My wife Alli asked me, “Are you sure? You have poured your heart into USMS and given so much. You love it and have so many relationships. We’d like to have you home more but we’ll be fine if this isn’t what you want to do.” The topic was whether I was going to leave USMS for the Swim Across America opportunity.
I vividly remember the USMS Executive Director interview process. It was intense, more mentally challenging than any exams I took in grad school. To the selection committee’s credit, an intense interview process was both intentional and necessary—whoever was hired as executive director was taking on a responsibility that was much greater than simply finding office space and beginning to generate new revenue through sponsorship sales.
Leading USMS is both science and art. The science part is fairly easy to quantify. Our logo was outdated so we created a new one that presents a more inclusive image. We created a Masters Coach certification program that reaches more than 500 coaches each year. Our magazine had been outsourced and wasn’t meeting our quality standards so we brought it in-house to have full control. We now measure member satisfaction as it relates to SWIMMER magazine, and many other programs, ensuring their relevancy.
The art of leading USMS, however, requires a very different skill set. Leading a nonprofit is not for the faint of heart. With boards that have term limits, turnover of the nonprofit leadership typically occurs somewhere in the three-to five-year range, so the original board that’s done the hiring is leaving and a new board comes in with its own ideas and visions of a leader.
Nonetheless, I showed a “fire in the belly” during the interview process and was hired. My charge was to implement a transformation process from a mostly volunteer-operated organization to one that would be professionally managed. Since USMS had been volunteer-operated for more than three decades, the transformation was not going to be overnight. And surely there would be speed bumps and even some brick walls.
In my eighth year as executive director, I reflect with pride on my time spent leading USMS. I am most proud of the National Office team we’ve assembled. They are passionate. They don’t have culture-destroying egos. Every day they ask “What can we do to make USMS better?”
And the scoreboard displays their many accomplishments. In Lane 3 are our member programs, which have increased our retention rates to nearly 70%; Lane 4 is our education group, which is helping coaches and instructors deliver a better Masters Swimming experience for members across the country; Lane 5 are our communications and publications, from SWIMMER magazine to our digital content that inspires and encourages adults to swim; and Lane 6 is our Swimming Saves Lives Foundation, which is providing adult learn-to-swim opportunities in communities across the country.
So if all is going well—and I survived the five-year mark with a new board supportive of my leadership—why leave?
My ethos is faith, family, and then career. Although there will be travel for Swim Across America, I will be home more with my family and remain within driving distance of Alli’s and my extended families. Our twins are four years old. In a blink, they’ll be off to college.
I evaluate my career options on several criteria: Is it a mission that I believe in? Is the culture a mutual fit? Is it a place I can grow and see myself making sustained positive contributions? To Alli’s question, after thoughtful consideration, my answer was yes.
I care deeply for USMS. I wake up every morning thankful that USMS and my life intersected. We found each other at the right time. I will forever cherish the relationships, stories, and accomplishments we’ve made and I will continue to be an enthusiastic ambassador for Masters Swimming.
Footnote: My last day as executive director will be December 31, 2015 providing time for me to help USMS find a successor and transition knowledge.
Updated September 25th, 2015 at 01:49 AM by Rob Butcher
Tuesday, August 4, was a busy and important day for us. Many of our staffers and volunteers were traveling to Cleveland for the 2015 USMS Summer National Championship to support the 963 Masters swimmers who would be competing.
Nationals week is both fun and stressful for our staff. On the fun ledger, we get to spend time with our volunteers and sponsor partners, cheer for the first-timers, and share inspiring stories and images via social media. Of course our Spring and Summer Nationals come with stress: Livestreaming is an all-day, manually operated job that can have unexpected delivery challenges, and most of the physical set up and breakdown starts daily before dawn and goes well into the nighttime hours.
Something else happened on August 4. I got the first glimpse of its impact when my phone buzzed at 5:15 a.m., with an image of the front page of the Wall Street Journal Health & Wellness section headline “The Joy of Masters Swimming.” With a 2,400,000 circulation, WSJ is the largest printed newspaper. Throughout the day, as I was driving to Cleveland for the Summer Nationals, I received a steady stream of texts and phone calls. Coaches, partners, and members who saw the story offered congratulations and praise for the article’s message.
Although I had spent a good deal of time on the phone with the reporter Kevin Helliker, I didn’t know what he was going to write and I didn’t know that the piece would be on the front page. During our conversation, Kevin observed that the USMS business model is distinctly different than other participation sports such as triathlon, Tough Mudder, and Color Runs. Those organizations have seen large participation increases due primarily to an event growth strategy.
USMS, by contrast, still offers relatively the same number of events at about the same level of participation as we did 10 years ago. In fact, the number of USMS open water sanctioned events is down from just five years ago. Yet, since 2005, USMS membership has increased from 42,490 to more than 63,000 members. Which provoked Kevin to ask this question: “Has USMS growth been intentional or by accident?”
Well, the answer is intentional, but with the long view, and without compromising the experiences we are providing to our members.
With resources provided by our Board of Directors and House of Delegates, we’ve made sustained and conscious investments into areas that are creating a more inclusive USMS. We rebranded in 2009 with an identity welcoming to any adult who wants to swim. Content in SWIMMER magazine and at usms.org resonates with all swimmers: those new to swimming, triathletes, those rediscovering swimming after a long break, and competitive swimmers. Nearly 1,500 coaches and instructors have attended our Masters coach certification teachings in the past four years. Our Adult Learn-to-Swim Instructor Program, launched this year, has certified 230 instructors. The past two years, our Swimming Saves Lives Foundation program partners have served nearly 5,000 adults with introductory swim lessons.
So yes, it’s our intention to grow, but to do so mindfully with inclusive programs for our members, and by supporting our coaches, instructors, and aquatic directors—the influencers who are having a direct impact in the daily experience that our members have through our 1,500 local Masters Swimming programs across the country. By doing so, we hope to foster a welcoming culture so more adults can experience the joy of Masters Swimming, as shared by the excellent Wall Street Journal piece, and as narrated by Rowdy Gaines in “Masters Swimming is a Journey."
