Passages: Former Westminster School Coach Pete Higgins Passes Away at 86

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Robert Nash “Pete” Higgins, one of the most accomplished high school swim coaches in American history, passed away at the age of 86 yesterday in Atlanta. His list of championships and accolades is legendary in the sport and he is recognized as the father of competitive swimming in the state of Georgia at the high school and club level.

He is one of only 47 members of the National Interscholastic Swim Coaches Association (NISCA) Hall of Fame, and was the first coach from Georgia to receive this honor. Higgins also received the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association’s “Circle of Achievement” Award and was inducted as one of the first members of the Georgia Aquatic Hall of Fame.

After a distinguished swimming career at the University of North Carolina, cut short by polio at an early age, Pete began his coaching career at UNC as a grad assistant and high school coach. He was contacted by a friend about a job at a new private school in Atlanta and a 55-plus year career was born. Pete coached at The Westminster Schools. in Atlanta from 1960 to 2016, and led the Wildcats to 41 Georgia High School Association (GHSA) state championships including his final season with a state boys’ title.

His teams won in excess of 800 meets. The number of swimmers he has led to individual state titles is too numerous to count. His swimmers went on to compete at the highest levels of the sport collegiately and internationally. He coached more than 140 High School All-America athletes, four Olympic team members, and one Pan-American Games Gold Medalist. Former swimmers include Harrison Merrill, Mary Neal Brake, Elizabeth Hill, Jack Brown, and countless others who had the good fortune to have Pete as their coach. Pete was recognized as the National High School Coaches Association State Coach of the Year six times, and National High School Federation National Coach of the Year twice in 1989 and 2008.

His mentorship of young coaches in the sport is another aspect of his excellence. He was always there as a helpful colleague to others in the sport. In many cases, they were former swimmers of his, whom were instilled with such a love of the sport that they chose to continue as coaches for other athletes in a hope to continue Pete’s legacy in swimming. His coaching style was one that truly resonated with his athletes. If you were to ask any of them, they would tell you that he was the best motivator they ever worked with. Pete was a big believer in the concept of good being the enemy of great and the importance of personal accountability. He won more championships against teams with superior talent because he made his athletes achieve well above their own abilities and instilled a team focused atmosphere that made that level of performance contagious.

In addition to his work at Westminster, Higgins officiated at the SEC Swimming and Diving Championships for 27 years. He is the founding president of the Georgia High School Swimming Coaches Association and a former board member of the International Swimming Hall of Fame. Higgins also held numerous offices in the Georgia AAU and U.S. Swimming organizations. His club team, the Atlanta Swim Association, was the first of its kind in Georgia. This team was the precursor for local and national powerhouse club teams Swim Atlanta and Dynamo Swim club that currently produce national and internationally acclaimed swimmers every year.

Pete is survived by his wife Nell Furgason Higgins, daughter Blynn Higgins Masters, her husband, George William Masters; grandchildren Robert Carter Higgins, Kathleen Elizabeth Higgins. Steely Marie Masters, and Hadley Mayer Masters; and preceded in death by his son Robert Higgins Jr.

6 comments

  1. avatar
    Keith Berryhill

    When the Almighty needed a swim coach, he came for the GOAT! A true legend! There will never be another like Pete.

  2. avatar
    Rick Creed

    Pete instilled in everyone that was fortunate enough to cross his path to stand up and make a difference! He would give the shirt off of his back to help anyone in need. He was an incredible mentor, educator, and coach. When Pete spoke, everyone listened! Pete brought credibility to the sport of swimming in Georgia! He was a man of great integrity and he was great role model. He was revered by his swimmers, students, and all of the coaches and educators that knew him. Thank you Pete for instilling in all of us that if you work hard enough, ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE!!!!! Rest in peace my good friend!!!!!

  3. avatar
    Sally R Hardin

    Many memorable times with other parents in the bleachers at Westminster. Thanks, Pete, for all you taught my boys (the ones who swam ’25-yard fist fights during practice) and their friends.

  4. avatar
    Harrison Merrill

    Pete Higgins was a giant in the swimming world as well as in the personal world of thousands of young swimmers he coached and mentored during his long and distinguished career. He was a coach, a winner, a motivator, a teacher, a legend, and most of all a friend. His accomplishments in swimming as a swimmer, an unmatched coach, and an icon are chronicled in the various articles being written about him. I had the honor of giving Pete’s introduction into the National Interscholastic Swim Coaches Association Hall of Fame several years ago. Imagine being one of less than 50 high school swimming coaches in history to be inducted into the Hall of Fame!!!

    Pete, we will miss you. Thank you for all you have done for all you have touched. Nell and Blynn, thank you for sharing Pete with us for all of these years.

  5. avatar
    David

    I just now saw this. And, if Pete knew I was replying on a phone, he would have smacked the damned phone out of my hand!

    Pete, I was a diver. Not a swimmer. I was at the other end of the pool. Yeah, I was friends with Mary Neal (my best friend at Wminster and yes we got into too much trouble), Tripp, Rich, Murray. All the mid 80s dummies! But I knew you. And, after a National Championship win, You knew me. Billy Ray. You. 8th grade PE when the 8th grade boys PE had to dive off the three meter! Lol. And you were there. Always.

    Pete and Pete’s family; I am certain you are receiving thousands of emails etc. Pete was — is — an epic figure in my youth. Although my eyes are watering, at the same time, I am smiling. Actually, chuckling. God almighty, i can still see Pete yelling (no, not his style), chiding (?) me and Mary Neal Brake on the bus to Athens (to win yet another state title).

    I have no words. This man is indelibly burnished in my brain. At the age of 53, if you asked me to close my eyes and describe Pete (from my vantage point from the diving area), walking up and down the left side. Khaki pants (not khaki but a sort of darker khaki), white shirt, tennis shoes. I truly truly can see him. From the age of 9 until I graduated from Wminster, living in that pool with that chlorine smell……. Pete was more than a coach. More than a teacher. More than a man. More than a father, a husband, a grandfather.

    Simply said, Pete is in my personal pantheon of Gods. His words. His stance. His lack of words. He knew me the first second he met me as a child.

    GOD BLESS YOU AND YOUR MEMORY AND LEGEND AND FAMILY.

    Just one of the thousands you trained,
    David