The Chuck Wielgus Blog: Stakes In The Ground


I was pleasantly surprised by the number of responses I received to my first blog.  Perhaps there is something to this social media thing after all!  One of the suggestions I received was to spend some time writing about my management style and things I’ve learned along the way.  This suggestion prompts a lot of thoughts, and there are a multitude of leadership topics that I can choose from, but I’ll start with “putting stakes in the ground.

Good business planning is comprised of four essentials: (1) creating a vision with clear goals; (2) outlining the strategies to reach those goals and fulfill that vision; (3) incorporating a budget that accounts for both revenues and expenses; and (4) identifying who will do the work.  Within all this good planning, however, I always try to find that big item that really moves the organization forward.

Back in 2000, on the last night of the Olympic Team Trials I stood atop the diving platform at The Natatorium in Indianapolis and surveyed the scene below.  There was a sold out crowd of 4,200 in the stands; an over-crowded pool deck; TV cameras shooting video to be used for a tape-delayed broadcast the following weekend; and in the pool Eric Vendt had just become the first American to break the 15-minute barrier in the 1500 Freestyle.  Climbing down from the diving platform I listened to coaches and officials raving about how great the meet had been.  “It doesn’t get any better than this,” was the general tone.

I pinpoint that wonderful night in Indianapolis as the moment when I thought we had the opportunity to do something really special with our Olympic Trials.  From atop that diving platform, I saw a sports event that was busting at the seams.  It was crying for a bigger venue; for live television coverage; for hospitality opportunities for sponsors and VIPs; and for greater media coverage.  I envisioned a sporting event that would rival the Final Four; an event that would turn a city on its ear with a festive environment and create that certain buzz that comes with the lead-up to a major sporting spectacle.  

And so, I put a stake in the ground.

It was probably my right hand man, Mike Unger who heard it from me first, “We’ve got to take this event to a whole new level in 2004.”  Among his many talents, Mike is a whiz when it comes to event operations and I needed Mike to play a critical leadership role.  I continually challenged him to, “Turn your back on the pool.”  I knew we could put together a technically perfect competition, but our challenge had to become focused on enhancing the experience for spectators, media, television and sponsors.

Ultimately, the 2004 Olympic Trials, held in a 10,000-seat, temporary, outdoor swim stadium in Long Beach crossed the bar I originally envisioned. Our athletes and coaches recognized what we accomplished, as did the media, NBC and our sponsors … and everybody seemed to love it.  “What’s next?” became the question people started to ask.  

What’s next” became Omaha; but that’s a story for another blog.

There have certainly been other stakes in the ground over the years.  A decade ago we were kicking around ideas for how we could better recognize our National Team athletes and we thought it would be nice to host some sort of year-end dinner.  As the conversation evolved over a few weeks, the idea kept getting bigger and bigger: Who would be invited? Where would we hold the dinner? Would it be a real dress-up affair? What about awards? Would we have entertainment?  

It finally became time to put a stake in the ground and flat out state that we were going to create something really big and really special for our National Team, something that would be a year-end celebration for the sport.  We envisioned a gala evening, held in a glamorous location, and in a media hot spot.  And so it was that The Golden Goggle Awards moved from something we just talked about to something we committed ourselves to do. It was a serious stake in the ground.

Other stakes in the ground have included: creating Splash Magazine; forming the Duel in the Pool; establishing the USA Swimming Foundation; launching the Make-a-Splash program; and most recently initiating the Safe Sport Program and putting on the inaugural Safe Sport leadership Conference.  These projects became rallying points for our staff and others and this was important not just to create something new, but also to foster a “can do” culture that embraces growth and new challenges.  

There are plenty of other examples, but perhaps the single biggest stake in the ground took place during my first week on the job back in 1997.  Up to that time, USA Swimming had a relationship with a topline marketing agency, and this agency handled the organization’s sponsorships and marketing programs.  I met with the agency principals face-to-face and politely terminated what had been an almost 20-year relationship.  

My rationale was simple … I wanted the national office staff to assume full control of swimming’s marketing future.  I had nothing against this company, it was just my belief that nobody would work harder and with more passion than we would to market, promote and sell the sport of swimming.  

At the time, this decision was a huge gamble – a big time stake in the ground.  In fact, I was putting my job on the line in that very first week because I was essentially promising the Board of Directors that the staff would do a better job than any outside agency.  

All these years later, I’d like to think that was a pretty darn good decision.

Chuck Wielgus can be reached at: cwielgus@usaswimming.org