Updated August 13th, 2015 at 04:31 PM by Editor
Each July, the USMS Board of Directors meets face-to-face for our summer meeting. The week leading into the board meeting, our National Office staff meets for its annual retreat. The retreat is an opportunity for our contractors, remote staff, and Sarasota staff to come together in one location, review the past year, plan for the next year, and continue preparations for our annual meeting.
Within retreat week, we set aside a day when all the staff goes offsite for team learning. Last year, we visited IMG Academy in Bradenton and learned from a renowned sports psychologist how great athletes overcome adversity. We also participated in an improv roleplaying exercise that pushed our comfort zones and required us to show vulnerability and trust in each other.
This year, a communications expert educated us on the concept of “emotional hijacking” and how we can help to prevent it. Emotional hijacking occurs as a result of an event, such as another driver cutting us off in traffic, and our perception of it. The perception we have or story we tell ourselves about the event can create an emotional hijack situation when our reaction—positive, negative, or neutral—may result in an undesirable consequence.
Learning is a promoted value in the USMS Strategic Plan. Our employees are encouraged to seek out professional learning opportunities. For example, CFO Susan Kuhlman is a member of the Sarasota CFO Network and participated this year in a 15-week Leadership Sarasota program. Marketing Director Kyle Deery has attended Sports Business Journal Marketing and TEAMS Conferences. Our IT team of Jeff Perout, Jim Kryka, Nancy Kryka and IT Director Jim Matysek last fall attended a PHP technology conference in Washington, D.C., where they were able to network with like-minded IT professionals and learn about industry trends. Communications and Publications Director Laura Hamel has attended workshops and developed meaningful relationships with the faculty of the Poynter Institute, the global leader in journalism education. At our annual meeting, our staff members are encouraged to seek out their peers from the other aquatic disciplines so relationships and opportunities for collaboration can be developed.
Our values are meaningless if we don’t support them. Providing opportunities for learning fosters a positive culture where employees want to work and are appreciated. We budget for professional learning activities, and I encourage our staffers to participate in them because they're valuable and necessary for individual and professional growth. Employees return from these learning experiences with an appreciative attitude and have enjoyed sharing these experiences with their colleagues.
One of the biggest rewards of having a staff that is learning and positive is better service to and relationships with our constituency of 63,000+ members, hundreds of engaged volunteers, and numerous other partners and supporters.
Updated August 13th, 2015 at 05:06 PM by Editor
July 10, 2015, is circled and underscored on the USMS calendar; it’s an important date for anyone who has interest in USMS’s dry side operations.
Why? Because July 10 is the deadline for legislation and rules proposals to be submitted for consideration, discussion, and voting at this year’s annual meeting in Kansas City, Mo., to be held Sept. 30–Oct. 4, as part of the 2015 United States Aquatic Sports Convention.
Every fall, the USMS House of Delegates convenes at the USAS Convention to conduct its required responsibilities: elect officers, adopt the USMS budget, and vote on issues within the USMS Rule Book.
The Rule Book contains the legislation and rules of our competitions and the HOD—composed of approximately 250 USMS members—meets each year to discuss additions, changes, and deletions to the Rule Book. All USMS members can suggest legislation or rule changes to their LMSCs, which, in turn, will decide if it will sponsor the suggestion to the HOD.
Some changes can take years to pass. For example, it took five years for the HOD to come to agreement on relay age groups for short course yards. It took two years for the HOD to vote in favor of adding the 18–24 age group.
Last year, 25-yard swims and 100-yard relays were proposed by the Indiana LMSC and voted on by the HOD. It fell two votes short of meeting the required two-thirds vote to be adopted. Those who proposed the rule were encouraged that it had come so close to passing on its first try.
To some, the USMS democratic process, which often includes debate among 250 or so passionate volunteer delegates, can be a frustrating process. But in this structure, lies the opportunity for any USMS member to be heard.
Why do I bring all this up, you ask?
My contact information is published on usms.org and I enjoy hearing from members. Many letters pay compliments to our programs and services and members write to tell me how their Masters Swimming experience has changed their lives. Of course I love reading those emails.
But I’m also grateful and interested to hear from members offering constructive criticism: suggestions for new programs or benefits, or recommended policy changes. Whether I agree or disagree, I appreciate the feedback.
One topic that’s been appearing with more frequency in my inbox is the recommendation that USMS implement drug testing for Masters swimmers who are competing at the highest levels. My response to these members is this:
If you have a piece of legislation or rule that you believe USMS should adopt, please contact your LMSC representatives. They can help you with the process of submitting the suggestion. Just remember to have your submission in by July 10 if you want the House of Delegates to consider it.
Updated June 5th, 2015 at 03:03 PM by Rob Butcher
USMS has become the leader in the adult aquatics movement because of the secret ingredient in our sauce: our volunteers.
Last week, more than 400 volunteers in San Antonio gave of their time as officials, timers, greeters, on-deck coaches, and awards liaisons so Masters swimmers could enjoy a first class Nationwide USMS Spring National Championship.
We have 52 Local Masters Swimming Committees throughout the United States, operated by hundreds of volunteers making sure sanctions are approved and Top 10 times are recorded and countless other tasks. And many Masters clubs and workout groups would cease to exist were it not for the numerous volunteer coaches giving of their time so other adults can benefit.
If you feel a desire to volunteer but haven’t yet found the right opportunity, I encourage you to consider helping another adult learn to swim. While our adult learn-to-swim campaign is most visible during the month of April, teaching adults to swim is a year-round cause.
On the center of the usms.org home page are four words: Encouraging adults to swim. The CDC estimates 37% of American adults can’t swim the length of a swimming pool. If we’re going to encourage adults to swim, we have a responsibility to help those who can’t by creating opportunities to learn.
Teaching adults is different than teaching kids. Often, adults have to overcome longtime fears or self-doubt just to make it to the first lesson. Putting a bathing suit on for the first time and placing their trust in another adult is a big commitment, for both the adult learner and the instructor—teaching an adult to swim requires empathy and patience.
USMS has free resources to help Masters Swimming programs that want to participate in the adult learn-to-swim initiative. We also have a professionally taught adult learn-to-swim instructor certification program, which is available to any USMS member who wants to experience the rewards of sharing our sport.
