By Bob Schaller//Contributor | Tuesday, April 25, 2017
Editor's Note: Bob Schaller has been a contributor for USA Swimming’s Splash magazine and USASwimming.org for about two decades now – almost as long as Chuck Wielgus was the organization’s executive director.
Schaller writes about his relationship with Chuck over the years, and about the indelible mark Chuck made on USA Swimming.
The end was merciless, cruel, and seemed to drag itself out endlessly.
Only because Chuck Wielgus was so strong and could hang on.
But to Chuck, fighting cancer to his very last breath and last ounce of energy, it was a fight he was in until the end. It’s all he ever expected from those around him. So that’s what he did.
Until Sunday morning, when that last breath came, and Chuck Wielgus passed away.
Chuck was a friend and mentor. He was a guiding light at times. He taught me how to be patient. He repaired bridges I was within a match stick of ending forever. He made me better. More importantly, he made me want to be better.
I hated to cause Chuck grief. Though I did. Lots of it. Fortunately, it started out as a lot and through the last few years we only spoke of pleasantries and to catch up on each other’s families.
When USAS went into business with another website, and I was none too pleased, I feuded too loudly and too publicly. Chuck gathered us. “You’ll do better with the bears if you use honey.” A nice gesture. Admit where you are wrong. Make a friend, not an enemy. Be patient. Be good. Be better today than you were yesterday.
The last time he had to deal with me stirring the pot was in 2014, and he called the issue before I could call him on the phone, emailing me:
“Well, it’s all made for an interesting day,” Chuck wrote. “Whenever there’s a problem, I always try to first look at the politics and the personalities that are involved … and more often than not, the solution lies in addressing the politics and the personalities.”
When cancer brought its A game to him, he fought back in kind. His trip to one of the nation’s best treatment places ended when the surgery he was to have wasn’t able to start for whatever reasons. A professor friend of mine with whom I’d interviewed at Manhattan College in New York had gone to the same place. My friend was getting better. I tried to buoy Chuck.
“It is a great place and they are great people,” Chuck told me, “but for me it’s been a house of horrors. So I fight on.”
Usually when we lose someone close, we don’t always know that the last time we see them is going to be the last time we see them. When I saw him during a book release, to which I had contributed a chapter, in an event at 2016 Golden Goggles, he was frail but determinedly pushing a walker, his voice barely above a whisper.”
“I can’t believe you didn’t bring Kat,” he said with a smile.
He had met my better half in 2012 at the same event, another book party celebrating “SplashMakers” at Smith & Wollensky. The cancer was starting to get to Chuck back then, and he was so proud of the inaugural event in ‘12. But the computer did not have sound. As sound techs running the show and the restaurant’s tech people tried in vain, my date, dressed to the nines, went up front, calmly asked the computer guy if she could use the mouse for a second, and sound came blaring out wonderfully loud.
Rowdy Gaines – because Rowdy enthusiastically lives up to his name – started an ovation that good-heartedly spread room wide, and everyone gave her high fives as she walked back in high heels to our seats with National Team Director Frank and Patrice Busch, and a host of other great people. Chuck gave me a thumb’s up and huge smile. It’s what I’ll always remember most – that and him always asking about Kat, and four years later when someone asked if Schaller was contributing another chapter, Chuck said, “Oh yes, Bob for sure – if we get Bob, we get Kat. She saved the day!”
I was so glad he overcame a rocky start to make SafeSport the powerful force it is now – and a model for all other sports. Because what he enacted made the world better. Made kids safer. In the end, Chuck did more to clean up the sport than anyone. Though he was the architect and drove it with as much passion as he put into anything he ever did in his professional life, he deferred all credit to the SafeSport people who have done such a wonderful job. He knew he’d be a distraction and he it would take away from the great program’s progress. And he was right. But in the end, he certainly did as much as anyone or more to clean up the sport and protect kids.
Chuck would always send notes when I wrote something that moved a lot of people or drew a lot of positive attention. He was more personally committed to diversity than anyone outside the organization ever knew. That was probably the most excited I saw him, when Simone Manuel, Lia Neal and Natalie Hinds swept the 100 free podium at NCAAs, and then little more than a year later Simone made history with individual gold (and four medals) and Lia Neal became the first African-American woman to medal in two Olympics. He was out of his mind with what it would do to bring more people of all diverse backgrounds into the sport, and what it would mean to help save black children from drowning.
We talked about our kids being in college. Around or between Thanksgiving and Christmas each year, we’d have a fun exchange about how our kids – who are longer any such thing – continue to amaze us.
“Hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving,” Chuck wrote in 2015. “I’ve had a nice and quiet few days with both daughters home from college in the Carolinas. Hate to see them go back to school, but they’ll be home again soon enough for the Christmas break.”
On the final night I saw him just a few months ago last fall, a frigid wind blew through Manhattan. As the event ended, I bailed quickly. I had broken my hand and wrist in another bike accident, and just hoofed it downstairs and back to the hotel. When I got to the lobby on a sprint, I almost ran into Chuck, who had been dropped off. He was the first one back having left a bit early.
“How did you get back so fast, Bob?” he asked me. “You must’ve taken a cab.”
I told him no, I just had found the best rout there and back, and it was really only a mile. I thanked him again for everything he had done for me. And Kat. He smiled at the mention of her name.
“Tell her hello,” he said.
I thanked him for an extended and kind intro he had given me that night, one that led to an inordinately loud ovation.
“You’ve done so much good work for us,” Chuck told me. “You deserved it.”
I went over and gently grabbed his wrist. I told again how much he meant to me, how much he had taught and shaped me, and how even in his darkest hour he taught me that through all the mistakes I make, I owe it to myself, those who love me, and those who don’t like what I have done to find a way back, and if not make good, tirelessly work to the end to get better.
“Well, you know,” Chuck said, “I appreciate that, and I appreciate you. Keep doing your best.”
I didn’t write a perfect good-bye to Chuck in this column. I couldn’t see the screen at times as the emotion erased my thoughts like a runaway train. But in the end, the emails and voicemails sustain me. I’ll never forget what he meant to the sport, and what he meant to me.
Of all the emails he sent me, most regarding 20 Question Tuesday and his joy that it had turned into a 14-years-and-counting feature that runs every single Tuesday, every single year, was this one last summer after a particularly fun one with Catherine Vogt – and ironically, last week, it was Catherine again who was featured. I bet it made Chuck smile.
“What a great ‘Q&A’ with the two of you!” Chuck wrote to me and Catherine. “I especially love the connection with the recent promotions for women's coaches in the NBA and NFL. The entire piece was just great. Bravo to you both.”
And Bravo to you, Chuck, on a job well done, and a life well lived.
You will be missed, but never forgotten.