Chuck Wielgus Opens Up About His Tenure, Safeguards Against Abuse, FINA And Olympics

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PHOENIX – USA Swimming Executive Director Chuck Wielgus stopped by the SwimmingWorld.TV studio recently and spoke with Swimming World Publisher Brent Rutemiller about the many highlights of his 18 years leading the world’s top swimming country.

SwimmingWorld.TV Interview

Wielgus talks about his previous coaching experience and history as the head of other sport federations as two reasons why he felt he deserved and got the job as executive director in 1997. At the time, the United States was on a high after a successful showing at the Atlanta Olympics, and Wielgus said he wanted all those involved with the organization to understand the wet and dry sides of the sport.

One of USA Swimming’s long-term issues is building a base of young athletes and keeping them in the sport, and Wielgus said that blended in with the other primary goals of competitive success and promoting the sport. He said those three objectives were his focus points in the 1990s and continue to be his main goals in 2015.

Wielgus laments that swimming has been in public crosshairs more than most sports lately regarding sexual abuse at the hands of coaches, but stresses that the Safe Sport program implemented by USA Swimming has made the organization aware that it needs to be accountable for all members.

Wielgus takes ownership of his 2010 appearance on the TV news show “20/20” in which he did not publicly apologize to the victims of sexual abuse. “It was a poor performance on my part,” he tells Rutemiller, adding that the interview’s negative reaction has evolved into a positive outlook on USA Swimming’s actions toward ridding the sport of sexual abusers and raising awareness.

One of the major accomplishments under Wielgus’ tenure has been the creation of the USA Swimming Foundation, which has been the organization most responsible for changing the racial diversity of the sport through outreach programs such as Make A Splash. The foundation has also successfully grown the Golden Goggle Awards ceremony each year, and Wielgus praises the foundation for continuing to grow both aspects in the past 10 years. Wielgus remarks that changing the diversity of the sport is not something that can happen in one or two years. “This is a 30-year campaign to change the demographics of our sport,” he says.

Another major growth within USA Swimming has been the Olympic Trials, and Wielgus talks about the moment at the 2000 Trials in Indianapolis when he noticed that the event was “bursting at the seams” and needed to grow. That led to the 2004 Trials in Long Beach in a temporary facility and Omaha in 2008 and 2012.

Wielgus talks about USA Swimming’s influence with decisions regarding policy in FINA, the global swimming federation, saying that despite Team USA’s dominance in the pool, USA Swimming is not always the biggest voice in the global meeting room.

“We as Americans have to recognize that the rest of the world doesn’t operate the way we do,” he said. “We (USA Swimming) are not necessarily well-liked. Politically, on the international arena, it’s very difficult to get things done.”

With the 2016 Olympics just around the bend, Wielgus said the excitement around USA Swimming is not only on those who are expected to do well next year, but developing those athletes that could represent Team USA in the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. The big issue surrounding the 2016 Games is the late start for finals each night, and Wielgus discusses the implication that USA Swimming had some influence in suggesting a later start time.

Chuck Wielgus Interview Transcript

Brent Rutemiller: You’re watching Swimming World TV and I’m your host Brent Rutemiller, and you’re in the ready room with USA swimming’s executive director Chuck Wielgus. Thanks for joining us Chuck.

Chuck Wielgus: Glad to be here Brent.

Rutemiller: So you’ve been on the job now for close to 20 years?

Wielgus: Approaching.

Rutemiller: So let’s go back to the beginning. I mean there were a lot of people who wanted this position, and you were selected, so don’t be humble. Why do you think you were selected over all of the other candidates to take this position?

Wielgus: Well I think there were three things immediately come to mind. One was that I had experience. I had ten years’ experience as a coach, and a little bit of it doing summer swim league coaching. But, I also had experiences leading other sports organizations. Been the executive director of the U.S Canoe and Kayak team, another Olympic sport, for almost two quads. And I was with the senior PGA tour before I came to swimming. So I think that set of experiences certainly qualified me. Second is that I really understood the culture around Olympic sports. And that’s what the two quads with Canoe and Kayak did for me. And I not only understood it, but embraced it. I mean I just — I love the community.

Rutemiller: Yeah.

