By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Wednesday, April 26, 2017
In a news release announcing his retirement from USA Swimming earlier this year, Chuck Wielgus said that he thinks “USA Swimming’s best years are ahead.”
But a close examination reveals the organization’s best years so far occurred with Chuck at the helm.
Yes, they weren’t all perfect years, as evidenced by the 2010 sexual abuse allegations and media attention that followed.
But just as he did with every decision, he relied upon the expertise, thoughts and insight of board members and staff to help lift the organization out of crisis with the formation of the Safe Sport program, a model revered among other National Governing Bodies (NGB) and child-centric organizations throughout the country.
“I think Chuck did a great job facing the challenges USA Swimming faced and tried to do what was best for the athletes,” said 2007 World Champion and two-time 2008 Olympic silver medalist Margaret Hoelzer. “In 2010, with the sexual abuse scandals, he was literally thrown to the wolves, and I think he did a great job rebounding with an attitude of ‘let’s move forward and fix the problem.’ In general, I think that was his attitude about most things. He will be missed – that is for sure.”
While Chuck will be remembered for keeping the sport of swimming safe – notably initiating the USA Swimming Foundation’s Make a Splash program to teach children in underserved populations how to swim and decrease the number of annual drownings – he is revered for the tremendous advancements and accomplishments he and his team made in the sport.
When he arrived at USA Swimming in 1997 as the new Executive Director, he approached running the organization as a business – something he said was a huge advantage.
“I looked at everything from a business perspective, but a perspective that had a great appreciation and respect for the history and tradition of the sport,” he said in a 2014 Splash article. “I think the organization as a whole has been better served by it.”
Over the course of those next 20 years, Chuck strengthened USA Swimming financially and strategically prepared the organization for the future.
He altered the membership dues structure, developed the Grand Prix Series (which later became the Arena Pro Swim Series), created and organized the Duel in the Pool competition and turned the Olympic Trials into event rather than just an every-four-years swim.
In turn, this increased corporate sponsorships, sponsor funding and media exposure for the organization and its athletes.
“Chuck came to our sport as a ‘non-swimmer’ and through his efforts to move our organization forward at every front, catapulted us into the model and most successful NGB within the (United States Olympic Committee) USOC,” said 2016 U.S. women’s Olympic Team coach David Marsh. “Chuck's relentless efforts to increase exposure for our sport and willingness to keep an open mind when it came to technical matters allowed USA Swimming to thrive under his leadership.”
He also initiated the USA Swimming Foundation with the purpose of “Saving Lives and Building Champions In and Out of the Pool,” and created the organization’s signature event – the Golden Goggles Awards.
Under his leadership, membership grew exponentially from 214,000 year-round athletes to more than 400,000.
As membership continued to grow, so did the results in the pool, especially on the international stage. The United States continues to hold the No. 1 position in the world of swimming based on Olympic Games and World Championship performances, each year compiling more medals than any other sport from any other country.
Between 2000 and 2016, U.S. swimmers garnered a total of 156 medals at five Olympics – including 33 (16 gold) at last summer’s Rio Games.
“As an athlete who competed during his tenure as CEO, I am thankful he was at the helm,” said three-time Olympian (2004, 2008, 2012) and Olympic gold medalist Peter Vanderkaay. “Chuck was always approachable and cared about athlete issues. He took the time to listen to the athletes.”
Chuck arrived at USA Swimming with no real swimming background. He wasn’t a swimmer himself, although he did coach the sport and directed recreation activities for nine years in Woodstock, Va.
One thing he did have – along with a strong business acumen -- was experience leading an NGB for seven years as the executive director of the U.S. Canoe and Kayak Team.
What Chuck didn’t know about the sport, he hired great staff members to fill in the blanks – surrounding himself with great leaders, thinkers and doers and gave them the backing and confidence they needed to be successful.
“Chuck’s leadership style was remarkable in that he rarely came into any decision and mandated a direction,” said USA Swimming Chief Marketing Officer Matt Farrell. “He didn’t feel the need to exert his power to show he was in charge. He listened first, learned every angle and let us work out so many issues. He didn’t always have to make the decision for us to know he was the leader.
“I have never seen a more humble, and even self-deprecating, person in such a leadership role. We talked all the time about ‘self-awareness’ and knowing your strengths and weaknesses. He always told me he was ‘comfortable in his own skin’ and that created a confidence that was still approachable. His humility was such a strength in that it made everyone comfortable around him.”
Through his swim journey, Chuck developed the Olympic Trials into a major marketing property with sold-out crowds in every session at the 2016 event in Omaha – working around and through the pain he experienced as a result of his colon cancer diagnosis and subsequent chemotherapy and surgeries.
He also increased television exposure for the sport with all eight nights of live primetime broadcasts of Trials and three other events per year on NBC and five events per year on Universal Sports.”
