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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

As the Florida Gators’ men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams get ready to compete in the SEC Championships at Auburn, Alabama, Tuesday, the coaches of both squads believe their teams’ success could be found in surprising places. 

For the No. 9-ranked men, coach Anthony Nesty believes relaxation is key heading into the meet that spans Tuesday to Saturday. 

“The best thing you can do is just get your rest,” Nesty suggested to his team. “Do your homework, hang out with your buddies… don’t focus on the meet. The meet will be there sooner than later.”

If anyone knows a thing or two about the SEC Championships, it’s Nesty. Though he is just in his second year at the helm of the men’s swimming and diving program, the former Gator swimmer has been on staff for 22 years.  

In those 22 years, the Gators have captured seven SEC titles – each coming in the last seven years. 

Dating back to the conference’s inaugural meet in 1937, the Gators have tallied 40 conference championships. But like the others, Nesty knows No. 41 won’t be easy to come by. 

“I told my guys that SECs is one of the most demanding meets… intense meets,” Nesty told the media on Wednesday. “I think our guys need to make sure, obviously the demands and the intensity of the meet will be there, but they need to enjoy the moment, enjoy the camaraderie.”

Florida sophomore Kieran Smith is headed to his second SEC title meet on Tuesday and, like Nesty, he knows that opponents will be gunning for the Gators as they chase their eighth consecutive SEC title.

“Every time we win one, it’s even harder to defend it,” Smith said. “There’s a bigger target on our back every year.”

Nonetheless, despite all of the pressure and performance-based anxiety Smith encountered as a freshman, Smith knows the remedy to it all comes easy.  

“We’ve been working for it all year and we know we are one of the most physically prepared teams in the conference, in the country,” Smith said. “We are ready to go the second we step on the pool deck.” 

Meanwhile, for the No. 8-ranked women, it’s been over a decade since the Gators brought an SEC title back to Gainesville with their last coming in the 2009 season.

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Like Nesty, Florida’s women’s coach Jeff Poppell is also in his second year at the reigns of the program. In his first season, he led the Gators to a runner-up finish in the 2019 SEC Championships – UF’s best finish since its 2011 campaign.

And, unlike most coaches, when it’s time to win a championship, Poppell isn’t looking towards his seniors. Instead, he expects his freshmen to be the dark horses of the meet. 

“We got our lead dogs who are expected to serve those lead roles again,” Poppell said on Wednesday. “In the same time, I think I have to look to the freshmen. Our freshmen made a big impact for us last year, we’re looking for our freshmen this year to do that too. I think right now on paper going into it, they might be overlooked a little bit, so if there’s a dark horse, I think it’s going to be our freshmen.” 

Poppell’s confidence in his freshmen likely comes from the fact that Florida’s rookies have had to take the plunge earlier than usual due to the team being plagued with injuries. 

“We went through last year pretty much adversity-free,” Poppell laughed. “This year… it’s just freak stuff. We probably had five pretty significant injuries within the program.” 

Freshman Talia Bates amassed 19 victories through the season before sustaining an injury to her finger against Auburn on Jan. 25. A timetable for Bates’ return is unknown.

“We’ve had illnesses, we’ve had injuries, but in every single situation, we were able to overcome it,” sophomore Vanessa Pearl said. “It’s really important as a program to be able to depend on others.”

For Florida’s swimming and diving teams, the philosophies of relaxation and dependency will meet on the pool deck of the James E. Martin Aquatic Center on Tuesday morning at 10 a.m. when the first of nine sessions gets underway. 

“This is one we circle on our meet schedule on day one at the beginning of the season,” Poppell said. “Here at the University of Florida, no matter what sport, winning SEC titles is something that obviously is always the goal. It’s the goal for us, it’s the goal for our men’s team as well.”

Follow Ainslie Lee on Twitter @AinsliesTwoBits. Contact her at alee@alligator.org.

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