Wielgus: You know, athletes, coaches, parents, officials, volunteers, even magazine publishers are part of that community. And third, I think I was able to share with the board of directors a vision for the future of what swimming could become.

Rutemiller: Well, with that in mind, what were the weaknesses very early on that you identified that you identified as being, within your vision, let’s say?

Wielgus: Well I think to the contrary. I didn’t see weaknesses, I saw opportunities. I saw a very strong infrastructure of programs. A strong base of membership, of coaches, of clubs. And I just saw an enormous opportunity to help promote that, and to tell that story to a broad audience and to have swimming become an every day, every year sport, not just an Olympic year sport.

Rutemiller: I’m glad you identified the administrative side of the programs, because a lot of times you can have the administration become overbearing into the actual, you know, sport itself. In our case, it would be the dry side and the wet side. How did you really define what was going to be the dry side, and what was going to be the wet side? And how did you set boundaries for your staff, not to go too deep into those areas, but yet integrate them all together?

Wielgus: Well, there’s a lot in that question. But I think first, it starts with having a service mentality. I really saw my role being as a lead servant to the sport. Second was having a great respect for the technical side of the sport. That one of the wonderful things about swimming is that we acknowledge that there is no longer one way to get to the top of the mountain .And so great respect for the coaches. And I saw the coaches as the system. And I guess the third part of it — and you’ll see I like to think in threes — but the third aspect of that was an opportunity to help. What I first said to the staff was I want to make everybody damp. I want the folks on the wet side of this sport to really understand and appreciate the business side of the sport, and the folks on the business side of the sport to really understand the technical aspects. And why these decisions were made. So I think those were the key elements at least at the beginning.

Rutemiller: Well you also set out three core objectives, and we’re all hearing it over, and over, and over again, but I think it still rings true today. The three core objects were what? Build the foundation, build a membership build the base. Second would be to promote the sport, and then to achieve competitive success.

Wielgus: Right.

Rutemiller: Where was the membership base when you said build the base? Where was it when you first took over and where is it now?

Wielgus: Well that — I’m not sure what the exact numbers were when I first came, but what I can tell you is over the last ten years we’ve enrolled over 100,000 new athletes into the sport. Our membership has grown 46% just in the last ten years. And I think the other thing is that we’re seeing happening with the sport is the retention rate is really high. The average retention rate for youth sports is somewhere between 60 and 70%, and we’re north of 70% and that retention rate is really important, so it’s bringing in new kids, but also keeping the kids we’ve got.

Rutemiller: And promoting the sport. How was the sport being promoted back in 96?, Let’s not go into where it is now, but where was it then, and what did you see then that you felt could be done better?

Wielgus: Well I think swimming really wasn’t set up to promote itself. It was more reactive. Kind of like a sports information office at a college or university where a query would come in from someone in the media, they’d want some information, and your organization will respond to it. And the shift we made was to go from being reactive to being proactive, to really developing a strategy to promote the sport, and then acting on that strategy. So I think that notion of going from reactive to proactive was the pivot point in how we looked at promoting our sport.

Rutemiller: And does that go back to the core, your original vision when you were hired? I mean was that the one area you felt that could really change?

Wielgus: I think that was the area where the board of directors thought I was the strongest. That I brought a vision that was going to elevate the presence of the sport within the general public and within the media so it wasn’t just viewed as an Olympic year, an every-four-years sport.

Rutemiller: And then achieve competitive success. I think that speaks for itself. You gotta say swimming has been doing a fabulous job on the Olympic level. Are there certain successes that you like to highlight, or how do you look at that?

Wielgus: Well, I think that’s really, it. It’s a credit to the athletes and the coaches. And I think our role as administrators is to support them in any way we can. And so I look at our ability to achieve sustained competitive success. And sustained is really the key word in there for me, is to provide a steady base of resources and opportunities that will give our top athletes and coaches the wherewithal to do what they need to do, to have the resources to support their training. To support getting athletes to competitions, that they might not otherwise be able to go to. And increasingly now we’re looking at the transition of the junior team program and providing more opportunities for more athletes and for more coaches to have opportunities to be assigned or selected for international trips.

