USA Swimming’s National Team Alumni are deep with talent. Sure, we have Olympic champions and icons, but this small niche of our family is also diverse with unique post-swimming careers. We have politicians, entrepreneurs and even rock star CEOs, like open water world champion Austin Ramirez.
When he was just 34, Ramirez became the chief executive of Husco International, a privately-held engineering and manufacturing company. During his eight years at the helm, the company tripled in size to $500M in global sales, netting them a Global Growth Company designation by the World Economic Forum. Leading Husco through those hard years of exponential growth was surely a grind, but not for a swimmer, and certainly not for an elite open water champion.
Like most athletes who earn their open water salt, Ramirez developed his talent in the pool. His swimming roots wound through great clubs and an NCAA powerhouse before he ultimately represented Team USA. The genesis of his career, however, was a little frightening. His first brush with water was a near-drowning.
“I fell off a dock and had to get fished out of the water by my dad,” he said. “But I quickly moved past that scary experience and have loved being in the water all my life.”
A few years after his father saved his life, Ramirez started his competitive career at the center of the swimming universe in the company of royalty, though his parents had to creatively maneuver his way in.
“I remember being dropped off at my first overnight camp at Indiana University with the legendary Doc Counsilman,” Ramirez said. “My parents fudged my age to get me in. I was the youngest one there. The first day was terrifying, but I can still remember some of the drills we practiced that week.”
For those who don’t know their swimming history, Doc coached over 60 Olympic swimmers, including Mark Spitz. In sum, Ramirez had a very auspicious launch. From that moment on, swimming was his life, coloring most of his childhood memories.
“I’ve been a swimmer for as long as I can remember,” he said. “The early memories all seem jumbled together in my mind… playing sharks and minnows at swim practice, goofing around in school gyms between events at meets, writing event/heat/lane on my arm… then the sinking pit in my stomach if I missed an event -- which was the worst!
“And after my parents, no one has shaped my personal character more than my swim coaches. Fred Russell, my age group coach, was a tough old Navy frogman whom I am still terrified of. He kept me on the straight and narrow despite my teenage tendency to be a complete knucklehead. At the University of Virginia, Pete Wright and Bill Smyth molded my competitive instincts and slow twitch muscles into a desire to be great on an international stage. Most of all, the inimitable Mark Bernardino (Virginia Head Coach) taught me that integrity, loyalty and self-discipline mattered more than any accomplishment I could ever achieve in the pool.”
For most of us, looking back on our careers, swimming is about the relationships, the connection and shared experience we all have. For a select few, there is something more – that chance for greatness. The moment a swimmer understands that potentiality is special, burned into their brain like a movie reel.
“I distinctly remember the moment I realized swimming was my opportunity to do something special,” Ramirez said. “It was summer Junior Nationals at Clovis High School in 1995. I was a rising senior in high school, and I had spent the summer training kinda-seriously, but mostly goofing off and having way too much fun with my friends. I was in an early heat of the 800 free, and I won my heat, got my first nationals cut and wound up with a silver medal. If I could do that after a weak summer of training, what could I accomplish if I set my mind to it?”
After his breakout performance and an ah-ha moment, his world expanded. At Nationals that same summer, he suddenly realized he was sharing a warmup lane with Olympic champions Summer Sanders and Janet Evans, two of his heroes.
Something happens when you share space with greats. There’s the shock of seeing the familiar faces from television and endless news media, then the feeling ebbs, becoming normal, almost pedestrian. Finally, you realize, I belong here. Ramirez certainly did. He went on to represent Team USA for years, competing at the World University Games, the U.S. Olympic Cup, and he earned a silver medal at the Pan American Games in the 400m freestyle, but an Olympic-sized pool proved to be far too short for his big lungs. It is the rare talent that can medal on the international stage in the pool and in open water, but Ramirez clearly needed to swim beyond the chlorinated fishbowl. Competing in the salty swell, he fully shined, finally achieving a 5k U.S. National Championship title and a 1998 World Championship Team gold medal.
“A few of my major awards are framed in my parent’s basement,” Ramirez said. “And I’m sure there’s a box of old medals and ribbons in an attic somewhere.”
Twenty years past his elite career, Ramirez remains connected with his swimming family, and he’s particularly proud to be a University of Virginia alum, closely following Coach Todd DeSorbo’s success. He gets in the pool every once in a while, but most of his exercise miles are logged on the road or rough terrain, and his ultra-endurance lungs are still working. Back in 2016, Ramirez completed the brutal Leadville 100 footrace, 100 painstaking miles at an altitude of 10,200 feet.
Ramirez has an interesting life with a lot of layers. While impressive, he’s far more than a hard-driving CEO with a decorated sports background. He loves living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with his wife and three kids, and his philanthropic endurance is beyond robust. He has served on numerous education-focused boards – Teach for America, Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCA, United Performing Arts Fund – and he’s a co-founder of St. Augustine Preparatory Academy, serving 1,300 low-income students on Milwaukee’s south side. Ramirez also founded and co-chairs Democracy Fund, a non-partisan political reform organization focused on implementing open primaries and ranked-choice voting. But wait, there’s more. He’s been honored as White House Fellow for both the Trump and Obama administrations. He is a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum, a member of the 2018 Henry Crown Fellows at the Aspen Institute, and he’s a minority owner of the Milwaukee Bucks.
Are you inspired? I hope so. I hope that you might see a little of yourself in him. Austin Ramirez is one of us, the swimming family, with endless possibility to impact the world in a positive way, and I can’t wait to see what he does in the next 20 years.
USA National Team Alum
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