Chuck Wielgus Retires From USA Swimming, Leaves Monumental Legacy

Photo Courtesy: Swimming World

Chuck Wielgus, the Executive Director of USA Swimming, announced his retirement from the organization Wednesday. His retirement will be effective August 31, 2017. He has also served as CEO of the USA Swimming Foundation since 2004.

“This has been a long and difficult decision because I love USA Swimming and I have always approached my role with enthusiasm and passion. It has been an honor and a privilege to walk through the doors every day at USA Swimming with our dedicated and talented staff and work in service to our athletes, coaches, officials and volunteers who comprise the membership of our wonderful organization,” Wielgus said.

“I believe with all my heart that USA Swimming’s best years are ahead. I am confident that the work we have done these past two decades has established a firm foundation upon which future growth can occur.”

In a press release from USA Swimming, Board of Directors Chair Jim Sheehan, United States Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun and former NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol all shared their admiration for Wielgus.

“During his almost 20 years as Executive Director, Chuck has raised the bar for how a CEO in Olympic sports is measured. He has taken USA Swimming places no one could have imagined 20 years ago. From making our Olympic Trials into a world-class event and creating the USA Swimming Foundation to leading an NGB that has been the top producer of podium finishes at the Olympic Games, Chuck has done more than any other person for USA Swimming.” – Sheehan

“Swimming in the United States has never been stronger, and that is because of Chuck. He is a true sportsman, loving sport for how it makes us feel and how it brings us together. We are grateful for our successes together and look forward to seeing his good work make a difference in the lives of athletes for many years to come.” – Blackmun

“Chuck has built USA Swimming into the best national sports federation in the world, one of excellence and intelligence and heart and, above all, character. It’s been my honor and privilege to have Chuck as a friend, and to work together to help make the Olympic movement in America the envy of much of the rest the sporting world.” – Ebersol

A task force will be established by USA Swimming to conduct the search for the next Executive Director

Wielgus has faced a recurring battle with colon cancer over the past decade, and he wrote in a letter to USA Swimming members that his health was a primary reason for his retirement. He was first diagnosed with colon cancer in 2006 during the Christmas holidays. He made what appeared to be a full recovery at the time, thanks to daily radiation treatments and a 24-hour mobile intravenous chemo-injection system that he toted around his office for six weeks.

Wielgus would return to the organization in full force the next year, and he was at the helm when Michael Phelps won eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. He was named a finalist for the CEO position with the United States Olympic Committee in 2010. The job eventually went to Blackmun.

The cancer reappeared in 2011, and after complications from surgery, he took a medical leave of absence. According to a USA Swimming spokesperson at the time, Wielgus “remained highly engaged in the day-to-day business of USA Swimming.” Just over a year later in Nov. 2012, Wielgus announced at a Board of Directors meeting that he would again go on leave to begin aggressive treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

Since then, the cancer has returned and affected his life where Wielgus believes he can no longer fully function in his job.

“My cancer has metastasized to the point at which it is very difficult to travel, and international travel is impossible. I also anticipate going back onto chemotherapy in the near future and the side effects of the drug I’ll be taking are likely to impact my daily quality of life, and thus my ability to work and lead effectively,” Wielgus wrote in his letter to USA Swimming members.

During each of Wielgus’ absences from the organization, Mike Unger has taken over his day-to-day duties. USA Swimming later named Unger the Assistant Executive Director, the No. 2 behind Wielgus in the organizational power structure.

Wielgus returned to the organization and maintained his role as executive director. In 2015, Speedo named Wielgus on its list of #30MostSwimfluential, and in Feb. 2016, USA Swimming rewarded him with a contract extension that would run through the 2020 Olympics. Wielgus then presided over a successful summer in which American swimmers won 33 total medals, 16 of them gold, at the Olympics in Rio, and he described the banner year that was 2016 in his annual State of the Sport address in September.

Wielgus’ twenty-year run at USA Swimming has coincided with a massive period of growth for the sport. On a grassroots level, Key Wielgus hire Pat Hogan played a central role in restructuring and strengthening the club system as the Managing Director of Club Development. Wielgus also helped pioneer Make A Splash and hired the organization’s first diversity specialist with the goal of increasing opportunities for minority athletes. Under his direction, USA Swimming launched an online anti-bullying program to serve its members.

Wielgus took huge steps to increase swimming’s popularity and spectator-appeal. He pushed almost immediately for deals that would increase swimming’s television schedule, culminating with all eight nights of Olympic Trials being shown live on television since 2008. In 2016, seven of eight nights were broadcast on network television (NBC). Fans have now come to expect swimming on their television screens year-round.

