USA Swimming’s Executive Director Chuck Wielgus returned to work earlier this month after being out of the office for four months. Wielgus was on leave battling cancer at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. This was his third bout with cancer after being diagnosed with colon cancer in 2006.
Wielgus had surgery in November and encountered some complications that kept him out longer than anticipated. While recovering, he received USA Swimming updates regularly before returning to the office on April 1.
“It was great walking through the doors at USA Swimming,” said Wielgus. “I’ve missed it here.”
Wielgus took time to answer some questions about his time away, his transition back and the future of the sport.
First of all, how are you doing now?
Chuck: I’m doing very well. I’m learning to live with some daily physical challenges, but managing these will become easier with time. I’m also getting ready to start chemo therapy, but I do not anticipate this disrupting my work schedule. All things considered, I’m a very fortunate guy and very excited to be back at work.
You’ve been back at the office a couple weeks now, how has the transition been?
Chuck: It’s great to be back in the office at USA Swimming and seeing familiar faces I’ve worked with for so long. I’m still trying to find my pace. I know that pace will be a little bit slower than it has in the past, but that’s okay. It’s just great to be back.
While you were out, what was communication like with USA Swimming staff and the board of directors?
Chuck: We have a great staff at headquarters and great leadership in the senior staff. I had no worry that anything was going to fall between the cracks. Mike Unger (USA Swimming Assistant Executive Director) and Frank Busch (USA Swimming National Team Director) kept me in the loop with what was happening at USA Swimming while I was away. They didn’t overwhelm me with information, but I was certainly kept aware of all the major issues. The board members were incredibly respectful of my privacy, and giving me the time and space to focus on my recovery.
What was your message to the coaches when you spoke to them at the National Team Coaches Seminar in Colorado Springs last week?
Chuck: I hit on three points: the status of our selection for the 2016 Olympic Team Trials site; our keeping a watchful eye on FINA’s proposal to the IOC to add new swimming events to the Olympic Games competition program; and what I see for the future of our sport. This last point was my major topic to share with the coaches and I outlined for them all the reasons why I believe we are on the verge of entering what is going to be the “Golden Age” of swimming. By every metric that I can think of – membership growth; television coverage and ratings; corporate sponsor engagement; athlete performance results; swimming’s stature in the sports industry; the fact that so many of our top athletes are recognized within America’s pop culture; etc. – Swimming is “THE” marquis Olympic sport, and we are no longer just a “once every four years sport.”
With the board meeting coming up next weekend, are there any big agenda items you’re looking forward to discussing?
Chuck: The single biggest one is making a determination on site selection for the 2016 Olympic Trials. The evolution of our Olympic Trials is one of the greatest accomplishments we’ve had over the last dozen years. Making this decision is huge for our future, because this is what everyone will be pointing toward for the next three years.
Where do you see swimming going in the next four years?
Chuck: The swimming audience and fan base continues to grow. If you walk down the street and ask someone to name three swimmers from the London Games, I feel like most people would be able to do that. To me, this really shows the reach and stride swimming is making in this country. When I talk with coaches, I hear how excited they are about the competitive pipeline and the talented athletes who will be the future of swimming. The most exciting thing for me is seeing 14- and 15-year-old kids recording great times and then trying to figure out who’s going to be the next Katie Ledecky or who’s going to be the next Missy Franklin? There’s still a little bit of the coach in me, so I love this stuff.
On the business side, every single one of our sponsors has renewed. Our television package with NBC is great and our ratings are awesome. We also have many members of our staff being invited to give presentations at major conferences, which is an indicator that other sports are looking to learn from our success. The sport is in a great place, the organization is in a great place, and it’s just exciting to be a part of USA Swimming.
Chuck, with all you’ve accomplished at USA Swimming since you started here in 1997, why was it important for you to come back following your last surgery?
Chuck: Well, I may be 63 years old, but I’m a young 63. I truly love my job and I have from day one. There’s still a lot we can accomplish at USA Swimming and I’m excited to have the opportunity to work with our athletes, coaches, officials, volunteers and staff in helping our sport continue to grow.