Rutemiller: So, philosophically speaking now, when you go back and you set out these three core objectives, are they now, and when you reflect on this, are they independent of each other? Or are they dependent on each other meaning, in order to achieve success do you need to build the base? Or by achieving competitive success you automatically build the base, and vice versa. By just promoting it does it build the base which then turns into have success? Have you ever contemplated, and kind of looked at how those three things interact?

Wielgus: Oh, I not only contemplated it. That was the idea from the beginning, that that we would have three objectives that were simple, that were memorable, and that were aspirational in nature. They feed each other. Athletes have success, we get more public attention and recognition, that gives us more opportunities to promote the sport, that attracts more kids into the sport. So it’s a continuous rolling wheel. All three of them are interdependent.

Rutemiller: So, moving down to some other areas here, and we all know that USA Swimming has been vilified in the media in recent years for being not so safe a sport. And you and your staff have been the public face of all of this. And I know personally that you’ve worked very hard to implement things to go in a different direction. But yet, it still keeps coming back that you’re not being — you weren’t proactive enough. You didn’t go back deep enough into the sport. That there are coaches that are sexual abusers within the sport. When did you first become aware of this problem?

Wielgus: I think anyone who is a coach, teacher, a camp counselor, is aware that there are people within our society who act inappropriately with minors. And so it’s been a little frustrating because swimming maybe has been singled out, and I think we’ve in part been singled out because the sport has kind of risen — has had a higher profile. But the fact of the matter is that the overwhelming majority of our coaches are, next to a parent, a coach is the greatest, the best opportunity to impact a young person’s life. And what we’ve done over the last four to five years is put in place I think a Safe Sport program that is among the best, if not the best, of all youth sport programs, and so to go back to your question about when did I first become aware. I think it’s something that I’ve been aware of since I first started coaching, but as an organization, I think it really came onto our plate about four or five years ago that people thought that this was something that we needed to be accountable for and we accepted that responsibility.

Rutemiller: Well, let’s get into the 20/20 interview, where you were portrayed there as not taking personal responsibility for the issue altogether. And were you, looking back at that interview, was that a turning point in everything coming to a head and two, were you portrayed accurately in that interview? What’s your reflection on all of that?

Wielgus: Well, it was a terrible day, and it was a poor performance, on my part, and was it a turning point? In a way, yes it was, and I think that what we have done since then, that should be how we should be measured, by the actions we’ve taken to help our sport become, I think the safest sport there is for any kid to participate in. But the programs, the education, the way we’ve raised awareness. So we could be vilified for you know, one day, one time, not saying the right thing at the right moment, but I’d like to think that over the course of time people will judge our organization and this leadership on what was actually done.

Rutemiller: So, what good came from that interview, both for you personally and for the organization?

Wielgus: Well, I think the good that came for the organization is that we’ve raised awareness that we now have mandatory training for coaches and for all of our non-athlete members. All of our officials have to go through training programs. We have optional training programs for athletes and their parents. And we’ve talked about the issue. So by raising awareness, I think we’ve helped to create an environment where this subject isn’t taboo anymore. That if somebody sees something happening that they think is inappropriate they report it. And we now have the pieces in place to deal with these reports

Rutemiller: In that regard, when you look at all that you’ve done to be proactive on this, and it’s taken a huge amount of your time, but yet there’s still vocal critics out there that won’t recognize that effort, to the point where you had to take your name off of being inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame. Where do you find the motivation to go on?

Wielgus: Well, it’s — we’re doing the right thing, and that’s the most important thing. And, you know, my focus has always been on doing the work. And, you know, if other people have different perspectives on that then I would challenge them to look at what’s actually been done. And I think that’s where we’re going to hang our hat, on the work that’s been done and the safer environments that we’ve created for the kids who are members of our sport.

Rutemiller: Well when it comes to your personal challenges that, being in the business world, you were honored in 2011 with the Cancer Awareness Award, for your overcoming colon cancer, which was first diagnosed in 2007. And then in 2012 you had a setback and had treatment that obviously has done very well for you. How do you motivate people around you, and how do you really stay strong when you have that on top of everything else? And I think it’s very inspiring what you’ve gone through in that regard.

Wielgus: Well I, I wouldn’t wish it on anybody else. I mean, I’ve been to the edge twice, and when you come back from that, you really have a perspective, and you appreciate the things around you. And I’m fortunate, I’ve got two wonderful families. One at home, and one where I work. And my daily challenge is to lead by example. And to try to set the tone for not only what we’re going to do, but how we’re going to do it. And that’s motivation enough for me.