Wielgus helped launch the Duel in the Pool against Australia back in 2003 as a made-for-TV event, and it has since become a biannual matchup of American and European swimmers. Prior to the 2013 edition of the meet in Glasgow, Scotland, he explained the detailed history of that event. Another Wielgus creation, the Golden Goggles, were a novelty when first conceived in 2004 but now an annual tradition that has lasted 13 years.

The Olympic Trials, at least in the public eye, figures to be Wielgus’ greatest legacy. Held in the IUPUI Natatorium (a 4700-seat venue) in 2000, USA Swimming moved the event four years later to a temporary 10,000-seat venue in a Long Beach, Calif., parking lot. That event proved so successful that four years later, Wielgus and USA Swimming opted for a temporary facility inside a 14,000-seat arena that more regularly serves as the home of the Division I Creighton men’s basketball team.

Trials has been held inside the CenturyLink Center three times: in 2008 (when the building was then known as the Quest Center), 2012 and 2016, and each night’s finals sessions sold out for the 2016 edition of the meet. Two days before that meet started, Wielgus likened Trials to the “Super Bowl” of swimming.

“Athletes are front and center with their performances. We’ve been able to build an experience around that, an atmosphere that has this become a legitimate, major sporting event,” Wielgus said in June.

Wielgus helped provide previously-unforeseeable opportunities for professional swimmers. Through the USA Swimming Foundation, he helped increase year-round funding for post-collegiate athletes, and USA Swimming’s marketing utilizes top athletes and reimburses them for their services. In the past decade, the Grand Prix Series—later renamed the Arena Pro Swim Series—has turned into a legitimate source of revenue for professional swimmers.

Outside of the pool, there have been some bumps during Wielgus’ tenure. In 2010, USA Swimming was thrown into the center of a sexual abuse allegations that propelled Wielgus into the media spotlight.

A 20/20 report on ABC News painted a picture that the sport is a safe haven for sexual predators and that USA Swimming has not done enough about the issue. The most damning part of the televised segment, a sound bite which ABC News ran at least three separate times during its investigatory report, was a drastic misstep by Wielgus where he refused to apologize on behalf of USA Swimming for any issues within the sport.

Soon thereafter, Wielgus issued a letter to USA Swimming member coaches regarding sexual abuse within the sport of swimming in the U.S. USA Swimming went on to create new safeguards for the sport in what has become a model for Olympic sports in the country. Wielgus hired Susan Woessner to oversee the department and also partnered with the Child Welfare League of America.

Internationally, Wielgus and USA Swimming were key forces in pushing for the ban of polyurethane and full-body suits in 2009, and he reiterated this past summer that he hopes FINA will keep swimsuit regulations as they currently are. He also pushed for safety regulations for open water races in the wake of Fran Crippen’s death in 2010, and he later threatened an American boycott of any FINA open water race in the United Arab Emirates.

Wielgus helped bring several championship meets to the U.S., including the 2004 FINA Short Course World Championships in Indianapolis and the 2010 Pan Pacific Championships in Irvine, Calif. USA Swimming is scheduled to host the FINA Junior World Championships this summer in Indianapolis.

In 2014, Wielgus visited the Swimming World studios and sat down with publisher Brent Rutemiller for a 32-minute video interview. Watch below to hear Wielgus’ thoughts on his tenure, safeguards against abuse, FINA, the Olympics and more.

American Swim Coaches Association Executive Director John Leonard reacted to the news. In an email to Swimming World, he wrote:

It’s hard to believe in much these days.
I believe in Chuck Wielgus.
I believed in him from the first lunch we had before he took the job way back around 1999.
I believe in him today. I believe he’s the best executive in all of Olympic Sport.
I don’t believe in him because he’s been perfect.
I believe in him because he hasn’t.
And he hasn’t because he has (largely) taken on the HARD STUFF.
I always cajoled him to take on more, but he knew which battles to fight better than I did.
I cajoled him because he was an effective and tough fighter. And we needed him.
And when you take on the hard stuff, you fail, you falter sometimes.
The alternative is collect your paycheck and go home each night, fat and happy.
Chuck never did that.
Never has one man been so willing to listen and consider the opinions of others.
And act on them.
And he has been the best friend the American Coaching community has ever had.
I hope I won’t ever have to say “or will have.”. WE have to make sure that is not true.
Chuck’s separation of coaching from his realm of decision making power, is one
of the most powerful decisions any Olympic Executive ever made.
God Bless You Chuck. You have certainly blessed each and every one of us.

I love the man, I love the friend. THANK YOU Chuck. JL

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