Every month, my inbox is filled with emails and pictures from adults expressing gratitude and a renewed sense of self worth because they’ve learned to swim. I read the letters and feel the empowerment and victory in their words. It’s a gift that wouldn’t have been possible without Masters swimmer volunteers.
If you know how to swim and want to give back—if this message has stirred you—then please volunteer to teach another adult. As much as the adult learner will benefit, you, too, will receive the gift of making a significant difference in someone’s life by sharing the opportunity to experience the lifelong benefits of swimming.
Last summer, I was on the phone with Gail Dummer, the chair of the Michigan Local Masters Swimming Committee. A longtime USA Swimming and USMS volunteer, Gail suggested USMS create a leadership summit for our LMSC chairs. Like the character Rod Tidwell says to Tom Cruise in the movie Jerry Maguire, “You had me (and USMS President Nadine Day) at hello.”
The inaugural USMS LMSC Leadership Summit was held March 13 through 15 in Phoenix and 41 of our 52 LMSCs sent representatives. Summit objectives included networking, exchange of ideas, education, communication, motivation, recognizing volunteers, and understanding governance. Sitting in the back row, I observed three things:
1. This first LMSC Leadership Summit was a significant undertaking that required an extraordinary team effort. The 11-member task force responsible for the planning and execution included chairs from large, medium, and small LMSCs. They came from the east coast and the west coast. Some are fitness swimmers and some are competitive. The task force was diverse. Healthy debate took place during the planning stages, and the task force members espoused the USMS values of respect and fun. They consciously listened, keeping their egos in check, both individually and as a group: The first agenda item of the planning task force was to survey our 52 LMSCs asking for input, suggestions, and ideas to shape the summit agenda. The desired outcome for the summit weekend was a conversation between our LMSC leaders, not a weekend lecture from the pulpit.
2. Serving Masters Swimming programs, members, coaches, and instructors is a partnership, with all the partners having responsibilities in the relationship. The National Office can’t do it all and neither can the LMSCs. We are each entrusted with resources that allow us to serve and advance our vision to be the premiere resource for adult swimming and to make fitness through swimming available for as many adults as possible. We can only fulfill this vision through a commitment to and respect for our partnership.
3. Many LMSCs have relatively new volunteer leaders and more are seeking new leadership. Another generation of leaders is emerging. Building upon successes of past leaders, the new ones are socializing and pioneering ideas to grow Masters Swimming. Our culture is evolving, and these committed and passionate leaders are excited to share their love of swimming with our members and invite others to join us and start their own Masters Swimming journeys.
Many thanks to the 54 volunteers who gave up time from their families and swimming activities to attend our first LMSC Leadership Summit. And one final observation: I’m confident that Masters Swimming will reap many dividends from the Summit experience.
“Swim whisperer.” This is what I call someone who can calmly and maturely communicate with an upset member and turn a negative communication into a positive one.
I was included in a recent email exchange between a member and an LMSC chair. The member was initially antagonistic, and the chair took the time to respond in a personal and respectful manner. This response turned things around dramatically and the previously upset member, in kind, responded in a mature and thoughtful way after seeing the chair’s “swim whisperer” response.
Dear [USMS Member],
I was forwarded your comment on your USMS registration: “$47!?!? What a scam!” and I was requested to give you a reply. I’m sorry you feel this way toward the membership. You registered with [ABC] club, so I assume you swim with [ABC]. I suspect you pay more in a month for parking at the pool than the USMS registration. [ABC] club will not let us use their pool without a registered and insured organization—that is just one thing USMS provides. The insurance is only valid if all the Masters swimmers are registered with USMS. This insurance not only protects the facility and coaches (some who are volunteering to coach you), but provides liability insurance for the swimmers if they have no other insurance. You’d certainly pay more for a membership at the [XYZ] club (very expensive), or the … YMCA for $53/month. Of course, you may be able to find some pools that have free admission (lifeguards paid by taxes ... when they can be open for their limited hours and likely no coach or other adults too support you).
I usually feel insurance is a scam, too—no question it’s a “for big profit” business. But USMS offers much more than that. Our Masters Swimming programs are geared for adults who want to swim with others, swim for fitness, swim for competition, swim just to learn to be safer in the water, and we think it’s a benefit to have knowledgeable coaches on deck. When you travel, there’s a network of USMS programs around the country where you can swim with others. You also get a bimonthly magazine with swim information, swimming tips, health tips, and more, and a monthly eNewsletter. You can go online to usms.org and create a fitness log online to track your workouts. There are also ePostal events in which you can participate.
The [LMSC] only gets $10 of the $47 annual fee. In addition to maintaining a Masters Swimming organization here in [LMSC], we also put on … swim meets this year for free, which required paying some officials, renting the facility, etc.
We do regret we can’t do more for open water swimming, but the restrictions for a USMS-insured event just don’t mesh with the opportunities provided by the open water events already offered. There also aren’t enough participants….
If you still feel this is a scam, I’m sorry and hope you find another less expensive way to swim.
Dear [LMSC chair],
I appreciate your taking the time to detail thoroughly the benefits afforded to me through the USMS registration. I apologize for my tone in my comment during the registration process. I felt that I had been “nickeled and dimed” on another issue earlier in the day and wasn’t in the most pleasant of moods when registering with USMS. Your taking the time to write me is in some odd way worth the registration fee to me in itself.
Dear [USMS Member],
Thank you for your reply. We’ve all had days like you describe, where it’s hard to contain frustrations that sometimes come out of nowhere. As it happens, that’s one thing swimming helps me with personally—relaxing my mind … on those tough days. Thanks for joining Masters. I think it’s the cheapest “health insurance” there is.
My personal thanks to this wise LMSC chair who recognized an opportunity and took a little extra time to help this member understand the value of membership and community of Masters Swimming.
Updated February 25th, 2015 at 09:36 AM by Rob Butcher
“Dear Rob, I received a swim cap, bag tag and desk statue from USMS for my $100 contribution to the Swimming Saves Lives Foundation. By my math, you probably spent $30 on all this stuff (including postage). I expect when I make a donation that the contribution will go toward the cause and not be wasted like this.”
So went an email I received recently. This writer brings up a good point, one that other Swimming Saves Lives Foundation donors may have wondered about.
The good news is, 100 percent of donations to SSLF go to its core objectives: raising awareness and providing funding for adult learn-to-swim programs. Allow me to explain.
