Ed Nessel: a life aquatic.
Coach Nessel came to Florida to retire, but, he says, "Things didn't quite work out that way." Nevertheless, the man who has spent a lifetime training people in the water at zero gravity naturally gravitated toward Cape Canaveral himself. His telephone area code was even created as a nod to its proximity to Kennedy Space Center: 3-2-1...liftoff.
The 63-year-old Nessel has four degrees: a bachelor of science in Chemistry from Rutgers University; two master's degrees from Wagner College on Staten Island, one in Physiology and the other in Public Health; and a doctor of Pharmacy degree from Rutgers, which led to his initial career as a pharmacist. But his affinity for the water has been lifelong.
A Swimmer's Life
Coach Nessel grew up in the small town of Roselle, New Jersey, where he started swimming seriously at age eight. At Abraham Clark High School (a.k.a. Roselle High), he was all-county tennis, as well as all-state band and all-state swimming. His talents on the clarinet, flute, and saxophone would lead to his formation of a six-piece dance band that flourished locally after he graduated. These same talents would also complement his swimming: Later in life, Ed noticed that excelling at music and as an athlete in the water both required an understanding of, and perhaps an innate sense of, rhythm. And the breath control in the one could certainly not have hurt the pursuit of excellence in the other. In high school he became a state champion in freestyle. But Nessel went on to become a YMCA Nationals and U.S. Nationals champion in the breast stroke. His relay team also set an American record in the 4 x 100 medley.
Nessel considers the breast stroke his bailiwick, but that assessment has its limitations. "Even in my masters I won nationals in the 100 free," he says. "Don't ask me [how] I guess all the good guys didn't show up that day. I just happened to get my hand on the wall first."
Beyond swimming in and of itself, Ed is clearly fascinated and delighted by the unique challenges to training the water imposes on the human body. He points out readily, for example, that working with medicine balls in the water under certain conditions, like holding the ball above your head, makes the effort four times greater than on land. Though body weight is displaced in water, water is also 1,000 times more dense than air, which makes its resistance to the body's movements far greater. Over four years, in fact, Nessel developed specialized 0ns that maximize the water's natural resistance to hard, intentional kicks.
The Coach at Work
His coaching style is tailored to helping his swimmers "deal with the body's unfriendly internal environment," by which he largely means lactic acid and C02 build-up. As a coach, "I'm asking you to do three things that are counterintuitive to a human being," he says. The first is to move through the water; the second is to hold your breath underwater; and the third is to exhale, rather than hold onto, oxygen--in order to "extend yourself a few extra yards to get to the wall." This process is very different from the indiscriminate huffing and puffing athletes are allowed during a run, or any other fitness activity, on land. The oxygen available on land is not such a free commodity in the water. "And we get you to deal with that, and before you know it, everything else that you do physically becomes easy."
Nessel likens the aquatic training process to the on-deck circle in baseball, where a batter routinely takes practice swings with weighted donuts or multiple bats. At the plate, the donuts come off, and the swing feels easier than ever.
It was precisely this fact of training in water that led him, in 2001, to invite the lackluster Rutgers football team to work out with him. "If I asked you to jog around a quarter-mile track, nice and easy, and then I told you to double your speed, the air doesn't change, the resistance doesn't change. It does in the water. The faster you move through it, the more it holds you back." This has been shown in several studies to be by at least the square of one's effort. Nessel says, "And that's if you knew how to swim well!" He found that with the novice swimmers of the Rutgers football team, the effort cubes. Over time, Nessel's drills with the football team helped to develop their leg muscles and cardiovascular endurance; the team improved.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Nessel found that the team's field goal kickers were among its strongest swimmers. Kicking is, after all, a huge component of moving well through the water. Coach Nessel particularly enjoyed their moment of glory, as an otherwise marginalized segment of the team, when they reached the wall in the pool well ahead of the team's star backs and linemen. Ed was a kicker on his high school team, but his connection to this group might have been enhanced further by memories of his son, Jason. Just a year prior to his training the Rutgers football team, Ed and his wife Eileen had lost Jason in a tragic automobile accident.
