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Illness doesn’t deter USA Swimming’s ‘fixer’
Published June 23, 2008
When Chuck Wielgus sat down to write a staff memo in early January 2007, he felt uncomfortable about what he had to disclose. The executive director of USA Swimming had spent most of his career separating his personal and professional lives. Now he had to tell his entire staff that he had been diagnosed with colon cancer.
While sobering, he wrote, the prognosis was good. He closed the memo with the simple words: “I trust we can keep things running smoothly and as normal as possible. Thanks! Now, back to work.”
In the 18 months that have followed that memo, Wielgus simultaneously tackled his personal health issues and the professional challenges of preparing USA Swimming for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, setting its digital strategy and expanding its TV presence. He confronted everything with the patient, calculating resolve that has earned him a reputation as “the fixer,” a skilled problem solver who is adept at anticipating the future.
Since joining USA Swimming as executive director in 1997, Wielgus (pronounced “well gus”) has built what many consider to be one of the pre-eminent national governing bodies. He has expanded the organization’s annual revenue from $12 million to $22 million; established its first nonprofit arm, the USA Swimming Foundation; and created the Mutual of Omaha Duel in the Pool, a competition between top American and Australian swimmers. For all of that, perhaps his greatest achievement is turning the U.S. Olympic trials into a festival-like event similar to the NCAA Final Four or NBA All-Star Jam.
This week’s Olympic trials in Omaha, Neb., which begin Sunday, will attract more than 120,000 people over eight days — four times the attendance for the 2000 event at the Indianapolis Natatorium. As a result, USA Swimming will add a $3.5 million profit to its coffers, up from just $100,000 in 2000.
“He clearly is the most outstanding practitioner of the CEO role of an NGB,” said Craig Masback, a Nike executive and the former CEO of USA Track & Field. “He’s a great business person and strategic thinker and excellent politician.”
The view within the sport of swimming is similar. John Leonard, executive director of the American Swim Coaches Association, said, “Chuck right now is the most important man in American swimming. He’s earned a lot of confidence and a lot of rope to go a long way because he’s proven himself time and time again.”
Even before entering the Olympic world, Wielgus exhibited a love for sports and the business behind it. He spent his early career running a recreation center in Vermont. At the time, he loved basketball so much that he and then-teammate Alexander Wolff collaborated to write “The In-Your-Face Basketball Book,” which explored the culture of pick-up basketball.
But while Wolff, a Princeton student, used the book as a launching point for a job at Sports Illustrated, Wielgus opted to stay in sports business. He eventually took a job as director of USA Canoe & Kayak, where he developed a passion for the Olympics.
Still, it wasn’t until he reached USA Swimming in 1997 that his reputation as a fixer began to emerge. He started by solving small problems first. The organization at that time went by the name U.S. Swimming, but its logo featured USA Swimming. He immediately changed the organization’s name to match its logo.
Wielgus also established the organization’s first club development division. It features 19 employees who support 2,800 member swim clubs around the country by sharing best practices and data on business performance.
“It’s not a big, splashy deal,” Leonard said, “but club organizations and club associations are more effective now than at any time in the organization’s history because of that division.”
Such efforts earned Wielgus the trust of the board and the swimming community. Those groups rallied around him in 2007 when they learned that he had cancer.
Wielgus approached the disease the same way he approached problems at USA Swimming. Immediately after his diagnosis, he asked: What do we have to do to fix this? Over the next few weeks, he called a series of doctors and quickly found an oncologist. Because of the early stage of the tumor, he learned it was possible that he would make a full recovery.
Wielgus told his staff about the prognosis in the memo he sent out in January 2007. He also tapped then-Chief Operating Officer Mike Unger to lead the organization in his absence. But he continued working even as he began chemotherapy treatment.
That January, while undergoing chemo, he attended a USA Swimming board meeting where he updated the organization’s directors on the new media strategy he’d been pushing. He proposed a partnership with Wasserman Media Group that would see USA Swimming license out its media, event and marketing rights to WMG in exchange for Web support. The board approved the proposal in March with a 23-1 vote.
Wielgus underwent surgery a month later to have the tumor removed. He spent the next six weeks at home, getting regular visits and updates from Unger, President Jim Wood and USA Swimming’s head coach, Mark Schubert. Things appeared to be going so well in his absence, he said, “I started getting nervous that I may not be needed. That was when I got motivated to get back.”
He returned to work in a limited capacity in late May and made his first business trip a month later, flying to New York in June to meet with Dick Ebersol at NBC. Wielgus proposed that NBC and USA Swimming create a joint venture from 2008 to 2012 around annual broadcasts of the FINA World Championships and the national championships. Ebersol agreed to the concept, ensuring that two of swimming’s marquee events might appear on TV in the future.
NBC and USA Swimming remain in negotiations.
Wielgus admits that the trip to New York took a lot out of him, considering he was on chemo at the time. Fatigue continued to limit the time he worked, and it wasn’t until early this year that he felt 95 percent back to normal.
In his absence, the WMG deal had slowed to a crawl. The two partners shared a letter of intent but hadn’t agreed to final terms. Wielgus called WMG Chief Operating Officer Josh Swartz in early January and said, “I want to get this done as soon as possible.”
Three days later, Wielgus, Davis and Unger flew to Los Angeles and met with WMG. In one day they tackled everything from which events to webcast and how to present them, to when to launch the site and how to staff it.
The meeting was the catalyst for closing the deal last week, and ensured that WMG will roll out a new Web site, swimnetwork.com, in time to benefit from the exposure surrounding Beijing.
“The fact that we’re going to have the swimming deal inked first is a testament to his desire and ability to tackle tough issues,” Swartz said.
Wielgus tackled other issues as well. While reviewing the schedule of events in Omaha with Matt Farrell, USA Swimming’s managing director of business development, Wielgus felt plans for July 4 weren’t strong enough. He recommended giving attendees red, white and blue T-shirts in an effort to paint the stands the way the New Orleans Hornets did with white T-shirts during the NBA playoffs.
Still, senior staff and board members didn’t feel like Wielgus was fully back until April. The night before the FINA Short Course World Swimming Championships in Manchester, England, a group of 10 senior staffers and board members watched as Wielgus downed two plates of hot dogs at a local restaurant.
“Wow,” said Dale Neuburger, a board member. “It’s nice to see your appetite’s back.”
And it couldn’t have returned at a better time. USA Swimming has lofty expectations for both Omaha and Beijing, where it has the potential to be the largest contributor to the U.S. medal count. It will do it with a new Web site, an emboldened staff and a healthy executive ready to tackle the next problem in its future.
“He inherited an excellent organization and took it to a whole new level,” said Jim Fox, U.S. Figure Skating’s associate executive director. “He’ll do everything he can to take it to the next.”