United States Masters Swimming
Friday, September 26, 2008
Copy of the Executive Director Address
Mr. President, Board of Directors, and House of Delegates,
Thank you for the honor to serve as United States Masters Swimming Executive Director. I thank all of you for your many years of service, and passion to our cause. Without your dedication, USMS would not be here today.
For many, this may be your first "live" introduction to myself. If you had an opportunity to digest any of the Convention Report, you probably saw some ideas that are outside the traditional USMS box and a proposed budget number that makes you think, "so who is this young kid we've just hired and entrusted to lead our organization. The first thing he does is roll into a convention with these grand ideas and a budget deficit? What is he thinking?" That is a fair question, and if I were sitting in your shoes I could see myself having a similar attitude and want some reassurance that he knows what he's doing, and that we can trust him. So I hope in the next few minutes to share and also provide a brief biographical narrative so you can get to know me a little better, and then during this convention I in turn will get to know each of you a little better.
I first became introduced to swimming at the age of 12. I would visit my dad's side of the family in Indiana during the summer time. My youngest sister, Susie, who was seven years old at the time was taking swim lessons with the Michigan City Waves. My sport was soccer at that age, and my dad and stepmom would drag me along to watch Susie's swim meets. I don't necessarily remember so much the competition but I remember the fun Susie had with swimming. She was always joking, laughing, and having a good time with the other kids on the team.
A few years later, it was my junior year in high school, we were getting ready for the upcoming high school soccer season. I'd been playing soccer year round since about the age of six and was really feeling the burnout effect. Home life was a challenge for me and I needed something new in my life, something positive. During home room, I heard an announcement that the swim team was looking for swimmers. I remembered back to summer visits when Susie was swimming and thought, I can do this. So I showed up at the pool deck that afternoon. Living in Florida, all I had were the beach board shorts. I'd never heard of Speedo and surely wasn't going to wear one of the "tighty whitey" suits. Coach Bob Hendren was the coach. He was trying to build up the high school team. He threw me in an outside lane and said show me what you got, give me all four strokes. At the end, he said, "well, you'll need a lot of work and we need a breastroker." So that was it, day one of the Spruce Creek High School swim team my junior year and I was a breastroker.
That evening, I went home and told my mom that I was quitting soccer and joining the swim team. Now my mom, was the strongest, toughest, most positive lady I'd ever met. She at first had questions but when she saw that I no longer had the passion for soccer, she didn't argue. My mom was a believer in following your passion and well my step dad he was another story, but for me swimming was my lifeline. At that time in my life, I thought it would just be an escape. Something to get me through high school. Little did I know that 20+ years later, I'd be standing here with an opportunity to serve this passion of mine, this passion of all of ours, which has given each of us so much more that we could ever give it.
As graduation of Spruce Creek High School neared, I started to have this crazy idea that maybe I could swim in college? My times weren't all that great but I was having fun. Coach Hendren himself swam in college for Georgia Southern University and made a few phone calls. I was accepted at Georgia Southern and Fall of 1990, I was a freshman on the swim team. I swam all four years at Georgia Southern, and somehow, in our senior championships in my very last individual event won the 200 yard breastroke at our conference championship. It was the first individual championship for a Georgia Southern guy in nearly 10-years and let's just say, there are a few guys in this room who go faster today than I went back then.
In the summer of 1994, I graduated with a degree in marketing and immediately started grad school at Georgia Southern. For me, swimming had ended far sooner than I would have liked but of course I had no idea there was this whole world of adult swimming out there. I imagine there are a whole bunch more college graduates today like most of us who went through the system and still have a love for swimming but may not be aware United States Masters Swimming exists and what it can offer? More though on that later.
In the summer of 1995, I accepted a one-year post-graduate internship working in the Auburn Sports Marketing Department. It was at Auburn that I was first introduced to masters swimming and guys like Connor Bailey, and Adam Dawkins. It was guys like that, who had a love for the sport themselves, who drew me back into the water. It was also at Auburn where I met head coach David Marsh, and Rowdy Gaines. Both of those guys have become life long friends, and planted the seed that my best swimming could still be in front of me.
A year later, having made many friendships that still continue today, my internship with Auburn was completed and I moved to University of Maryland to work in the Terrapin Sports Marketing Department. My masters swimming experience at Auburn was so positive, that I couldn't help it but want to join Terrapin Masters. While with the Terrapin Masters, it was there at the encouragement of masters swimmers such as Dave Diehl that I entered my first masters meet. The highlight was the 1997 Long Course Masters Nationals in Orlando. At that meet, I swam senior national level times and that were much faster than I'd ever gone in college. I guess most of you can also relate.
