Local Obituaries

At 17 he swam faster than Mark Spitz for a world record. Andy Coan dies at 59

Andy Coan, 17, on the cover of Swimming World magazine in October 1975, the year he broke Olympian Mark Spitz’s world record in the 100-meter freestyle.
Andy Coan, 17, on the cover of Swimming World magazine in October 1975, the year he broke Olympian Mark Spitz’s world record in the 100-meter freestyle. Swimming World

Update: A date has been set for the Andy Coan memorial celebration of life. The event will be at 2 p.m. Saturday, April 29, at the International Swimming Hall of Fame, 1 Hall of Fame Dr., Fort Lauderdale.

Andy Coan, a world-record swimming champ, led a life that could make for one of sports’ greatest stories, enduring victories and valleys alike.

Coan, born March 4, 1958, in Fort Lauderdale, died in Boca Raton Monday after battling liver cancer. He was 59.

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“No one can say they’ve gone higher; and no can say they’ve fallen any lower,” Coan reflected in 1988 at age 30 in the Miami Herald. Just 13 years earlier, in 1975 at age 17, as a junior at Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale, Coan set a world record in the 100-meter freestyle. His time, 51.11, bested the 51.12 Mark Spitz swam at the 1972 Munich Olympics where he won seven golds.

In 1975, Coan, coached by the late Jack Nelson, also set Pine Crest records in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle sprints at 20.19 and 43.99, respectively — records that still stand and times that would have won the 2016 state titles.

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Coan accomplished his feats decades before tech suits and faster, scientifically engineered pools that today’s swimmers like Michael Phelps count on to smash records.

After winning the NCAA championships he was in a car accident and shattered both of his wrists, and came back the next year and won the NCAAs in the 50-freestyle, beating Rowdy Gaines. Nobody does that. But Andy did it. One of the greatest freestyle sprinters that’s ever lived. He lifted up so many people around him just by his mere presence.

Swimmer Kurt Wienants.

In 1976, he missed making the Olympic team in Montreal by one-thousandth of a second. Three years later, Coan, a University of Tennessee Athlete of the Year, shattered both wrists in an automobile accident. Yet with screws, pins and plates in his wrists he somehow managed to beat Rowdy Gaines at the NCAA championships and was looking good for Moscow in 1980. Then came the U.S. boycott of those Olympics.

In 1984, Coan made the Olympic trials again, at 26, but missed making the Summer Games in Los Angeles by 44/100th of a second.

“I gave it my best shot,” Coan told the Miami Herald. He came home to coach the Plantation Aquatics Club swim team he’d founded, in a pool he designed at Plantation Central Park. Years later, after a medical sales career detour, he’d return to the deck to mentor kids at St. Andrews and Pine Crest schools.

“He was one of the most positive persons I ever met,” said Pine Crest School swim coach, Jay Fitzgerald. The Woodson Invitational meet held at Pine Crest annually gives out the Andy Coan Award to the top male swimmer (and Ann Marshall Award to the top female).

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Coan always handed out his namesake award, with words of motivation. But he never mentioned his own achievements. “I had to point out to the kids those were his records. He was always trying to help someone be better,” Fitzgerald said.

In September 2014, Coan was diagnosed with Guillan-Barré syndrome, a disorder of the peripheral nervous system that paralyzed him from the neck down. For eight months, Coan fought and regained his mobility through water therapy. He was able to resume coaching at West Boca High.

During coaching interviews, I was often asked, ‘What are your coaching goals?’ … I always stated what I considered to be the obvious answer: ‘To make a positive impact on the lives of others.’ Andy Coan is the reason my brain is wired that way.

Rick Whitson, on Facebook.

“The last two years … I got to know the real Andy Coan,” said friend Jack Malcolm, 59, who knew Coan since both were 15. “The determination and positive attitude he showed as a swimmer he showed many times over as a person. He handled a hugely difficult situation with incredible courage and grace and an upbeat attitude. He was coming back.”

And then the cancer.

Last week, six swimmers from Coan’s West Boca team came to his house to say their goodbyes. First, Malcolm took the kids into Coan’s office and showed them a scrapbook that contained his swimming highlights. “They never knew what a good swimmer he was. They said, ‘Who’s Mark Spitz?’” Malcolm showed the teens the October 1975 Swimming World magazine, which featured Coan on its cover at their age.

“They were in awe,” Malcolm said. “What those kids told me is, ‘He changed us.’ So I told them, ‘Go and tell him that.’”

After the kids left, Coan called out to his old friend to say what he told the young swimmers. “He told them that was the best year of coaching of his life.”

Malcolm’s voice breaks. “He was an inspiration to me and an inspiration more for what he did outside of swimming than what he did in swimming. Those kids only knew him as a coach, not as a swimmer, and he was already a hero.”

Coan is survived by his son Richard; brothers Bill, John and Paul Coan; and girlfriend Karen Britton. A memorial is planned for 2 p.m. April 29 at the International Swimming Hall of Fame, 1 Hall of Fame Dr., Fort Lauderdale.

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen