By Bob Schaller//Correspondent | Tuesday, May 30, 2017
Mariejo “M.J.” Truex is Program Director for USA Swimming’s push for Diversity and Inclusion, and the data shows progress is being made. The former NYU Coach and swimmer still coaches in Colorado Springs while her full-time job is spreading the word that swimming is open to everyone -- and everyone can improve both their safety and life with the sport -- as the proud Filipino-American explains in a this 20 Question Tuesday capping off Asian/Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
1. How did you end up with USA Swimming?
M.J.: I came in (2005) and worked with the National Team through the 2008 Games, then moved to Club Development after Beijing. Three years ago, in 2014, I moved to this position. Diversity and Inclusion has been around for a while; before this, it was called Outreach. So our D & I efforts have evolved.
2. And you are still coaching, which must be good for keeping your ear close to the deck in the sport, right?
M.J.: Yes, I currently coach with the Colorado Springs Swim Team. Since 2004, I’ve been with them in different capacities primarily as an age-group coach. My daughter is on that team as well, It’s a really kind of nice, convenient thing for me that I’m passionate about and I enjoy it immensely.
3. And this job in Diversity and Inclusion speaks to you personally?
M.J.: It does. I am of Asian descent -- a first generation Asian. I grew up in the culture, and also in the culture of swimming. I was born and raised in New York City and swam for a club there that was highly diverse, so I have always been surrounded by it. My life has been and is so affected by the sport in a positive way. So to work in Diversity and Inclusion is kind of ironic because I have lived it.
4. And you swam in college?
M.J.: I did. I started swimming at age 9 so I was late to the sport. I swam in the Y system which was also a USA Swimming team. Then I swam Division III at NYU, and right when I graduated in 1997 I started coaching because the (college) team needed an assistant. Then our coach left and I stepped into the head coaching role. So it was kind of a crazy progression. I wanted to continue to do something swim-related for my career then, I started coaching, and then it picked up here when we moved to Colorado Springs in 2004.
5. The room for growth in Diversity and Inclusion for swimming is unlimited, isn’t it?
M.J.: It really is, and that is an exciting opportunity. Interestingly enough, we look at the Census data and use a lot of metrics to compare ourselves to the U.S. Census. We have more Asians represented in membership (percentage wise) than we do in the Census. So we are doing well, as well as with our multi-racial efforts. But what’s important to remember is that the Asian community is still a big minority group that we need to work with and develop more since they can experience things that cross over into other minority groups. Barriers of entry to our sport or cultural differences are other areas that apply to this community even if our membership numbers have seen growth. So we’re doing well but like with the other communities we want to continue to keep bridging that gap and improve communication.
6. I know that growth is measured in fractions of percent in programs like this, but seeing the constant growth is a key, right?
M.J.: We’re really pleased with the growth. The Asian community and multi-racial category is our fastest growing community. Because Asians are represented in our sport at every level it helps because we have role models. They provide a path for others to follow. So we can correlate growth in that community along with Asian-Americans performing at higher levels.
7. Having Lia Neal, Felicia Lee and so many others can’t be overrated, can it?
M.J.: Not at all and that is so important, especially in our minority communities where you have those role models they can look up to. We see it in the data and we hear it in research and the feedback from our swimmers and coaches and parents.
8. So diversity is an exciting but challenging goal?
M.J.: There’s actually two parts, the diversity part and the inclusion part. New membership is part of our focus -- attracting new communities that are underrepresented is the diversity part. The other is the inclusion part and that means making sure our sport is safe and welcoming to anyone who comes through our door regardless of race, age, sexual orientation, and ethnicity. We work on those two facets because they go hand in hand. If you come to our sport and don’t feel welcome there is a problem since they will end up leaving.
9. You must get a boost by the growth of minority members who are on the National Teams and win medals at national and international meets?
M.J.: Oh, absolutely, The performance at the highest tip of triangle is a by-product for our efforts though because there is so much this great sport offers at all levels. And I am a testament to that, which is why I have dedicated my life to giving back to the sport for what it has given me. And I was nowhere near the National Team level as an athlete and look what the sport has done for me and all that I have in my life because of swimming. I want that experience for anyone who comes into our sport, whether it’s recreational or they are standing on a podium.
10. And the program gives new meaning to team effort, doesn’t it?
M.J.: It definitely takes a village which is why we partner with a lot of different groups and have consultants we use. A good example is Safe Sport because they have paved the way and a lot of our topics and issues overlap. We also get great input and involvement from our senior staff. Everything is connected to our business plan as well -- anything we do leads back into the overall direction our organization wants to go so we have that in mind when we create programs and when thinking about new ideas.