In 2010, we established the Swimming Saves Lives Foundation as a structured committee under the USMS nonprofit umbrella. By establishing SSLF as a committee under USMS, rather than a standalone nonprofit, we avoided the time consuming and expensive process to set up and maintain a nonprofit: monthly, quarterly, and annual tax filings, independent CPA firm audits, insurance, legal, seated board of directors, bylaws, etc. These processes are already in place for USMS as it was incorporated in 1978 as a 501(c)3 nonprofit.
This model allows USMS to absorb 100% of the costs to operate SSLF, which includes presenting donors with thank-you gifts and building the SSLF brand with bag tags, swim caps, and other items that can be displayed; as well as providing goggles, caps, and banners to program partners who are doing the core work: teaching adults to swim.
Thus, 100% of contributions made to SSLF go to a dedicated account for the benefit of SSLF. Our hope is that once adults learn to swim or improve their swimming skills, they’ll have the confidence and desire to continue swimming in a Masters Swimming program and experience the lifelong benefits of swimming.
Over the past two years, SSLF has awarded $110,000 in grants to more than 30 partners who are teaching adults to swim and providing opportunities for those adults to continue swimming once they learn. Each year the demand for grant support grows—the number of applications totaled more than 50 this past year.
The $110,000 provided was received from more than 6,000 USMS members who have generously made contributions to SSLF the past two years. If SSLF wasn’t under the USMS nonprofit umbrella, the costs to operate it as a standalone nonprofit would be so high that our ability to give and make a difference would be greatly diminished.
Experts have advised us that this model—SSLF under the USMS umbrella with USMS absorbing the costs—is the best strategy to make the greatest impact on our cause. Once SSLF reaches a base of about $2 million in its account, when it can potentially be self-sustaining, it would then make sense to review SSLF becoming a standalone nonprofit. As of January 1, 2015, the SSLF account has accumulated a balance of approximately $260,000.
There’s one other important point that should please donors and reinforce our support for SSLF: 100 percent of the USMS Board of Directors and 100 percent of the USMS National Office staff contributes to the Swimming Saves Lives Foundation.
Updated January 7th, 2015 at 12:57 PM by Rob Butcher
It was Thursday, November 13, around 3 p.m., when I received a concerning voice mail, “Rob, please call me. Laura’s been in an accident.”
Many Masters swimmers know Laura Hamel from her editorials in SWIMMER magazine, our glossy print publication that she leads. Although her official title is Communications and Publications Director, she is so much more to us.
I met Laura in 2008. She was a Masters swimmer and volunteer with a grassroots committee that was making the case for USMS to establish its headquarters in Sarasota. The proposal that Laura authored and submitted made a great impression. It was professionally produced and spoke to the opportunities available to USMS if it were headquartered in Sarasota. Indeed, our Board of Directors selected Sarasota, and I went on several location scouting trips with Laura.
During that time, I learned that she was raising a son, also a swimmer, and that she had gone back to college in her 30s, earning a degree in organizational studies from Eckerd College. An overachiever, Laura graduated with a 4.0 GPA. She had then gone on to build a successful consulting practice helping small local businesses create their communications and publications strategies in an evolving business climate in which a digital presence was crucial to their success. She also wrote and edited for a variety of media and organizations.
When Laura wasn’t working or swimming and volunteering with her local USMS program, she was volunteering as a USA Swimming official for her son’s swim meets. I also learned that prior to going back to college, she’d been a police officer—a street cop no less—for 10 years. All of this explains her attention to detail, time management, and organizational skills. (And her occasionally colorful language.)
When Laura joined the USMS staff in 2009, our “office” was the local Whole Foods lounge, as renovations were ongoing at the USMS headquarters and we hadn’t yet taken occupancy. My dad taught me a valuable lesson that applies to my respect for Laura; you really discover someone’s true character when things are messy and unpredictable. Well, during that period, there were many unknowns, including our ability to migrate SWIMMER magazine from an outsourced publication to one that we produced in-house.
Bringing SWIMMER in-house was the first and our most important step in our long-term plan to be in control of our content so that we could fulfill our vision to become the trusted resource for adult aquatics. The membership had provided us resources with the dues increase so that we could improve programs and services. Our reputation would, understandably, be in question if we couldn’t seamlessly transition SWIMMER to the national office while at the same time enhancing the quality of the publication that bears our name. Results were expected and excuses not tolerated.
I’m incredibly proud, and from the comments we continue to receive from members and constituents, they are too, of the work that Laura has accomplished and continues to deliver as SWIMMER magazine is the trusted voice for the adult swimming community.
After changes to SWIMMER were under way, Laura began to take on other responsibilities, such as creating our STREAMLINES eNewsletters, of which we produce 30 issues a year; establishing our social media programs; archiving our rich digital assets; scripting and helping produce award-winning videos that bring the Masters Swimming story to life, helping to redesign our flagship digital property, usms.org; and most recently, the PR efforts for our April is Adult Learn-to-Swim Month campaign. Her fingerprints are on creative projects that come out of the national office.
There’s a truism that you can have great strategy, but if you have the wrong people, the strategy will fail. The reason our communications and publications programs have succeeded, and so many of our other programs for that matter, is because we have all-star professionals such as Laura Hamel.
So, about that call from the emergency room on November 13. After a road bike crash that would have had tragic consequences if not for a good helmet, Laura is doing well but has a long road ahead of her with shoulder rehab. At a recent staff meeting, I had to chuckle to hear her say, “You know, I really don’t have time to be on the shelf. We have so much good going on and I want to continue to be part of it all.”
So, my tongue-and-cheek advice to Laura is: stick to the water! Because we do, too, we do, too.
Instinctually, I knew it. Surveys and feedback confirmed it: coaches have great impact on the tens of thousands of adults who are members of USMS.
Coaches who are welcoming, knowledgeable, and have empathy will retain and attract more adults to their Masters Swimming programs. Coaches who are aloof, inattentive, or unwelcoming will likely find their Masters Swimming programs headed toward extinction. We seek to support coaches and give them the tools they need to become better coaches and ambassadors for U.S. Masters Swimming.