So, I was faced with a dilemma. You see, in 1992 when I was a sophomore at Georgia Southern, our coach was taking a couple of our fast girl swimmers for a last chance Olympic Trials qualifying meet in Indianapolis. I wanted to go, I desperately wanted to go. I'd read about the Olympic Trials in Swimming World and I just wanted to see it. But our coach kept saying no. Finally, after continuous begging, offering to pay my own way, and saying I would sleep on the floor, he acquiesced. That weekend experience was like my first Christmas. I guess the statue of limitations have passed so Mel, I can now admit this. I snuck past security, got on deck, and jumped in the warm up pool. I actually swam in the same lane as Janet Evans, and Pablo Morales, and Matt Biondi. To this kid who had been swimming all of four years and only knew Georgia Southern Swimming, it was the best experience you could imagine.
So, as I left the 1997 Orlando Masters Nationals, I made the decision that I was going to go for it. I wanted in on the 2000 U.S. Olympic Trials. I can tell you though, I had no idea what that meant. I didn't understand the training side.. I didn't understand the commitment it would take. I didn't understand the sacrifice I would have to make. And I didn't understand the disappointment I would go through on the journey. All I had was a vision, and that belief that I could be an Olympic Trial qualifier.
I was now living back in Florida, Daytona Beach specifically, and started training with Steve Lochte who had just moved to take over the program. Some of you may have heard of Coach Steve, and some may have heard of his son Ryan. Ryan was a little guy at that time, only 12-years old. I guess he's now turned out to be a pretty good swimmer and to this day I think I'm one of the very few who can say I ever beat Ryan Lochte.
If you know Coach Steve, you know he's a pusher. He has high expectations and coming into a Daytona Beach program that had been down for a few years, he was out to change the culture. It was a blessing for both of us that we connected. I needed a coach who knew how to coach big time, and Coach Steve needed an example of someone who would work hard and buy into his process.
Over the next two years, we trained many lonely mornings together and plenty of hot afternoons in the Florida sunshine. Well, another reality for me was setting in and that was I needed to somehow support myself. Through a connection, I was introduced to our local Prudential office and it so turns out the district manager was a masters swimmer himself. That manager bought into my dream and championed the Prudential Athlete Assistance program. From 1998 to 2000, I was one of a select number of Prudential financial planners that had a flexible work schedule that allowed me train. One of my commitments to Prudential, was to be a good community ambassador by speaking at high schools and charity events. It was through one of these outreach programs, that another masters swimmer introduced me to a couple of contacts with NASCAR which is headquartered in Daytona Beach. I think you can see a pattern here that swimming, and masters swimming has played in my life.
As I shared earlier, my Olympic Trials journey was absolutely incredible. Over a two year period, I shaved and tapered more than 10-times trying to qualify for the breastroke events. Finally, in April of 2000 and at my last meet, I swam a qualifying time fast enough in the 100-breastroke to get me in. I went to Indianapolis with as much joy as a 16th seed has playing in the NCAA tournament, just happy to be there and soaking in the entire experience. Returning back to Florida, I had just turned 28 and was asking myself, "now what?"
The next couple of months, I took some time to detox and let the experience sink in. It was also during this time, that I was able to call on those NASCAR relationships and networked my way into an entry level job. On January 3, 2001, I started as an Operations Manager in the Souvenir Program Department. My job was to head up the program sales at NASCAR events. And wouldn't you know, that in markets like Daytona and Kansas, I was able to hire the local swim teams to sell programs adding tens of thousands of dollars to their swim teams as a fundraiser. Just once again, you can see how swimming has played a role in my life.
After only six months in the program group, I was hired into the corporate marketing group as an entry level sales person. My responsibility was to sell sponsorships to NASCAR and Indy Racing League events at the 13-speedways the company owned. Over the next five years in the sponsorship sales role, I was promoted four different times and ultimately was able to add $60MM in cash sponsorships and media sales. I thoroughly enjoyed what I was doing and then had a chance meeting with some venture capitalists in late 2005. Those guys were able to lure me away from NASCAR to become the Chief Marketing Officer for another racing company they had poured in many millions of dollars. Their previous CEO had squandered all of their investment and they were pretty desperate for a turnaround. So, in January of 2006 I signed on along with a new CEO and COO. We had done as much homework as possible on the situation, but it wasn't until we got inside that we were able to pull back the curtains and see a total disaster. While the racing product was good; employee morale was horrible, financially the company was bleeding tremendous money everyday; the brands were tired and depressed; all the technology was outdated; the accounting was bad; and we didn't have a headquarters. To top it off, the investors were expecting us to turnaround the situation almost immediately.
