Goodbye Chuck: The Improbable Survivor

Chuck Wielgus is resigning from his position of Executive Director of USA Swimming this summer. I've made no secret of my opinion of him over the years. Wielgus' leadership to me will always be defined by the "crisis" that brought him more attention than all his predecessors combined: that swimming had a huge culture problem. Coaches were and are abusing athletes. 

On this topic Wielgus leaves as a polarizing figure. His defenders paint him as a visionary leader who has lead USA Swimming to the forefront of the Olympic movement with the Safe Sport program. But being the most progressive Olympic sports organization on athlete welfare is no more impressive a claim than being the least corrupt politician in North Korea.

A growing "crisis" (again in quotes, because the revelations are treated as immediate and surprising, when they have been hiding in plain sight) is coming in gymnastics, one that will surely be pointed to in contrast to the steps already taken in swimming. 

Praise for the Safe Sport program and bureaucratic solutions miss the point: leadership matters. On this crucial factor, Wielgus proved himself to be part of the problem and never the solution. For every abusive coach who got slapped with a "lifetime ban" from the sport, there was Wielgus, the most well-paid swimming person in the United States, continuing to draw a salary.

Wielgus never abused any athletes, but his lack of courage and blinding hubris did plenty of damage. He let a National Team Director, Everett Uchiyama slink off to a local country club with a glowing recommendation after finding out he had sexually abused a minor. He sputtered so famously in the 20/20 interview where he was confronted with his own spinelessness that he largely avoided any non-sympathetic media since 2010.

He apologized years later, only after being shamed out of a Hall of Fame induction by an organized campaign. That he was able to retire on his own terms is largely due to the perceived financial leap swimming has made under his leadership. The budget of USA Swimming has grown dramatically.

How much of that growth has been fueled by a craven bilking of USA Swimming's huge membership? Under WIelgus' leadership, national, junior national and Olympic trial meets grew to gargantuan sizes. In 1996, the last Olympic trials before WIelgus' ascension, you could make an argument that Trials participants were true Olympic hopefuls. By 2008, the meet had become a tourist trip to Omaha for over a thousand swimmers.

The high attendance at such competitions has in turn been used to attract corporate sponsors. Wielgus' drew a huge salary, and his Colorado Springs counterparts were also rewarded handsomely for this. Despite all the "new: money brought in, the majority of elite athletes and coaches in the sport remain impoverished. Even the top level of elite swimming is resorting to fundraising their training expenses for 2020.

I met with Wielgus in 2011 at the Marriott Marquis. I was an assistant coach at Georgia Tech, and he was in town for that year's Duel in the Pool. By that time I had already suggested that he resign. Wielgus was angry about that, but confident in his own ability to charm me out of the notion. Only once did he let slip, casually suggesting that one of his sons wanted to "kick my ass".

That sentiment is the most humanity I saw that day. What child wouldn't feel defensive of their dad, having nearly lost him several times over to cancer? Having failed in his charm offensive a few emails later, I haven't heard from Wielgus since 2012. If I saw him again, I'd tell him he's one hell of survivor.