Rutemiller: Well, we always hear good things from the staff and they all follow your leadership in those areas. Looking at the broader picture of where USA Swimming is across the country. Diversity was something that was brought to the table. We’re still perceived — the sport is that is as a white middle upper-income sport. What things have been put in place and where are we going with this? And what’s your vision at this point?

Wielgus: Diversity and inclusion is a real challenge not only for us, but for a lot of other sports. And it’s especially difficult for us because of the facility and access issue. You know it’s hard for a kid to learn how to play golf if they don’t have access to a golf course, but we are fully committed to having the demographics of our sport over the course of time better reflect the demographics of society at large. And this is not a piece of the puzzle that gets solved in one year or two years. This is a 30-year campaign to change the demographics of our sport. So we’re doing it piece by piece. We recently set up a program with the New York City Parks and Recreation Department, and we now have 600 new members, and 50 new member coaches with very diverse backgrounds. And we’re helping them to become a stronger competitive swimming program. We have select camps where we now bring in both athletes and coaches to Colorado Springs. And try to provide them with education and resources. We’re increasingly looking to expand the things that we can do in both Hispanic and Latino communities, as well as African-American communities. And actually the fastest growing segment of our membership is our outreach. So, it’s a long campaign. We’re making progress. We’ve got a long way to go. But it’s one of the most important things that we’re doing for the future of our sport.

Rutemiller: Well, one of the things that you did, I don’t know how long ago but during your tenure, was set up the Swim Foundation, which, when you look at this, it’s like, whoa. Now we have another organization within an organization, the separate non-profit, and all of that. But yet, is this foundation, which some of this falls under, which you just mentioned with the diversity and the outreach … give us a temperature on where you see that right now.

Wielgus: Well the foundation is 10 years old and was originally set up because we felt that the one area that we hadn’t really taken advantage of to the extent that we could was philanthropy. We felt that there were people who would want to contribute, and companies and organizations. And one of the initial missions of the foundation was to help the diversity, to attack the diversity issue. So we began the Make a Splash program. Make a Splash program today has local partners in all 50 states. There are more than 600 local partners across the nation. And more than 3 million kids have been touched by swim lessons. And about a quarter million of those kids have been scholarshipped. These are kids who otherwise would have never had the opportunity to learn how to swim. So that’s the mouth of the pipeline. And I think one of our challenges going forward now is to find ways to give those kids who have learned to swim the opportunity to think about joining the swim team. And that’s one of the new areas that we’re very excited about working on.

Rutemiller: Well, when you look at that whole intensity, then you throw in this Golden Goggles thing. They both were started about the same period, same time. I mean that’s a huge, huge ask, you know, coming on an organization. But where the golden goggles are now, and for our viewers out there, it’s the annual awards where we recognize, the greatest in the sport. And it alternates between New York, and East Coast, and West Coast in LA. Is it meeting your vision?

Wielgus: Absolutely it is. We set the Golden Goggles up with two objectives. The first objective was to kind of have an annual gathering, where we bring together the swimming community, and we’d recognize the accomplishments of our national team athletes and their coaches. And so that, to this day, remains the number one objective of that evening. To celebrate their accomplishments. And then number two, to have the event become a fundraising event for the foundation. So over the past ten years, we’ve raised more than $3 million for the foundation, which is helping to support not only the Make a Splash program, but the national team program as well. So, we couldn’t be more pleased with the success of the Golden Goggles.

Rutemiller: Fabulous. Olympic Trials. You were on the front end saying let’s take this to another level. Now we find it’s in an indoor arena with temporary pools. The atmosphere is electrifying. Did you see this where it is now? Did you see it getting to this point when you first envisioned this, and moving in this direction?

Wielgus: Well, I’ve looked into my crystal ball a number of times in my life. [LAUGH] And some of the things I’ve seen haven’t come to fruition. But this is one-

Rutemiller: We can talk about this, too all right.

Wielgus: Well, we can, there’s some funny stories there. But, this is one that did and I actually remember the exact moment. It was the last night of the 2000 Olympic Trials, and it was at the Natatorium in Indianapolis.

