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