USA Swimming News

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Carol Zaleski Retires from Swimming After 45 Years of Service


Carol Zaleski Retires from Swimming After 45 Years of Service

Few have impacted the sport of swimming as Carol Zaleski. Starting off as a volunteer and working her way to leadership roles in USA Swimming and FINA, Zaleski has touched nearly all levels of the sport. Today we recognize her accomplishments as she officially retires from her work on and off the pool deck. 

In the early 1970s, three of Zaleski’s five children started swimming at the local North Hill YMCA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When they advanced into a more competitive atmosphere under the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), Zaleski remembers seeing parents from their YMCA down on the pool deck timing.  

“I thought it was such a huge honor to be on the deck and helping out,” Zaleski recalled. 

Those embedded in the age group swimming world know how difficult it can be to fill those parent volunteer spots at a swim meet. But Zaleski viewed volunteering as a special opportunity that ultimately helped her travel the globe, break down gender barriers and be a visionary for the sport of swimming. 

Starting off as a timer, Zaleski progressed through positions on her team and matured into roles in Allegheny Mountain Swimming, eventually becoming its general chair. 

With her athlete centered approach, Zaleski was meant to bring our sport to new heights. As she continued to progress, she broke down barriers and advocated for all athletes. 
“Throughout her entire career, Carol always had the athletes front of mind,” FINA’s Director of Sport and former USA Swimming Chief Operating Officer Mike Unger said. “She was a trendsetter and role model for so many in our sport.”

In 1979, Zaleski was elected as the Eastern Zone Director. The following year USA Swimming was formed, and she was elected as a member of its first Board of Directors. Thirty-nine years later, Zaleski claimed a seat in history as the longest tenure member of the USA Swimming board.

In 1984, Zaleski’s drive landed her as the USA Swimming Board of Director’s vice-president, and in 1986 she began her first of four two-year terms as president. She is still the only individual to ever serve four terms in this role (1986-1988, 1988-1990, 1994-1996 and 1996-1998).  

“Carol’s relationship with the board and staff was excellent,” Unger said. “She always strived to treat people with respect, and it showed because she was able to accomplish so much.” 

The respect Zaleski gave to others paved a pathway of support for major initiatives, many of which still help athletes and coaches today. In her first term as president, Zaleski helped form the U.S. Sports Insurance Company (USSIC), which eventually grew into a successful insurance business and resource to the organization. She created the International Center for Aquatic Research, located at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where sport scientists can work with athletes from across the globe. Zaleski helped launch the Athlete Assistance Program, which still gives elite athletes financial assistance to allow them to focus on training full-time. Finally, in Zaleski’s last term as president and upon Ray Essick’s 20-year retirement as executive director, she directly oversaw the search for USA Swimming’s new executive director. 

Zaleski’s accomplishments were well-known and much appreciated, as is evidenced by the number of awards she has been presented. In 1985 Zaleski received the Phillips Petroleum Swimming Volunteer of the Year Award; in 1990, USA Swimming athletes awarded her with the Athletes’ Appreciation Award; and in 1992, USA Swimming honored her with the Exceptional Contribution Award.

Zaleski’s impact expanded worldwide in the late 1980s as she was named the first female member of FINA’s century-old Technical Swimming Committee, a position she held for many years without female peers. Her 34-year stint as a member and 26 years as chairman earned her additional spots in history for having the longest span of any individual - regardless of gender. 

On the Olympic stage, Zaleski oversaw officials at the last six-straight Games and served on the United States Olympic Committee’s Games Preparation Committee from 1989-2004. When Michael Phelps earned a jaw-dropping eight gold medals in a single Olympic Games at Beijing in 2008, Zaleski was breaking down gender barriers as the first female Olympic swimming deck referee. As a direct result of her accomplishment at those Games, international competitions have since required a minimum of two male and two female officials on deck.

“Carol took her responsibilities seriously and acted always in a professional way,” FINA Treasurer Dale Neuburger said. “Nothing came in the way of delivery of superior service to our sport and to its athletes.” 

In 1986, Zaleski took her service to new heights by creating and implementing USA Swimming’s National Officials Training program, which continues today. This effort positively impacted officials across the country by increasing the quality of officiating and creating standardized practices. Upon its success, Zaleski created a similar program for the rest of the world through her work with FINA (1995). 

“No question about it, I pushed some boundaries,” Zaleski stated. “But in my mind, I never thought I was doing this for women, I wanted to be the most qualified for the job.” 

She certainly has become the most qualified. As Zaleski gained experience on the international stage, she received numerous other accolades for her leadership on and off the deck. In 2003, USA Swimming honored her with the Kenneth J. Pettigrew Award for excellence in dedication to officiating. In 2009, Zaleski accepted the Paragon Award from the International Swimming Hall of Fame as well as the George M. Steinbrenner III Sport Leadership Award from the United States Olympic Endowment. In 2015, she was named one of the 30 Most Influential People in Swimming over the Past 30 Years by USA Swimming and Speedo. Lastly, Zaleski was the first individual from the United States to be given the FINA Order (2021), and later this year will be named as an Honorary Inductee to the International Swimming Hall of Fame (2022). 

Zaleski’s leadership and innovation also helped solidify the use of underwater judging cameras. Today, athletes and officials rely on the efficiency of these cameras, but it was Zaleski who helped spearhead the idea with Unger in 2007. Unger recalls their conversations and how the idea formed. 

“We came up with the idea in 2007 from conversations with the International Relations Committee," Unger said. “We ultimately put together a plan and decided to test it at 2007 Nationals. My wife and I drove the cameras across the country to Nationals so we could practice before Olympic Trials the next year.”

Although Zaleski didn’t realize it at the time, she was making monumental waves in the swimming world. She now thinks back fondly about her accomplishments and recognizes the magnitude of her work. 

“I didn’t realize what an impact I was having in the moment,” Zaleski recalled. “I always focused on the athlete and how to make competition fair and equitable for everyone.”

Neuburger knows her impact will continue to touch the sport in years to come. 

“No one before, and I believe no one after, will have such a profound impact on our sport and the way competition is managed,” Neuburger said. “For more than 30 years, Carol was the gold standard for efficient, effective and equitable competition management…Truly, a generational impact on our sport.”
When asked what advice Zaleski has for our current volunteers, she pointed to her ever-shining north star.

“Being on deck is a privilege,” Zaleski declared. “It is a privilege to make sure conditions are the way they should be for competing athletes, locally and around the world.”

Many things ring true in the sport of swimming, but there is one thing every club can agree upon: Once you have a good parent volunteer, you should hold on tight. Zaleski has been the ultimate volunteer and advocate for our athletes and the sport we love, touching nearly every level of swimming. 

The athletes, coaches, officials, volunteers and staff of USA Swimming will be forever grateful for the incredible work Zaleski has done for the sport of swimming, and we wish her a happy retirement!

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