Well, two years later, we were for the most part able to stabilize things. We'd moved the company to Charlotte, and increased revenue from $12MM to nearly $20MM and brought expenses down to an equal level.
Professionally, it was the most intense time of my life. There were many 14 to 16-hour days, and a lot of trips to New York and Chicago to reassure the investors. Personally, it was even more stressful. In December of 2006, my Mom, the same lady who had been my greatest encourager and my greatest supporter was diagnosed with stage IV appendix cancer. She underwent surgery and then six months of intense chemotherapy. My brothers and I were making regular trips to Florida to be with her. In July of 2007, her oncologist called and said would need a second a surgery. At that point, I'd made a decision I was going to step aside from World Racing Group. I felt good about the contributions I'd made and was choosing to support my mom, and the rest of the family. We did our homework, made the visits, and in September of 2007 our mom had a second surgery at Wake Forest hospital in North Carolina. For the next 14-weeks, I pretty much lived at the hospital while mom was in intensive care. She had her moments of consciousness and if any of you have ever read "Tuesday's with Morrie," this was that experience for me. When mom was able to communicate, no topic was off limits. On November 26, my mom passed away. My brother Mike and I were at her bedside holding her hand. While I'm saddened to have lost her at only 62 years of age, I can promise you if she were here today she would tell each of us to live life with joy, treat it as a gift, make a difference in someone else's life, dance if you want to, and remember attitude is the one thing we can control. Those continue to be guiding words of wisdom for my life.
So how does that tapestry get us to here today? I'd made a commitment to myself, in honor of my mom, that whatever I did next would be with a cause I genuinely believed could make a difference in people's lives. If you've had success making money in sports, there will be opportunities. I was getting very attractive calls from the NFL, NBA, NASCAR, and Major League Baseball but none of them fit that baseline criteria so I stayed patient. And then in late March of this year, I got a phone call that United States Masters Swimming was searching for an Executive Director. I started doing my homework on USMS, and asking around. The reports were for the most part good with kinda a common theme, "they are a sleeping giant."
I decided to submit my application, along with recommendations and references from guys like Chuck Wielgus, USA Swimming Executive Director, John Leonard, ASCA Executive Director, and Rowdy Gaines.
Now, I can tell you from the candidate perspective, the process was very thorough and included a one-on-one interview the search firm, six very thought provoking questions to be answered in writing, a face to face interview with the search committee, and a cognitive aptitude test.. Then, it went to the Board of Directors for their vote and on June 9th, we were able to make the announcement that has me here today.
I've been asked since, why did I take this role and not one of those other higher profile, higher paying gigs. Health, wellness, & exercise is part of my DNA. Swimming is what I love, and it's my activity of choice. I may not be as fast as I once was, but I still have a deep down love, much like each of you, for our sport. And while all that is great, I think what really juices me is I've seen the difference swimming, and in particular masters swimming, has made in my life. I so wanted to be a part of this story, and I wanted you to be a part of mine.
So here we are, roughly 100-days into my tenure, and you might be thinking to yourself, what has he been up too? Well, I'm glad you asked. In front of you is a list of Milestone's we've been able to accomplish in our first 100-days. They are yours to keep and we'd encourage you to take them home and hang on the bulletin boards of your pool if you'd like. I won't read all the milestones, but would like to highlight a few of the significant ones;
- I made a commitment to communicate; I've had dialogue with all the Board members as well I'm pleased that I was able to meet one on one with all USMS employees in the first 60-days; the employees now have a weekly staff only call where we can exchange updates, ideas, and areas where we can help each other.
- The 2008 budget allowed for the opening of USMS first ever satellite office and we did so on day 33.. The 650-square foot space isn't anything fancy but one day we'll be able to look back and say "remember when..."
- Through our relationship with Chuck Wielgus of USA Swimming, USMS was invited at no cost to be a sponsor at the USA Swimming Olympic Trials. USMS had a 16' x 8' banner on display and was the sponsor of Rowdy Gaines appearance in the AquaZone.
- We announced a new partnership with Liberty Mutual, and welcomed Blue Seventy as a partner at the Portland Long Course Nationals. We are placing a premium on sponsor opportunities that offer membership value, activation and promotion of USMS.
- With the Club Development Task force, we incubated a Club Development program in June that to date has lead to development of four new clubs and brought in more than 20-volunteer mentors. No doubt this initiative is paying dividends and Club & Coach Services will be a vital part of our success for years to come.
- Responsibilities such as Snooper Rental, Video Library, and the Features on the USMS.org home site have been transferred from volunteers who put in many hours operating these benefits to USMS staff.
- We've signed a consultant who is helping us with Phase I of the USMS brand redesign.
