By Michael Bradley
The Nevada swimming and diving team made a big splash this offseason when they hired Coach Neil Harper. The two-time Olympian has 22 years of coaching experience, including 14 years at Florida State, where he was named Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year three times.
“My goals are to get to know the girls as quickly as possible and to learn how to be able to coach them the best way possible,” Harper said. “Knowing your athletes is going to really enhance the ability to coach them better. Obviously I’m new to them and they’re new to me. So I’m trying to rapidly get to know their personalities, strengths, and weaknesses.”
When Harper parted ways with Florida State in 2013, he became the new head coach of Aiken-Augusta Swim League, a club swim team based in Augusta, Georgia.
“The last place I worked, the team was 70 kids,” Harper said. “It’s very stressful and very time-consuming. It’s difficult to try to have two programs in the top 20 and to recruit over 100 kids every year. I wanted to find a program that was a good academic school, a beautiful campus and really a school that has the potential to be a top 20 program.”
Along with 22 years of coaching experience, Harper was a four-time SEC champion at LSU, a seven-time All-American and also participated in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics for Great Britain at age 19 and 23. He was a finalist in the 400 medley relay in both Olympic Games.
“What I certainly learned from [the Olympics] is that you can get caught up in the big moment,” Harper said. “Fortunately for me, I got a second chance. By the time my second chance came around, I may not have been in my prime. I was a different swimmer. Being a swimmer at the Olympics has helped me learn from my mistakes. I got overwhelmed when the Olympics were in Los Angeles. We swam in front of 10,000 [spectators] and I had only swam in front of maybe 500 spectators before then.”
Harper also coached for different countries at both the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Games. He witnessed his former swimmer Stephen Parry win bronze in the 200 fly at the 2004 Olympics.
“[The Olympics] is the ultimate for a coach and swimmer,” Harper said. “It motivates you. It focuses you. It has you thinking even on higher levels. How can you take these fantastic swimmers and make them even better? It’s definitely something I want to do again. There’s several girls on this team that have the opportunity to make it to their country’s trials.”
Harper’s best chances to return to the Olympics in 2016 will be with Mountain West Swimmer of the Year, Kawen Li, and Mountain West Diver of the Year, Krysta Palmer. Palmer has already qualified for the 2016 Olympic trials and the Winter National. She has broken the three-meter springboard and ten-meter platform diving records at Nevada.
“He cares for us,” Palmer said. “He’s personable and treats us like his daughters. He’s going to work us hard and he’s going to push us to be the best we can be. It definitely helps that he is a two-time Olympian because we know he understands what it takes to be successful.”
Neil Harper and the Nevada Swimming and Diving Team’s next meet will be on Saturday as they host the Silver and Blue exhibition meet at the Lombardi Pool at 3 p.m.
Michael Bradley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @mbrvdley