By age 13, Jason was already ranked number two in the country as a swimmer in his age group. A natural athlete, he moved on to excel at baseball--"put a baseball in his hand, he'd throw you a curve"--and eventually, as a kicker for his high school football team. It was Jason who, in his senior year at J.P. Stevens High School, under the "Friday night lights," with nearly 6,000 fans looking on, including the inevitable alumni home for the holidays, split the uprights in a dramatic field-goal victory over archrivals Edison High School in the iconic annual Thanksgiving Day football showdown.
Jason's tragic passing was not the first time the Nessels, who also have a daughter, Lee (now 32 years old), had endured heartbreak. Their first son, Matthew, who had cerebral palsy from a distressed birth, aspirated food and died at age six. Ed credits Eileen as his pillar of strength during both of these devastating periods. Eileen returned to teaching after Matthew passed in 1989 so that Ed could turn to coaching fulltime, reducing his work as a pharmacist to part-time. For this sacrifice Nessel refers to his wife as "Mrs. Coach." In addition to his family, time and again, it seems, it has been coaching that has brought Ed around in times of great distress. He says he was back on the pool deck three days after the loss of Jason. "The team said, 'What are you doing here?' And I said, 'I don't know what I'm doing here,' but I realized they needed me and I needed them just as much."
Now, a progressive degenerative brain disease, akin to Parkinson's but as yet not fully diagnosed, has sent Eileen into a nursing home. Ed hopes to have her back at home soon, and divides his time with Lee, who lives next door, caring for her down in Florida. But the inevitability of more loss weighs tremendously on him.
The legacy of Nessel's swimming career has been carried on by Lee, who, he says, had always wanted to be a "lady 'cane." And so it was Lee that moved to Florida first, where at the University of Miami she became captain of the swim team and was the school's female scholar-athlete of the year. Graduating in 1997, Lee was an Ail-American swimmer there and NCAA woman of year. She is now the sports editor of Florida Today and has been known to help Coach Nessel run the various clinics and masters programs he tirelessly endeaors to perfect.
A Kindred in "Jonesy"
One day while Nessel was coaching high school swimming in West Orange, New Jersey, a 13-year-old, rather awkward but determined "stork" from Irvington came to see him. His name was Cullen Jones, an only child attending St. Benedict's High School in Newark. It was a bond that would last over a decade. Ed worked with "Jonesy" in the pool during these most formative years, often exchanging good-natured ribbing with Cullen's father, Ron, who facetiously joked that perhaps other sports might better suit his African American son.
Then, in 2000, Ron Jones was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Cullen would lose his dad at age 16, and in tact just before Coach Nessel would lose Jason, that same year.
The New Jersey State Championships for high school swimmers, known less formally as the Junior Olympics (or J.O.s), were held at Rutgers University that year. Ron, now wheelchair bound and with die support of an oxygen tank, was allowed to sit poolside to watch the meet. He would die a mere three days later. Nessel recalls that Ron called him aside and, barely able to talk, implored Ed right there on the deck to "take care of my boy." Ed was overcome and found himself promising that he would see that Cullen got a college scholarship, and that he would "make him the best in the world." Cullen witnessed this conversation from afar, and Nessel quickly reassured and refocused him to the competition at hand. That afternoon, Jonesy set a meet record in his father's honor. Nessel told him afterward, "You just showed me we're going to be watching you on TV someday."
Nessel continued to coach Jonesy through college, even though he attended college in North Carolina. He was an NCAA winner his senior year, and then in 2005 finished the World University Games ranked fourth in the world. He had gone to train with Ed for a week prior to that, and it paid off, effectively putting him on the world swimming map at last.
Cullen Jones was ranked the fastest swimmer in the world in 2006, for his performance at the Pan Pacific Games in Canada. He also swam a leg in the world record-breaking 4 x 100-meter freestyle relay, along with Michael Phelps, Neil Walker, and Jason Lezak. This same 4 x 100 lineup clinched gold in the 2007 World Aquatics Championships. Then, at the 2008 Olympic swimming trials, Jonesy broke the American record in the 50-meter freestyle, with a time of 21.59. Needless to say he made the team, and this year in Beijing he won a gold medal in the 4 x 100-meter freestyle relay, in a world-record time of 3:08.24, again with Phelps and Lezak, plus Garrett Weber-Gale. Cullen Jones not only became the best--and was indeed watched on TV by millions--he made history: He is the first black person on earth to set a world record in swimming.
