Well, it may finally happen. After decades under the leadership/moral pit of despair that is John Leonard, the American Swim Coaches Association is looking for new leadership. Leonard, we’re told, will step down in 2020.
Let me first say that Katinka Hosszu is absolutely right. Swimming is not a professional sport. Although she herself has been able to make a profession out of it through pure prize money, and yet others have strung together enough sponsorships to stay afloat, there is nothing resembling what we consider a true professional class in swimming.
She is right to rail against FINA, which is absolutely corrupt to the core and disinterested in creating a professional sport. Likewise, we should not look to the governing bodies, who invest far more heavily in non-swimming personnel than directly funding athletes. She is right to say that "it has always been right in front of us"
Swimming is a sport where sizable amounts of money changes hands, but surprisingly very little of it gets into the pockets of the people who add the most value to the sport. The bureaucracies we have in place are designed to enrich a select few, and leave the rest fighting each other over scraps.
It's not surprising that some swimmers whined and complained for the rule changes to World Cups that hurt someone like Hosszu. They are fighting for the survival of their meager professional careers. Two things are obvious:
A swimmer of Hosszu's stature should not have to compete for prize money to make a living in the first place. She is right to be firing off at the power players in Hungarian Swimming, who have had little to do with her success but nevertheless are enriched for it while she hustles every weekend.
When I coached in Denmark, Lotte Friis, the woman who almost beat Ledecky, was barely able to sustain her swimming career to the 2016 Olympics. I helped to broker a meager sponsorship through a private donor to help her continue to train and prepare. What did we get in exchange? We got our club represented by one of the most selfless, wonderful athletes our sport has ever seen.
Many were critical. "What a waste of money" they said. I couldn't disagree more. We should all, from the ground up, be looking for ways to support the elite athletes of our support to a manageable level. My only regret was that we weren't able to find a way to support Lotte more. Only then will we see more athletes with the security to put on a show the way Hosszu has done for so many years.
Only when we make it inevitable from the very bottom of swimming's bureaucracy do we have a chance of breaking the stranglehold of corruption that holds all of us down. We cannot wait for federations, or USA Swimming, or FINA or (ugh) ASCA.
Athletes may form a union, but that union will be useless unless the rest of us, the rank and file of the swimming world, rally behind them wherever we can. We need to see supporting the top level of swimming as valuable to every level below it, not as some petty waste of resources.
Hundreds of times, I've uttered the sentence "I didn't get into this sport to get rich" to a fellow coach. There's always a knowing laugh on the other end. Most swim coaches get into this sport because they love it, and they love sharing that love with others. The feeling of doing so is so addictive that they will even go so far as to threaten their own health to get that fix.
So it makes absolutely no sense that many coaches, with so little in personal resources, let an organization like the American Swim Coaches Association (ASCA) have some of those resources. The organization persists for all the wrong reasons.
I'm writing this knowing it paints a target on my back. The American Swimming Coaches Association, and its Executive Director John Leonard, hold immense sway in the world of swimming.
Leonard is a con-man. He paints himself as a crusader against corruption. He is corrupt. With one hand he rails about drugs in the sport, a safe "controversy" as you would be hard pressed to find any American swim coach with a "pro-doping" stance. With his other hand, he fights the culture change swimming so desperately needs.
John Trembley, MItch Ivey, RIck Curl are just a few of the big names that could rely on Leonard/ASCA's support right up to the very end. Joe Bernal got inducted into the ASCA Hall of Fame a few months before being banned by USA Swimming.
The more benign con of John Leonard and ASCA is that they institutionalized themselves to such a degree that even ethical, well meaning coaches often feel compelled to dance for ASCA. Look at nearly any club coaching position and you will find some sort of "ASCA level" in the job qualifications.
I don't blame the parent boards who include ASCA certifications in job postings. They are desperate for some sort of independent body to tell them whether a coach knows there stuff. Unfortunately, the ASCA education program, and even the performance qualifications for coaches to reach levels, is no such guarantee.
The final piece of the puzzle is ASCA's annual convention. Again, many ethical, fine coaches feel compelled to attend. It's the biggest such gathering of swim coaches in the United States, and almost nobody goes to conventions for the talks. They go to be in the same space with other people who are doing the same thing. They go for the social scene.
However, as long as the good coaches out there hand over their hard earned cash to ASCA it will continue to exist in present form. There's nothing inherently wrong with a coaches organization, an educational program for coaches, and the people in it. But ASCA is not the organization swim coaches deserve.
It's time to choke it off, so please stop sending money for useless certifications and plan your own weekend getaway with coaches you like. You'll be doing something really great for the sport of swimming.