USMS Takes Responsibility
In December of 2008, Chris Colburn, the Coaches Committee Chair at the time, Mel Goldstein, a past USMS president and current USMS coach educator, and I went to visit the American Swimming Coaches Association at its offices in Ft. Lauderdale. ASCA had administered a USMS coach certification program, which was offered as a self-study. The self-study course was written in 1997 by a group of USMS volunteers. Unfortunately, it hadn’t been updated in a decade and was no longer relevant. ASCA didn’t have the knowledge or resources to create a new Masters coach certification program, so we made the decision to take responsibility for the Masters coach education program.
John Leonard, ASCA’s executive director, imparted some sage wisdom as we embarked on the project: “Teach your coaches how a USMS program can generate revenue and teach pool operators how offering a Masters Swimming program can be beneficial to them.”
Three Days in Indianapolis
In the spring of 2009, USMS coaches Mel Goldstein, Lisa Dahl, Susan Ingraham, and Jim Halstead; and Mark Gill, USMS business development manager at the time, and I bunkered in a conference room in Indianapolis. We ate pizza, drank diet cokes, debated, scribbled thoughts on the white board, and planned. Over the course of three days we drafted a set of expectations, a blueprint, and a timeline for a new USMS coach certification program. We envisioned five levels to the program, with a goal of teaching the first two levels at the 2010 ASCA World Clinic.
We made an important decision that we continue to abide by today: our certifications would only be taught in live, classroom environments. USMS was prepared to make significant time and financial commitments to a traveling coach education program, believing that not only would the coaches receiving the education benefit more, but also that we would realize value in networking with Masters Swimming coaches—we knew the information needed to flow both ways and the most beneficial method would be face-to-face.
Here We Go
At the 2010 ASCA World Clinic, we unveiled our Level 1 and Level 2 certifications, taught by USMS coaches Frank Marcinkowski, Lisa Dahl, Susan Ingraham, Scott Bay, and Mel Goldstein. Those of us involved in developing the curriculum were bleary-eyed from months of looking at it and we asked the class to make recommendations for improvements. The 30 or so coaches in attendance provided great feedback with an overarching theme that resonated loudly: Masters Swimming coaches crave education and resources that will help them become better coaches and more successful at running their programs.
Since 2010, under the direction of USMS Education Director Bill Brenner, we’ve offered more than 90 teaching weekends and nearly 2,000 coaches have completed the Level 1 program. We followed up with Level 3 in 2012, and the first round of Level 4 coaches has just been certified in 2014.
Back in 2009, we thought the primary audience would be coaches who were with established USMS programs—we thought we’d be preaching to the choir. But we found that participants have diverse interests and reasons for attending. We get current Masters coaches, Masters Swimmers who don’t want to coach but want to make their swimming experience and programs better, triathlon coaches, aquatics directors, people and corporations curious about USMS, people with an interest in starting USMS programs, USA Swimming coaches, and LMSC volunteers, to name just a few.
Our coach education programs are a commitment to the USMS vision to be the premier resource for adult aquatic fitness—they are living, breathing products that we update to ensure continued accuracy and relevance.
Based on demand created during our inaugural “April Is Adult Learn-to-Swim Month” campaign, we’ve been back in the conference room—although this time with healthier food—writing the curriculum for a USMS Adult Learn-to-Swim Instructor Certification Program. The ALTS instructor program will be a one-day, in-classroom learning experience with a required in-water test, in which attendees must pass the Red Cross five basic water competencies to achieve USMS ALTS instructor certification. The first two ALTS instructor teaching weekends are scheduled for January 3 in Indianapolis and January 17 in Great Barrington, Mass. ALTS Instructor Certification is being lead by Bill Brenner with additional teachings being scheduled for 2015.
We’ll continue to listen to participants who have attended our education programs. Their feedback is what leads us to develop future education products in support of the USMS vision of being the premiere resource for adult aquatic fitness and making swimming for fitness available for as many adults as possible.
Updated November 3rd, 2014 at 10:09 PM by Rob Butcher
It was my privilege to deliver the State of Masters Swimming address at our annual meeting to the USMS House of Delegates.
2014 U.S. Masters Swimming Annual Meeting
Rob Butcher, Executive Director
September 14, 2014
It was 46 years ago, yes 46 years, a survey went out to 2,000 swim coaches, asking for suggestions to grow swimming. Ransom Arthur wrote back suggesting ASCA sponsor a committee of swimming for adults. In the social upheaval of that time—with the Vietnam War, and the sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll culture—proposing that adults exercise for physical fitness and well-being was—well, at best, a fringe idea.
The graveyard of sports that thought they could create a national organization like USMS is overflowing. So the development of the idea that adults should exercise for health and embrace a lifestyle we know as Masters Swimming, and an organization that supports the journey is an incredibly rare success story— so rare that no other country in the world has a self-governed Masters Swimming organization. Not one, and that’s something we can’t and never should take for granted.
Walking through the four-plus decades of our history, we see the passion and indelible commitments that our founding fathers and generational leaders made to develop Masters Swimming and USMS. The fingerprints of Ransom Arthur, John Spannuth, Bob Beach, Ted Haartz, Dot Donnelly, Mel Goldstein, Tom Boak, Nancy Ridout, Rob Copeland, Jim Miller, and so many others are a permanent and lasting legacy.
On our wall of leaders are two other Hall of Famers: Paul Hutinger and June Krauser, the “Mother of Masters Swimming.” In our earliest days June and Paul established the framework of the USMS services that have richly benefitted each of us in our swimming journey.
Before there was the Internet, social media, text messages, and all our other communication channels, there was SwimMaster. SwimMaster was June’s brainchild—and it was a labor of love. SwimMaster was the original glue that attracted and bound many to the adult swimming community. June spent untold hours and energy gathering results from Masters Swimming competitions. She compiled the data, printed copies, and mailed it to members. When the content in SwimMaster began to expand to include educational information such as stroke improvement and workouts, we can begin to appreciate Paul’s contributions.
The principle of sharing information has been a bedrock value and one that we continue to uphold to fulfill our vision. June and Paul knew this principle and we are deeply indebted to them for their decades of service.
A lot of us started our swimming journey as age groupers or summer league swimmers. Although our motivations to swim may have changed now that we’re adults, we still hold inside each of us a genuine enthusiasm for this lifestyle we so love. If you didn’t still have that enthusiasm, why else would you get up predawn to go get in some laps? Or high-five a lanemate when you both finish a challenging set? Or hug your coach when he gave you stroke feedback that improved your swimming technique?
In the past few decades, a new generation of adults has joined in the Masters Swimming journey. Their backgrounds and interests are different than what we former age groupers have experienced. Some are on the journey simply to get in better shape. Some are triathletes who want to improve the swim part of their triathlon. And some are starting at the beginning—just wanting to learn the basic lifesaving skill of swimming. We’re a melting pot of diverse backgrounds and regardless of our motivation, age, or swimming ability, what binds us is the desire to swim.
As each of us is on our own swimming journey, USMS is also on a journey. And the journey for USMS includes a commitment to our vision to become the premier resource for adult aquatic fitness and make fitness through swimming available for as many adults as possible.
Surveys have reinforced the need for knowledgeable and motivated coaches. About 10 years ago, our volunteers came up with an idea to host a coach mentor conference. Several of you were the visionaries for this type of education and sharing. The goal of the conference was to provide a platform for our best and most respected coaches to share their knowledge and experience with other Masters Swimming coaches. Seeing the opportunity and benefit championed by our volunteers from that seed idea, USMS made a commitment to provide a professional-grade education program for Masters Swimming coaches, and today we can proudly say that nearly 2,000 Masters coaches have achieved certification.
We’ve not delegated or outsourced our education responsibilities—we take to heart that it’s up to us to promote the USMS values outlined in our strategic plan. Authoring and teaching our coach certification program has been a partnership between our education team and our Coaches Committee. It’s a massive and sustained commitment to create and manage a program of this scope—a scope that’s growing every day. It’s also a very wise investment. I’m pleased to report, not only do the newly certified coaches tell us we’re living up to that standard, but our program has become the model for other adult sports organizations in the U.S. and across the world.
With a show of hands, how many delegates have attended a Masters coach certification? That’s wonderful. But let’s not assume that our education programs are only speaking to the choir. We’ve invested significant time and considerable energy to develop partnerships with facilities leaders across the country with a goal of gaining more pool space for Masters Swimming programs. This year we have a record number of registered USMS clubs and workout groups as organizations such as Life Time Fitness, the Kroc Center, Sport & Health, and Debbie’s Swim School have signed on to offer Masters Swimming programs in their facilities. Even Google sees the Masters Swimming value and has registered a USMS club on its campus.
Our commitment to new and existing Masters Swimming programs includes a two-pronged approach: educate and support the aquatics directors who are sponsoring the programs, and educate and support the coaches who are, day in and day out, impacting our members. As a result, we’re seeing Masters Swimming programs crop up in new facilities across the Country.
Consider Ovetta Sampson. Ovetta is a triathlon coach and was seeking to expand her coaching business. She took our Masters coach certification program and tapped into the resources offered by our education services unit. Recently Ovetta wrote these words to Education Director Bill Brenner:
“I just wanted to personally thank you for coming to see the administration officials at the Kroc Center in Chicago. Because of your willingness to explain the USMS program, I really do believe that they decided to house my USMS club. Yesterday at our first practice we had 16 swimmers, all African-American or Latino and all USMS members! We're on our way to allowing more adults to enjoy swimming and triathlon. I just wanted to personally thank you and say ‘keep it up.’”
Results like Ovetta’s are happening because our treasure of top-tier coaches such as Scott Bay, Cokie Lepinski, Stu Kahn, and others genuinely enjoy teaching other coaches and are willing to travel the country to do it.
More Masters programs like Ovetta’s are starting and growing because our professional staff—our All Stars of Mel Goldstein and Bill Brenner—have the business skills and gravitas to convince facilities directors that sponsoring a Masters Swimming program benefits the facility and benefits adults in the community.
To everyone helping with our education outreach, we love your passion and thank you for your service.
At Convention last year, our Swimming Saves Lives Foundation Board of Trustees charted its new cause and provided grants to 11 programs that would teach adults to learn-to-swim. Tomorrow, Bill Meier, the New England LMSC Chair and a grant recipient, is going to lead an energetic workshop in which he shares how the LMSC administered their grant, recruited and trained volunteers, the impact they were able to make, and what steps your LMSC should take to replicate this type of program. The opportunity to teach adults the basic lifesaving skill of swimming is a natural fit to our vision of making fitness through swimming available for as many adults as possible.
Many of you saw the media buzz around our “April is Adult Learn-to-Swim Month” campaign. The New York Times, USA Today, San Francisco Chronicle and 3,000 other media outlets published stories about our adult learn-to-swim cause. What you may not know is why the April Adult Learn-to-Swim month is so incredibly important and how it came to be.
It’s a wonderful story in which, once again, one of our volunteers planted a seed and the professional staff was able to act. A few weeks after last year’s Convention, Bill Meier phoned me and said, “Rob, listen. This adult learn-to-swim thing is huge. One third of American adults can’t swim the length of a pool and it’s a societal problem. The USMS mission is to encourage adults to swim and we can’t ignore the issue. We have the answer. We’re the only organization that actually has the answer. And here’s the deal: I know we can help a lot of adults by mobilizing our best asset, our volunteers. Imagine the impact we can make on society if we can encourage every USMS member to give the gift of swimming by teaching just a couple of other adults.”
Bill continued on, “I have an idea, Rob. We need to rally the base and put visibility on the issue. Let’s dedicate a month when all our LMSCs and Masters Swimming programs give back of their time to teach other adults. We need to declare April as Adult Learn-to-Swim Month. April is ideal as that is the time of year when many pools and other bodies of water are opening for spring and summer season. To add legitimacy, let’s write to every governor, Mayor and even the President to proclaim April as Adult Learn-to-Swim Month. If we get some governors on board and show what we are doing, mainstream media will follow the story. It’s too important for them to ignore. I’ve already got a template letter drafted. Can I send it to you?”
At our staff meeting the next week, I shared my conversation with Bill. I could see the staff’s wheels turning as they listened and immediately grasped how this would support the USMS vision. But I could also sense a feeling of “oh my goodness,” although that’s a decidedly polite way of putting it in mixed company.
You have to realize, programs in the national office have assigned professional staff that are accountable for performance and results. But the Swimming Saves Lives Foundation has no staff assignment. It was just two years ago the Board of Directors conducted a feasibility study to see if a foundation for USMS was possible, which the study confirmed it was, and then adopted a foundation strategic plan with a cause that would have societal impact.
We provided 11 grants this year that offered about 1,500 learn-to-swim lessons to adults. And over the past 12 months our existing USMS staff has been developing the foundation infrastructure with such things as grant agreements and an online application with online reporting. We built online giving into membership registration and 3,500 USMS members donated.
Putting these processes in place is necessary to manage the Foundation so that Swimming Saves Lives fulfills the promise of its name: saving lives in the short term by combatting adult drowning, and saving lives in the long term by giving adults the ability to enjoy the lifelong benefits that swimming offers as part of a healthy lifestyle.
Our Masters Coach Certification Program and our commitment to our Foundation have revealed the need for an Adult Learn-to-Swim Instructor Certification Program. Although there are many youth-focused learn-to-swim instructor programs and special programs for terrified adults, there isn’t an all-purpose learn-to-swim program for the general adult population. Our education team is in the process of writing this instructor program. We’re adopting the Red Cross Five Basic Water Competencies as the test for instructors and students.
Our adult learn-to-swim instructor program will begin next year. Stay tuned to usms.org and STREAMLINES for more details and registration.
We continue to make other investments into programs and services where members have expectations and that support the USMS vision. In our recent new member survey, members said the benefit that would add the most value to USMS membership is more online technique videos. So, we are creating more technique videos to meet this expectation.
In the same survey, new members raved about the content and quality of SWIMMER magazine and the STREAMLINES eNewsletters. Many stories, features, and, especially, stroke videos, go viral upon publication. And as with our education services team, our communications and publications team doesn’t outsource or delegate responsibility. Our content is conceived, produced, and published in-house.
The idea of having USMS-created content was started, once again, by volunteers. Prior to 2009, volunteers penned articles for usms.org—a format that’s provided the framework for what has grown into a trusted resource across the world. We used to get excited when a web article hit a thousand views. Now we have articles with 45,000 views, and videos with half a million views.
New opportunities in social media and digital marketing are ours for the taking as we continue to build our organizational image across new platforms and reach new audiences. This is a continued commitment to our vision of becoming the trusted global resource on adult aquatic fitness.
Here’s a valuable takeaway and suggestion from members to LMSCs: New members want more stroke clinics. Kudos to the Utah LMSC for responding to this desire by sponsoring a free swim clinic to anyone who joins or renews their membership with USMS prior to January. We hope to see other LMSCs follow suit with similar programs.
With all this talk about investing in education, learn-to-swim, public relations, online videos and other services it’s natural to ask if we can afford it? Well, you should know this.
USMS has no debt. We have no lines of credit and we do not owe a single penny to anyone. In the past three years, our reserve has increased by more than $800,000. We have numerous checks and balances to ensure our fiscal strength and stability. With approval from the Board of Directors, we’ll be implementing programs that had been planned for 2016 by using a portion of our reserve.
There are many reasons USMS is a success story; Good governance; A sound financial model; and a strategic plan where we validate and publish results.
But it all starts with buy-in to our mission and shared mutual commitment to our vision that is allowing USMS to make a positive difference in the swimming journey of so many adults.
I trust this weekend will be a time that you hug old friends, make new ones, hopefully find a time to swim, and appreciate the good work you’re all doing for the benefit of so many. The policies you put in place have a very real effect on USMS and our ability to encourage the adult swimming journey.
Thank you and see you throughout the weekend.
Updated September 20th, 2014 at 11:53 PM by Editor
In 1968, the American Swimming Coaches Association was seeking ideas that would lead to growth. A survey went out to 2,000 swim coaches, asking for suggestions. Capt. Ransom Arthur, a Navy doctor, wrote back suggesting ASCA sponsor a committee of swimming for older ages. In the social upheaval of that time, the Vietnam War, and the sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll culture, proposing that adults exercise for physical fitness and well-being was, at best, a fringe idea.
That suggestion to establish an adult swimming program was the beginning of Masters Swimming, and it was first proposed in a survey response.
Asking members, partners, and constituents for ideas on how to improve and grow is a business principle taught most business 101 classes. And for good reason—it works.
Masters Swimming continues to utilize surveys to check in with our members and volunteer leaders. In 2011, prior to writing our current USMS strategic plan, we surveyed our LMSC officers, committee chairs, and House of Delegates members. The collective feedback was paramount in assessing our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and in shaping our vision.
This spring, we conducted a survey of 2014 USMS members who registered with USMS for the first time. We wanted to learn from first-time members why they joined USMS, what they valued about USMS membership, and what benefits they believed would add more value to their membership.
We received 1,256 completed surveys, about an 11% response rate. We learned some interesting things about our new members:
33% had never been part of any organized team, and 34% swam on a club or summer league team as a child and/or a high school team.71% joined USMS because membership was required to swim in an activity such as a practice, clinic, or event, meaning 29% joined USMS by choice.Of that 29%, the most popular reasons given for joining were: “I swim for fitness and thought being a USMS member would improve my swimming experience,” and “I wanted to improve my triathlon and thought being a USMS member would help me,” and “My Masters Swimming coach encouraged (but did not require) me to become a USMS member.”The two most requested benefits—the ones new members believed would add more value to their USMS memberships—were more online technique videos and more stroke clinics.We left a blank field at the end of the survey, open for any comments or suggestions. An overwhelming number or respondents told us how much they liked the quality and content of SWIMMER magazine and the STREAMLINES eNewsletters.
All of this information is valuable to us. It lets us know what we’re doing well and where we can improve. But by far the most interesting result was not at all what we expected.
Prior to publishing the survey, a staffer suggested we ask a question about new members’ perceptions of USMS prior to becoming members. Several us spoke up, saying we already knew what they think: “The word Masters is intimidating,” and “USMS is for people who want to compete,” and “You have to be 40 or older to become a member.” We decided to include the perception question, believing the answers would fall across those preconceived notions.
And wouldn’t you know it, we were wrong.
It turns out, 58% of new members did not have any perception of USMS prior to joining. In fact, most had never heard of us. This is valuable information—we see it as an opportunity to market the USMS brand without having to focus so much on dispelling what we thought were still popular misconceptions about Masters Swimming.
Surveys will continue to be an important information-gathering tool. Should you happen to receive one from us, please know that your input is truly valuable and we take seriously all the feedback we receive. We pledge to continue to ask you how we’re doing, and how we can improve your member experience.
Updated August 10th, 2014 at 08:35 AM by Rob Butcher
In 2011, U.S. Masters Swimming adopted a strategic plan that set forth a vision to be the premier resource for adult aquatic fitness in the United States and make fitness through swimming available for as many adults as possible. This meant we no longer wanted to be the best-kept secret in the adult athletics and fitness world.
Research published by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association shows that swimming for exercise is one of the most desirable fitness activities for adults. Other research, from the Centers for Disease Control, shows that 37% of American adults cannot swim the length of a standard pool, which puts them at risk of becoming one of the eight adults or young adults who drown every day in this country.
USMS’s resources and expertise uniquely positions us to address both society’s interest in swimming for fitness and the serious problem of adult drowning. In 2012, we launched our charitable arm, the Swimming Saves Lives Foundation to advocate and raise awareness, and to secure contributions so we can provide resources to our local partner programs across the country that are teaching adults to swim.
Our hope is twofold: offer adults the basic life saving skill of swimming and instill in them the confidence and desire to continue swimming in a Masters Swimming program and experience the lifelong benefits of swimming. Hence the foundation name, Swimming Saves Lives.
The focus on adult learn-to-swim lessons is our stake-in-the-ground cause. To generate awareness and rally our 60,000 members, many who are volunteering to teach other adults, we declared the month of April, “Adult Learn-to-Swim Month.” USMS volunteers and staff began applying for proclamations in states across the country to have the month officially designated. In 2014, we received 12 proclamations.
We knew our cause had the potential to spread and bring about real change in communities across the country. And we knew that the individual stories of the learn-to-swim participants—who were having life-changing experiences—were the key to that process. In January of 2014, we engaged Allison Moore of Get Moore PR to help us shape the message and generate mainstream media coverage.
Allison’s decades of professional journalism helped her see our story with fresh eyes and consider it from all angles—most importantly—the angles that would generate interest from writers, editors, and producers in the consumer space. She and her team went to work promoting the April is Adult Learn-to-Swim Month campaign into media outlets across the country.
Allison created a radio media tour that kept me busy speaking to radio stations about the adult learn-to-swim initiative. She also recognized that one of our members, Olympic gold medalist Misty Hyman, could be a big asset in the campaign, so she booked a series of radio interviews for her as well. In total, Misty and I spoke to 51 radio stations in different regions and thanks to a couple of syndicated shows, our message was heard on 1,500 radio stations nationwide.
Another one of our members and Masters Swimmer, Olympic gold medalist, and NBC commentator Rowdy Gaines, helped us create a public service announcement and Allison pushed that out through her PR channels. To date, the Rowdy Gaines television PSA has been broadcast 125 times in 28 states, reaching an audience of over 61,496,000.
And yet another Masters Swimmer, Mitch Daniels, the former governor of Indiana and the current president of Purdue University, kicked off the month of April swimming alongside new adult swimmers in the Purdue pool, with media in attendance, getting the word out about how important it is for adults to learn to swim.
The Adult Learn-to-Swim story found its way to Darlene Hill of Chicago’s FOX News affiliate. Darlene took our message to heart: She didn’t know how to swim, so she decided to take her first swimming lesson on camera, bringing even more attention to the importance of drowning prevention for adults.
We were seeing the adult learn-to-swim story pop up all over the country, and we knew we’d tapped into an important public concern when The New York Times, USA Today, and ABC World News Tonight with Diane Sawyer reached out to us based on the coverage and pitching efforts of Allison and her team of talented professionals.
Jane Brody, NYT’s health writer, wrote “The Stroke You Must Have,” which referenced a family member who had drowned. Michelle Healy of USA Today wrote “Learning life-saving strokes at any age,” and ABC World News Tonight filmed an adult learn-to-swim lesson in New England.
To say that the cause resonates is an understatement. Masters Swimmers across the country are eagerly signing up to teach and share the joy of swimming with other adults.
So how can you get involved? Well, two ways. One, encourage your Masters Swimming program to apply for a grant or become a Swimming Saves Lives Foundation partner. The grant application deadline is July 25, 2014. Two, make an online contribution.
To be sure, April 2015 will be Adult Learn-to-Swim month. As we get into winter and spring of 2015, we will roll out an education program for instructors and programs that want to participate.
I learned to swim as a youngster, playing the game “Marco Polo” with my brothers in our grandparents’ swimming pool. I also swam a couple of years with summer league programs. It wasn’t until my junior year in high school that I had my first swim team experience. I had the minimal talent required to swim four years at Georgia Southern University, and it was there that I discovered my love of swimming.
After college, I swam on several Masters teams and ended up qualifying for the 2000 Olympic Trials at the age of 28. At the Trials, I was in an outside lane in the first heat, which is reserved for those who barely make the qualifying time. Nonetheless, I was in the big dance and my swimming dreams were fulfilled. Or so I thought.
Inspired by Michael Jordan and the “Just Do It” era, I told my college swim coach that I wanted a career in sports marketing. Thinking I had starry eyes for what sports marketing meant, he gave me a job cleaning our football stadium. Two years later, surprised I hadn't quit, he gave me a job selling tickets via telemarketing and selling program ads by cold calling businesses on foot.
When I graduated, my alma mater created a sports marketing internship for me and paid for my grad school. I learned that when you just won't quit, and you carry yourself with integrity, perseverance, and the right attitude, it will pay off in the long run.
Twenty-four years later, I’m having fun leading a national governing body in the swimming industry. My swimming journey and dream of inspiring others to swim continues on.
Today, I consider myself a fitness swimmer. Balancing a rewarding and busy career with twin toddler boys doesn't leave as much time as I'd like for training. I sit on several industry boards and I'm on a mission to make sure our favorite form of exercise is no longer the best kept fitness secret in this country.
Updated July 18th, 2014 at 03:30 PM by Rob Butcher