How does Nessel help make such champions? "It's not that I just tell all my swimmers, 'This is what you gotta do, go swim it,' and then I'm reading the Wall street Journal or talking on my cell phone... I'm watching everybody do everything all the time. I used to come home exhausted from swim practice." Indeed, if you imagine having several lanes of swimmers of varying abilities, then to intensely concentrate on who is doing what while correcting form and performance on an individual basis over several continuous hours seems not unlike the work of an air traffic controller. Coach Nessel is, if you will, a kind of water traffic controller.
"It takes a lot of effort to be a coach and I take that title very seriously," he says. Furthermore, Nessel takes great care to give his swimmers the biomechanical, biochemical, and physiological reasoning behind their various drills in the water. "It's one thing to say, 'This is what we're doing.' It's another thing to explain why. I treat my swimmers as if they have brains that work."
However, the nature of the sport is such that this same brain must learn to stand down at times. "I tell them that while they're training with me, that's when you're supposed to think about your movement through water. In a competition, it's too late to think; you're just supposed to react."
Understanding why you are training a certain way, and then forgetting everything but the act in a race, are really two sides of the same coin: It's all part of internalizing the lessons. As a humorous intervention to counter the sometimes destructive thoughts that can occur quite naturally when someone is losing 02 underwater, Nessel draws from his past as a pharmacist, advising swimmers to "Take a dumb pill, shut up, and swim."
And it's this appreciation for humor, and its usefulness as a tool to reach anyone--a room full of physicians, high school students, college football players, older novices in the water, even other coaches--that emerges easily in conversation with Ed.
A Coach Among Coaches
This is surely one reason he is presently part of an elite crew of Mentor Coaches, a national program that teaches coaches how to coach. In February he delivered one such clinic at LSU. After all, Nessel is quick to recognize that to know swimming is not necessarily to know people. The lynchpin to success as a coach, he says, is enthusiasm. "No matter what kind of day you've had, you must bring your A-game to the deck."
Nessel currently works in the pool with Navy SEALs and pararescue personnel at Patrick Air Force Base, which guards Kennedy Space Center. He also runs national college clinics, and the annual racing camp each August in New Jersey. Caring for Eileen has drastically reduced his travel schedule, but he still coaches masters classes in Florida, as he did in New Jersey for years. Masters swimming can begin as young as age 18, if you're not competing actively in college or USA club swimming, but it tends to be older athletes. He also runs an age-group program for swimmers 14 to 18 years of age.
AMAA, Authorship, and Other Exploits
In Nessel's New Jersey masters program he met Paul Kiell, a Lifetime Member of AMAA and for many years now a true convert to the benefits of getting in the pool. It was Dr. Kiell who, as the former editor-in-chief, originally arranged for Dr. Nessel to contribute articles to this publication, which then led to his popular column. Nessel is now a Lifetime Member of AMAA himself, and spoke four years in a row in the late 90s at the AMAA symposiums held in conjunction with the New York City Marathon. "They brought me in for comic relief," he jokes. "I was the only person to speak that had nothing to do with running." But he did predict to the MDs--all regular runners--in attendance, "Don't worry, you'll all need to see me eventually."
Nessel is the author of three books, with the recently published Swim to Win: Train Like a Champion, available at Amazon.com, where it has been garnering excellent reviews, including one from the head of the Physiology lab at the University of Mexico (see Paul Kiell's review on page 14).
Living just three miles from the ocean seems fitting for Coach Nessel. Ed and Lee swim for pleasure, even including some open-water swimming in the Indian River, a conduit that is part of what makes it possible to swim inland continuously down the entire East Coast. "The water is 85 degrees out here, which is great for old dudes like me," he says. "The only bad thing is there are other fins in the water, if you know what I mean."
Ed Nessel sums up his long career by admitting, "I'm here to share what I know." If "the deck" has an appropriate second meaning in Ed's world, perhaps it is to evoke the image of a strong leader, a commander steering a ship safely to shore. In that regard, as in many others, Nessel is an astounding success. His enthusiasm always keeps him on hand and readily available to his athletes, regardless of what rough seas he may be experiencing himself. "In the theater it's called 'the show must go on,'" he says.
We sincerely hope that this show continues its successful run for a long time indeed.
Jeff Venables is the editor of running & FitNews and a regular contributor to the AMAA Journal.