11. I was born and worked as a young adult in California so I was fortunate to be immersed in the Asian-American community and see how they enhance America -- I imagine you see that nationwide?
M.J.: Definitely. California does have a high concentration of Asians, but it’s not just there -- there’s also high concentrations in other pockets of the country. Even where diversity is not as represented we can still hopefully provide tools and resources to help our teams attract more diverse membership.
12. And this is connected to efforts with the African American and Hispanic communities as well?
M.J.: I would say most of our resources, staff and programming is focused on those two communities; African Americans and Hispanics are not as well represented in our membership, so a lot of our effort goes toward those communities to make the sport as attractive and welcoming as it can be.
13. I know the issues nationwide but when I talk to LGBT or minority swimmers I get a good feeling back about the sport. While that’s generalizing, it seems to be a good sport for everyone, isn’t it?
M.J.: We put focus on more than just ethnicities. I would say that race and topics surrounding the LGBTQ community can be hot-button topics in some places but our sport and organization is committed to diversity and inclusion for everyone. It’s written in our code of conduct. So we try to create programming, tools and resources to create that kind of environment.
14. It’s the right thing to do, but it’s also good for business, right?
M.J.: It makes sense business wise, because it inevitably impacts your bottom line, but it’s a much bigger picture than that. Diversity breeds innovation, gathers the best resources and promotes diversity of thought. On the performance side, the bigger our base gets, the more that filters to the top. So the reasons behind our D & I efforts and commitment run the gamut.
15. When I talk to the athletes and coaches I hear great pride in those efforts -- how reassuring is that?
M.J.: I think our athletes are our biggest advocates for diversity and inclusion. They already get it. The Millennial generation is the most inclusive and most socially aware I have ever witnessed. Part of the Millennial generation’s mindset is that people come as they are, so when we need to put something in place, our athletes are often the advocates who really help with that. They are our biggest advocates because they already have bought into the concept of what we are doing; it’s already part of their culture.
16. The parents are from a generation earlier, where perhaps these efforts weren’t as publicized or it wasn’t a front-burner issue, how do you manage that?
M.J.: Parents, coaches, and volunteers are the ones who we spend the most time with. Through education and training we try to open the diversity and inclusion conversation so that it becomes a common topic and not so daunting to discuss. There are also generational barriers that we have to work through. And we hope to break through historic cycles and generational barriers through experience and education. Our efforts have generally been met with acceptance and that has been encouraging!
17. How big of a help in that effort is swimming as a lifestyle and what it brings for life skills and the successful traits that translate so well to the real world?
M.J.: Swimming teaches you so much: good time management, commitment, goal setting, discipline. The list goes on and on. It not only applies to the pool but to your everyday life outside of the water. I’m definitely biased, but swimming just breeds that kind of honest hard work and commitment better than any sport out there. There’s something special about how our sport develops great athletes and great people.
18. You sound like you still enjoy more than ever, staying connected to the sport -- is that accurate?
M.J.: I do always feel connected. Part of that is working with the great people here (at USA Swimming) and seeing their passion, commitment and dedication to the sport on a daily basis. Part of it is coaching and staying connected by being on deck. I’m also a swim parent. That gives me yet another great connection and different perspective. Couple all of that with being a former athlete, I feel as if I’ve had the good fortune to experience the sport from a different lens.
19. You mentioned New York -- you must relate especially well to Lia?
M.J.: I know Lia personally -- she’s half Filipino and I’m full Filipino so yes there is a connection with that and New York. She’s not only a great swimmer but such a great person as well. I first saw her long before 2012 (London, the first of two Olympic Games where Neal made history winning medals). So to see her succeed, makes me so happy. I knew what she accomplished would be a really a great step for diversity and inclusion, but it was more than just that. I’m just super happy for her, and to see her thriving at Stanford, one of the greatest universities in the world.
20. Seeing the D & I progress must warm your heart -- and you must share it with a lot of other people, some of whom you already mentioned, correct?
M.J.: That is absolutely true. Diversity and inclusion work requires a level of commitment that could parallel the level of commitment you need to have to be successful in our sport. And you can’t talk about this without mentioning Chuck Wielgus, who we all miss so much. I attribute our success and direction to him. He was such a respected leader. Without him we wouldn’t have Diversity and Inclusion, or Safe Sport where it is in our sport today. -- He always championed these issues and our programs. I don’t think any of these efforts would have evolved and grown had it not been for Chuck putting it at the forefront. That level of support was so important and something I will always remember about him, because without him, we would not be where we are now. That part of his legacy will live forever, and we’re all so proud of the work we do that came from his support and leadership.