- USMS has announced a proclamation with the College Swimming Coaches Association that we will support collegiate swimming. This new partnership will allow USMS to target the younger demographics, a market that is important for our future growth.
- We've had meetings with the YMCA to open dialogue on how USMS and the YMCA can better work together on initiatives such as the YMCA Masters Nationals, and growing program opportunities within the YMCA.
And... well... that brings us to our future. USMS is undergoing an evolution. This evolution started more than five years ago when the Board at that time approved the position of an Executive Director. That was the first step in the evolution process. We now find ourselves facing the next step. But what does this next step mean? And more importantly, why is it necessary?
We are all here today because of our membership. Membership has entrusted USMS, LMSC's and your home club or workout group with dues for which they have expectations. At its basic level, USMS has met those expectations. We provide insurance in practices and competition, we provide a bi-monthly member magazine, we provide a website, we track results, and we provide a few sponsor benefits. Previous to my hiring, we had a staff of six. Only two are full time. One is part time. The other three are independent contractors. All six live in six different parts of the country. Outside of these six, the majority of USMS is operated and managed by volunteers. When I first started to learn about the organization and its structure, I was in awe. USMS is a nearly 40-year old non-profit. It sits on the door step of almost 50,000-dues paying members. It has a $1.5MM operating budget. It has no debt and it has been financially disciplined to build a $1.8MM cash reserve.
Dear House of Delegates, whether it was me or another person serving as your Executive Director, the time for the next step in the USMS evolution is now. You have prepared, you are ready, and the USMS membership will be the benefactor.
You have been presented with an Action Plan. The Action Plan isn't just a document that I drafted from a corner office. Rather it came from you. In 2006, USMS conducted a fairly extensive membership survey. Your feedback drives a significant part of the Action Plan. The Board, Committee members, Coaches and Strategic Plan also help shape a great deal of the Action Plan. In a nutshell, the Action Plan can be segmented into three buckets;
The first is Membership Services. This bucket is what do we do for you, the individual member. The Action Plan says USMS will become more of a partner in operating and promoting of our national events.. In doing this, we aim to provide a better experience. The Action Plan also says we will expand our member benefits by bringing in more sponsors such as Liberty Mutual who can offer benefits and services of value.
The second segment is Club & Coach Services. Everyone of us knows the value of our coaches. Your 2006 survey results said Coached Practices were the most important benefit to you as a masters swimmer.. It didn't matter whether you were a hard core competitor or purely fitness swimmer, the majority of you place a high value on Coaches. We have already incubated a Club & Coach Development program, and are making available best practices such as information on starting a club, growing a club, and how to coach the differing groups of swimmers in your club. This program will expand so it can serve even more clubs & coaches. We will also begin the process of developing a USMS coach and instructor certification program, so we can offer education as a resource to those in or wanting in on the profession.
The third segment is Marketing & Promotions. We've listened. We know you want the USMS brand to be re-energized. We've hired a consultant who is undertaking that process. We know you want more information in the member magazine. We know you want a better USMS.org website with updated information such as Places to Swim. And, if you have a computer in front of you, go to Google and type in Adult Swimming or Swimming and Health as examples.. You'll notice USMS is no where to be found. Marketing & Promotions. This is the third segment we will put resources and do a better job of enhancing the USMS image, and telling the USMS stories, so it can translate into growth for the organization.
All of this may sound great, but before we can get there we have to put in place the infrastructure. Our current employee structure of each living in a different geography is not realistic to take on new initiatives. We will centralize our operations. Centralization allows for efficiencies to be developed, it fosters team communication, it creates shared resources, and it lets us begin to put in safe guards for succession planning. With centralization, we will also add staff where needed and justifiable to execute the Action Plan.
In all of this, I ask for your patience. This evolution is a process and putting in place the proper infrastructure will be done carefully so we can implement the three segments outlined. As we reach new milestones, they will continue to be communicated.
I also ask for your continued assistance. Volunteer passion has built this organization. It will continue to play an important role in its future. Please, stay active in the committee's. Just because we have a professional staff coming together does not mean we can nor want to do it all. If you aspire to leadership, let your committee chair or LMSC leaders know. We are always on the lookout for future leaders who bring the energy, commitment to the values of USMS, and spirit of teamwork. So, here today we stand together. A proposed 2009 budget has been submitted to you. Both the 2009 proposed budget and accompanying Action Plan have been thoroughly reviewed by the Board. The Board unanimously voted its approval of use of USMS reserves to implement the Action Plan. The Board also voted its approval for the dues increase as outlined in the Action Plan. I now ask for your vote in doing so.
Thank you, and I look forward to working with you through rest of this weekend.