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Volume 22 No. 44
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Late swimming head’s motto: ‘Make friends’

In for-profit corporations, an imperious CEO sometimes can simply order his subordinates to implement his vision, whether or not it comes with a smile. In the decentralized Olympic sports world, on the other hand, it’s awfully hard to get much done without being liked.

Chuck Wielgus survived as the chief of USA Swimming for nearly 20 years — and could have gone on for another 20 if cancer hadn’t finally taken him on April 23. His tenure alone says a lot about how he did business: as a friend.

“On every issue that’s come up during his tenure, I don’t think you could find someone who said Chuck didn’t give him a fair hearing,” said John Leonard, head of the American Swimming Coaches Association — precisely the kind of position that can make life very difficult for a national governing body chief executive if its holder is so inclined. I spoke with Leonard just before Rio last year and asked him a simple question: How did Wielgus last so long?

“My father once told me that God gave us two ears and one mouth for a purpose,” Leonard answered. “That was a very fine lesson for me, and in that same metaphor, Chuck has 12 ears and one mouth.”

Wielgus passed away having left USA Swimming as the gold standard of American Olympic NGB management. At a time when the demands for NGBs keep growing, swimming has produced the most medals for Team USA at the last seven Summer Olympics, but also consistently expands and monetizes its grassroots effectively. Balancing the interests of the narrow top of the pyramid with the wide base is a rare trick.

“Whenever we’re sitting around the table wondering what to do, somebody always says, ‘Well, how did swimming handle it?’” said one administrator from another large NGB.

Longtime USA Swimming Executive Director Chuck Wielgus, shown at last summer’s Olympic Trials, passed away on April 23.
Photo by: AP IMAGES

Wielgus did something early in his tenure that could have been big trouble: He doubled membership fees, promising to devote half to the grassroots and the other half to the elite team and administration. But by promising up front to spread the wealth, he got the benefit of the doubt and the new revenue made everyone happy. He pushed for an aggressive marketing campaign and built the U.S. swimming trials into the country’s top Olympic sports event that’s not the Games themselves.

Personally, I think my email archives tell the story of Wielgus’ management style. So many emails go ignored these days. Not when it came to Chuck. Chuck responded to every email I ever wrote him, usually within a few hours. When he announced he would retire in January, Chuck asked me for more time before an interview. “I am awash in emails (literally hundreds.) I will respond to each one,” he wrote. I remember at the Olympic trials last year Wielgus, surrounded by fans and security, catching my eye over the crowd and asking, “Do you need anything?”

What’s next for swimming?

    Los Angeles-based Chelsea Partners has been hired to lead the search for the new CEO of USA Swimming, a process already underway when Executive Director Chuck Wielgus passed away on April 23. A seven-person internal task force also is involved.
    Wielgus had announced his retirement effective Aug. 31. COO Mike Unger, with USA Swimming since 1993 in various roles, was named interim executive director upon Wielgus’ death.

No obituary of Wielgus can be written without addressing the scandal that culminated in 2010 over the NGB’s handling of sexual abuse complaints. He said he didn’t have anything to apologize for on ABC broadcast news, which he later admitted was a mistake.

I never met Chuck or any of the players in that scandal until years after the fact, so I can’t speak to the specifics. But I do know that top leaders in the U.S. Olympic movement defend him to this day, saying the rap against him personally was a raw deal, that it was a systemic failure he thoroughly, if belatedly, addressed.

Was that just the ol’ boys club defending one of their own? That’s one interpretation of it, but even if that’s true, it is not a privilege extended to just anybody. Wielgus earned the goodwill. That ol’ boys club can be awfully silent if you haven’t.

During a rare moment of tension with Chuck last year as we disagreed over the direction of my reporting, I complimented his accessibility and candor. There are so many games played in my line of work: obfuscation, strategic deflections, misdirection — in short, quasi-anti-social behavior. Chuck didn’t play that game.

“It all has to do with relationships,” Wielgus wrote. “As a young man, I received some valuable advice from my father, ‘Don’t do business with your friends, but make friends of everyone with whom you do business.’”