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Gold medalist Bobby Finke reflects on ‘emotional’ first Olympics

While back in Tampa Bay, the Countryside High graduate hopes to visit his namesake, Bobby the seahorse, at the Clearwater Aquarium.
Bobby Finke reacts on the podium after receiving his gold medal for the men's 800-meter freestyle in Tokyo. He added gold in the 1,500 freestyle before heading back home to Gainesville and Clearwater.
Bobby Finke reacts on the podium after receiving his gold medal for the men's 800-meter freestyle in Tokyo. He added gold in the 1,500 freestyle before heading back home to Gainesville and Clearwater. [ MATTHIAS SCHRADER | Associated Press ]
Published Aug. 4

“Leave it up to Bobby to get some excitement in the building.”

University of Florida swim coach Anthony Nesty was referring, of course, to Clearwater native Bobby Finke. The 21-year-old’s electric, gold medal-winning 800-meter freestyle race in the Tokyo Olympics shocked the world, especially the final 50 meters that gave him his first international title.

Nesty had a somewhat viral reaction — more than 8,200 views from the relatively niche Gators and swimming world Twitter communities — to Finke’s victory. When talking to Nesty, one gets the impression that he’s a calm, cool and composed guy. Finke, back stateside on Tuesday, agreed and said his head coach is usually pretty level-headed.

But this swim meant a lot to Nesty, as it did to Finke. It was the first time since Nesty took over as head coach in 2018 that a current UF swimmer won Olympic gold.

Calm, cool and collected Nesty kind of lost it there for a second.

NBC’s cameras caught the U.S. men’s team assistant coach jumping up, pumping his fists and screaming in excitement. Since these games were held without family, friends or any outside spectators, Nesty’s response was even more conspicuous.

“I’ve been there as an athlete as well, and to do it as a coach, having two athletes (Finke and 400-meter freestyle bronze medalist Kieran Smith) at the same Olympics, getting medals,” said Nesty, who won gold in the 100-meter butterfly for Suriname at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, “it’s extra special for me.”

Once Finke and Nesty connected after the race, however, it was a different kind of emotional scene.

“(Nesty) was tearing up a bit, which made me actually start tearing up a bit,” Finke said. “And I don’t really cry that often. … I was just super excited and honored to be able to represent him and all the work he put into us, University of Florida, and even the other athletes that he was coaching during the camp.”

Finke won both of his events — the 800 freestyle and the 1,500 freestyle — in his Olympic debut. He cemented himself in history as the first man to win gold in the 800, as this year was the event’s Olympic debut as well. Finke also became the first American Olympian to win the 1,500 since 1984.

Bobby Finke, left, pulls ahead of the Ukraine's Mykhailo Romanchuk and Germany's Florian Wellbrock in the 1,500 free.
Bobby Finke, left, pulls ahead of the Ukraine's Mykhailo Romanchuk and Germany's Florian Wellbrock in the 1,500 free. [ JEFF ROBERSON | Associated Press ]

The Countryside High School graduate said he didn’t even expect to medal in these games, much less win gold (twice). He’ll store his medals in a safe and planned to head home to Clearwater before fall classes pick back up at UF on Aug. 23.

He’ll visit lots of old friends and stomping grounds, as well as club coach Fred Lewis at St. Petersburg Aquatics.

A previously unanticipated pit stop he’ll have to make is to the Clearwater Aquarium. Community members submitted potential names for a recently rescued father seahorse sheltered there. “Bobby,” as in hometown hero Bobby Finke, won out.

“I’m gonna go try and see that,” he said with a laugh. “I think that’s pretty cool.”

Overall, Finke said the Olympic experience was one of the best he’s ever had. And like his women’s distance-swimming counterpart, Katie Ledecky — fun fact: together they swept the 800 and 1,500 races — he looks toward doing it all over again in 2024.