to talk about that... Look at these beautiful breasts of yours." Nelson took her into a small bathroom attached to his office, Nyad says, and again tried to penetrate her. "I need this. I'm a grown man," Nyad says she was told. "You don't understand this yet, but you will one day. I love you. I love you so much... I need to come inside." Again, Nyad held herself rigid, she says, and Nelson wasn't able to penetrate her.
She recounted five additional incidents that occurred in the back seat of Nelson's car, a motel room, and a bathroom. "The high school years that should have been happy, confident years for me were instead a nightmare," she said. "I felt estranged from my teammates because I feared they knew my horrible secret."
Although Nyad says she confided in an older friend about a year after the incidents, it was five years later when Nyad, then 22, told her story to a former Pine Crest teammate. Tears streamed down the teammate's face, Nyad said, then the teammate announced that Nelson had abused her too. The two decided to take action. They also became involved in a one-year lesbian relationship, but when that began is unclear.
The two women met with the headmaster of Pine Crest, William McMillan, and told him everything. Then Nyad, her teammate, and the teammate's father met with McMillan, Nelson, and Nelson's attorney at the attorney's office in Fort Lauderdale. As McMillan remembers it, both girls claimed that Nelson had sex with them, and Nelson denied it.
In a statement to police this year, Nelson said Nyad dreamed up the allegations because "she wanted to be a writer, and wanted to have the ability to write things that were not true and make people believe them." He said the other swimmer was coerced into the accusations by her relationship with Nyad.
Cooke, Nelson's lawyer, told New Times that Nelson left Pine Crest at the end of that year "to teach swimmers in a larger pool environment... Coach Nelson was not fired, asked to resign, or terminated as a result of the meeting."
In a recent statement to police, McMillan recalled the outcome of that meeting differently: "I made some provision to make sure Nelson has no opportunity with any teenaged girls... I forget whether we put a supervisor in the dressing room or his office or what. We terminated his contract as of... well, I think when it ran out some weeks later. I didn't immediately fire him, but I... I did terminate him."
McMillan told police he did not go to authorities at the time to protect the reputations both of the girls and of his school.
When police asked McMillan whether he thought Nelson should be the coach of a team, he simply responded, "No, I don't."
Sitting at his dining-room table in John Knox Village last week, McMillan, now 77, had one last thing to add to the statements he gave police. "I have a high regard for the honesty and credibility of Diana Nyad," he said.
Although Nelson and daughter Mary Jackson would not speak with New Times, at least some of their position can be gleaned from court documents and their lawyer's comments. They claim Dillon and Nichols produced knowingly false reports so as to interfere with the Jack Nelson Swim School's business relationship with the city. They did this "so that they could step into the shoes of JNSS and take over the instructional swimming program at the FLAC," their complaint states. As for the damaging packet, it contains some true assertions, said Cooke, but "anything in the documents related to Jack Nelson is false."
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Cooke is preparing the case by interviewing several people who know Nyad, and he claims they have already said things that might "shed a different light" on her accusations. He doesn't want Nelson tried in the press, though, so he's not going into detail about Nyad, he says. Well, maybe one: "In college, she jumped out of a building wearing only a sheet," he told New Times.
Cooke said he also plans to investigate Nyad's career and call into question whether she ever swam as far or as fast as the newspapers say. "What evidence is there that she did it?" he asks.
Cooke says in his deposition that he also plans to find out why Nyad and any other alleged victims never filed police reports.
"Why would someone in their 60s file an affidavit?" he said. "Maybe she's writing a book."