Rutemiller: Which was considered the home, that was the palace, that was Yankee Stadium for swimming. And, the last event is the men’s 1500 meters and Eric Vendt becomes the first American male to go under 15 minutes, and I had climbed up to the top of the diving board, the 10-meter platform surveying the whole scene, and it was electric. I mean the crowd was excited, and when I came down from that platform after our staff was all excited, the officials were all excited. And I said to some of our staff, meet me for breakfast in the morning, because we’ve got an event that’s busting at the seams. And it’s just dying to grow, and we gotta figure out what we’re gonna do with it. And that’s what led us down the path to have the 2004 Trials in Long Beach, in an outdoor swim stadium with 10,000 seats.

Rutemiller: And they’ll be in Omaha again this year.

Wielgus: They’ll be in Omaha again. Last(time in) 2012 we sold over 160,000 tickets. We were live all eight nights on NBC, that’ll happen again in 2016. And quite frankly we’re looking beyond that. What are we going to do in 2020 and ‘24? So it’s one of the most exciting and fun projects that we get to work on.

Rutemiller: If you want to share one of those ideas that didn’t work, I mean this would be your opportunity but, I’m kinda putting you on the spot there.

Wielgus: Well it it’s a story that some of the people that I work with know well. But I was asked to help run an event in 1982, that we called the National Snow Surfing Championships. And we held this event in Woodstock, Vermont. It was a miserable cold day, and we had 26 competitors. There was a guy named Jake Burton, there was another fellow named Tom Sims who went on to have a pretty big career in the skateboard industry. And when the event — actually my kitchen table was the start gate. [LAUGH] We turned it upside down.

Rutemiller: The four legs. So the legs came up and –

Wielgus: And that’s how the they started. And we all met in in the club house after, and they were after me to start planning the 1983 event, and I told them that the sport is going nowhere. And so fast forward 20 years and I get a call from the after party of the U.S. Open Snowboarding Championships, and they said we just want to talk to the [LAUGH] genius who told us our sport was going nowhere.

Rutemiller: [LAUGH] And the flying carrot’s in there somewhere.

Wielgus: Yeah.

Rutemiller: Yeah. When you look at all of the things that have to come across, how do you decide what ideas to go with and what ideas not to go with? What’s your MO? I mean, how do you get your staff and say, okay, guys, let’s run this up the flag pole? Obviously there must be a procedure.

Wielgus: Well the first thing, Brent, is we’re just fanatical about build, promote and achieve. And that anything we do is somehow connected to one or more of those three aspirational objectives. And then second, I think part of my responsibility is to be the guy on the bow of the boat who’s trying to see where the next opportunities are. And then trying to weigh what are the potentials? And so some things we’re gonna take a little bit of a risk on. Other things are sure bets. But it’s my job to keep driving that in and driving that train, and pushing people. So, you know, right now we’re looking at new opportunities to help promote swimming in the future. And I think that’s a big part of my responsibility.

Rutemiller: Do you consider yourself a risk taker?

Wielgus: Calculated risk taker. I’m not afraid to try things, but I always want to protect the organization. And we’ve had a few things that have failed in the past, but nothing’s ever failed financially. [LAUGH] And I think as a business man, that’s part of my fiduciary responsibility to the organization and to make sure whatever risk we take, we have a safety net.

Rutemiller: Looking at Boston now as the bid city for 2024, I guess, where does USA Swimming fit into this whole IOC, USOC and maybe that steps a little bit on FINA as far as helping these things happen and also voicing concerns?

Wielgus: Well, to be honest, we’re a real bit player in that whole, that whole thing. It would be a huge, huge, wonderful thing if Boston were awarded the Games because, first of all, it would bring the Games to the United States, and that’s gonna help with television, and sponsors, and the interest in all other sports will rise up. But it will be great for swimming and that’s a part of the country where we need more facilities. And the opportunity to have a new major facility in the New England area would be a huge boost to the sport in that region. So there are many reasons why we are rooting for Boston, but to be honest we don’t have a lot of say in how that plays out.

Rutemiller: Do you have much say in FINA, as far as what decisions they make and where they go with different things?

Wielgus: No.

