Former USA Swimming President Carol Zaleski, ISHOF Class of 2022, Retires After 45 Years in Swimming

carol zaleski
Photo Courtesy: Matthew Stockman

International Swimming Hall of Fame Class of 2022 member Carol Zaleski has retired from swimming after 45 years in the sport.

Zaleski began her career as a volunteer and worked her way up to leadership positions within USA Swimming and FINA during her more than four decades in swimming.

Zaleski will join ISHOF’s Class of 2022 as an Honor Contributor, joining 10 other aquatic greats who will be enshrined in Ft. Lauderdale on Saturday night, Oct. 15, 2022.

Zaleski was elected President of UANA in 2003 and served as Vice President. On the World Championships level, she was Competition Director at two editions, 1991-Perth and 1994-Rome. On the Olympic level, she served as Meet Referee at two Games, 1984-Los Angeles and 1988-Seoul, and was the Competition Director at four Games, 1992-Barcelona, 1996-Atlanta, 2000-Sydney, 2004-Athens.  In addition, she was the first female referee both at a FINA World Championships and an Olympic Games.

Carol Zaleski has been both President of USA Swimming and President of the United States Aquatic Sports.

Zaleski’s journey started more than four decades ago.

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 told USA 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.

“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.”

According to USA Swimming, in her first term as president, Carol 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.

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, Carol 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.

“No question about it, I pushed some boundaries,” Carol Zaleski said. “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).

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Jorge aguado
Jorge aguado
1 year ago

Hats off Carol.

1 year ago

Carol is a first class person… always a giver. Congratulations to her

Stephanie Veenis
Stephanie Veenis
1 year ago

An amazing woman, wife, mother, grandmother, and friend. I am proud to call you my friend.