With all the business and political responsibilities he had as executive director, Chuck never lost sight of what USA Swimming was about first and foremost – the athletes – and they knew that.
From the youngest to the oldest, least to most experienced, he checked in on them regularly to make sure they had what they needed to excel in and out of the water. Part of that was instituting year-round funding for post-collegiate athletes, and USA Swimming’s marketing utilizes top athletes and reimburses them for their services.
“One of many things I appreciated about Mr. Wielgus was his outreach to me and encouragement to me as a young swimmer on the National Team,” said Olympic gold medalist and world record holder Katie Ledecky. “It is probably an understatement to say that running an organization as broad-based as USA Swimming presents numerous and demanding challenges. That's why I was always delighted that at the end of each international swimming season, Mr. Wielgus would take the time to send me a handwritten note of encouragement. These notes had a lot of meaning to me.
“That small touch of sending a handwritten note confirmed to me that there was an individual at the top of USA Swimming who cared about the organization he was running and the results of Team USA swimmers in competition. That type of caring and professionalism exists throughout all facets of the USA Swimming organization and is a testament to Mr. Wielgus' leadership.”
Following are a few thoughts from others who knew and worked with Chuck over the years
“Personally, I most appreciate how Chuck stopped in his tracks to respond and assist when he was called upon by any stakeholder in the organization. Chuck was indeed not only a part of our swim family, but he was the heartbeat. Chuck was a hero and a role model for the way he battled his cancer and the by the way he demonstrated his love for his wife and children throughout his lifetime.” – David Marsh
“As our leader, he grew the sport immensely and helped put swimming on the television sets of countless Americans, which led to so many moments of inspiration. Chuck was a talented visionary who truly made a difference for the members of USA Swimming. I saw this firsthand in my experience as a former member of the Board of Directors. We should all be thankful for his guidance and the current state of our organization. Thank you, Chuck!” – Peter Vanderkaay
“Chuck was the best kind of leader – one who led by example. He worked tirelessly to promote and grow the sport. His influence will be felt for many years.” – Mary Wagner-Scott, past USA Swimming Communications Director
“Chuck is leaving behind a legacy that will be unmatched. With his vision and guidance, he took the sport of swimming in the United States to great heights and popularity that we are experiencing today. Under Chuck’s leadership model of excellence that United States Swimming has established is a standard that every other U.S. Olympic sport governing body is striving to be.” – Olympic Gold Medalist Lenny Krayzelburg
“Great leaders lead through a million tiny acts of kindness and support. Chuck understood this. It was deep in his genetic code. At his best, Chuck was a mentor, gently guiding you to find and trust your distinct talent and path. ‘How are you doing, personally?’ was always his warm embrace, followed by, ‘Is business good? Are you making creative choices?’ Chuck changed the culture with big ideas and tent pole events, but his one-to-one mentorship of countless people will impact the sport for many years to come.” – Olympic Gold Medalist Mel Stewart
“I would just like to say thanks to Chuck for all he did to grow the sport. He brought the right mindset as he came in and helped to transform it into what it is now.” – Olympic Gold Medalist Nathan Adrian
“I think (USA Today’s) Christine Brennan said it best so far: ‘Class act, honest, fair, innovative: that was Chuck Wielgus. Under his leadership, USA Swimming became the gold standard of NGBs. Such sad news.’ My thoughts on Chuck were that when he asked if there was anything he could do to help, he truly meant it. Also, if you gave him an idea, he genuinely listened. Nobody had bad ideas and he treated all of us with complete respect. We at USA Swimming have big shoes to fill. I hope we are up to the task.” – Coach Bruce Gemmell
“Spending the last 12 years of my career and seeing Chuck almost daily give me a perspective that goes so much deeper than his public persona and well beyond what people think they knew about him. He was a mentor, friend, leader and tough as nails. We should all be so lucky to walk a day in that guy’s shoes to get a full appreciation for what it means to give your all to an organization and the people around you.” – Matt Farrell
“Chuck was an amazing man, leader, friend, mentor and provided great inspiration to both USA Swimming and the USA Swimming Foundation. He mentioned to me recently he was so proud of founding the USA Swimming Foundation and writing the white paper which resulted in the Make a Splash initiative. One of the main reasons I left a great job at USA Diving is because I wanted to learn from Chuck. He made me and all the others around him better. I will take the lessons I've learned and be a better person.” – Debbie Hesse, USA Swimming Foundation Director
“What I admired about Chuck is that he was a ‘big picture’ type of leader. He knew what he wanted to accomplish, where he wanted out sport to go and that it took time and a great team to get there. And he never took his eye off the goal, which I think is what has led USA Swimming to such amazing growth. Chuck was a great guy and will be deeply missed on and off the pool deck.” – Olympic Gold Medalist Megan Jendrick.