Rutemiller: Do you have a representative that-

Wielgus: Yes. [LAUGH] I mean the challenge that the U.S. has with FINA is you’ve got, I think there’s like 202 nations that are a part of FINA. And we, as Americans, have to recognize that the rest of the world doesn’t operate the way we do necessarily with democratic principles. And with an openness and transparency, and we’re also not very well liked. And because U.S. Swimming has been on top of the swimming world for a long time, we’re in some ways resented. So politically on the international arena, it’s very difficult to get things done. Because, anything that the U.S. wants to have, everybody else thinks, well, we’re just trying to get another –

Rutemiller: This one brings a lot to the table for FINA. I mean there’s a lot that happens with the great athletes that are produced from the country and all of that. But are you looking forward to Rio? Where’s that on your radar? Are you thinking Rio now or are you going to turn the page come 2016?

Wielgus: Well, we’re thinking Rio, we’re thinking Tokyo in 2020, and we are always looking ahead but certainly the excitement for Rio is going to be around. Not only who are the athletes who we know will, we expect to do well. But who’s the next Katie Ledecky? Where’s that athlete going to come from? And that seems to always happen at Olympic Games.

Rutemiller: Isn’t that amazing?

Wielgus: Oh, it’s wonderful. It’s just absolutely wonderful. So, the performance of our athletes and who kind of pops up and is new on the scene, and also how the athletes represent our sport and our country. And that’s so important because, we see this significant bump in membership after the Olympic Games. It’s always our membership jumps 10, 11, 12% in the year after the Olympic Games, and it’s a direct result of what kids see on television. So, though our athletes are role models again, it goes back to the achievement, promoting, build, build, promoting, achieve. That rolling wheel.

Rutemiller: Yeah. It certainly does. Well the only thing right now that’s in the news is the starting time of the meet. 10 P.M. at night. And people are having a hard time getting their head around swimmers swimming for such a prestigious event, the ultimate in their sport. Getting in the water at ten and sometimes getting out at one in the morning. Do you have anything to add to that whole argument? Or that conversation?

Wielgus: Yeah, I don’t think — I have two comments. The first is, I don’t think our athletes and coaches think it’s that big of deal. Anybody that lived through the flip-flopping schedule in 2008, where we had preliminaries at night and finals in the morning, that really upset the apple cart and our athletes performed incredibly well. So we’ve taken the attitude of just tell us when we have to swim, and we’ll make sure we’re there and we’re ready, and I think that’s the attitude of our elite level athletes and coaches. And the second point I was going to make is this is: it’s also another example of how the rest of the world looks at the United States and says, well, they must — USA Swimming must have had something to do with that. We had nothing to do with that, but the rest of the world will think, well, that was just one more thing that the U.S. did and for some reason they think that’s an advantage for them. And so, it, it, you know, it politically gets used against us. But I don’t think, to be honest, I don’t think our top athletes and coaches are all that worried about it.

Rutemiller: But, it would seem to me that those people at that 10 o’clock in Rio might simply be six in the afternoon, six in the evening for somebody in Europe. So, wait a second, are we looking too hard at this, because my biological clock is gonna be working exactly at that time. So there’s a lot of ways to look at that.

Wielgus: There are, and this is why we immediately go from our Olympic Trials in to a domestic training camp, and then into an international training camp. So the Olympic team has the opportunity to transition on their biological clocks, and, and be ready for that. So, we, we’ve made those arrangements for 2016, and I’m sure our coaches will be ready.

Rutemiller: Awesome. So I think we can pretty much conclude with a lot of different things. But, maybe you can just give us what’s the greatest thing that you enjoy about this position that you have?

Wielgus: I just like working with the people who love the sport which I’ve grown to love. And whether it’s other staff members or volunteers, or athletes or coaches I just enjoy working with good people. And I fully accept the role that we’re, on the one hand, kind of servants to the sport. But on the other hand we’re expected to lead, and to carve new ground for the future. So, I think, finding that balance is just a great challenge. And I just, I enjoy that.

Rutemiller: And I enjoyed the interview. Thank you.

Wielgus: Thanks, Brent.

Rutemiller: Thank you very much.

Wielgus: Thanks.

Rutemiller: This is Brent Rutemiller saying, if you want to win, first help someone else win.

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Author: Brent Rutemiller

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CEO of International Swimming Hall of Fame and Publisher of Swimming World Magazine

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