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by Elaine K Howley

June 8, 2021

USMS’s Summer Nationals in 2012 were held at Omaha’s CHI Health Center just days after U.S. Olympic Team swimming trials

Sometimes, the stars just align, and a little bit of magic happens.

That’s the general consensus among several people involved in the 2012 Marriott USMS Summer National Championship, which took place in the U.S. Olympic Team swimming trials pool days after Nathan Adrian, Missy Franklin, Katie Ledecky, Michael Phelps, and a slate of other elite American athletes cemented their status as swimming royalty by qualifying to represent the U.S. at the 2012 London Olympics.

The idea to host a USMS national championship in conjunction with trials started the previous trials cycle. While being interviewed to become USMS’s executive director, Rob Butcher was asked about the direction he wanted to take the organization in regard to marketing and promotions. “One of the ideas I had was, ‘Let’s piggyback onto the Olympic trials or an NCAA championship or another large USA Swimming national championship’” with a national championship event, Butcher says.

Three weeks after getting the job, Butcher found himself sitting in the stands at the 2008 trials in Omaha talking with several members of USMS’s Board of Directors and upper management at USA Swimming.

“I hadn’t even met most of the board at that point, and here I am pitching Mike [Unger, COO of USA Swimming], and saying, ‘Four years from now, we want to come back and be part of this with USMS Nationals,’” Butcher says. “I was trying to sell Mike and USA Swimming on the value that we Masters swimmers had to offer.”

Before long, the wheels were in motion and planning began.

Making the Omaha meet work—and keeping it from bankrupting USMS in the process—required leadership from an experienced meet director with the skills to make everything work right. Enter Tom Boak.

Boak got into meet management when the 1982 Penn Mutual/United States Masters Swimming National Short Course Championships came to his venue in The Woodlands, Texas. Since then, he had served as meet director several more times and learned that meets work best when the meet director takes the lead.

Butcher says it was imperative that Boak take the job. With a little persuasion, Boak said yes and then “put his heart and soul into everything,” Butcher says. “Tom was so necessary.”

Although remote work has become the de facto choice in a lot of industries over the past year, telework was relatively rare in 2012. “The most obvious thing about organizing the meet was that I needed to have somebody local in charge of volunteers,” Boak says. “That’s the largest undertaking in order to put the meet together.” He reached out to Omaha Masters Swim Club member Erin Sullivan, and they worked to fill the volunteer roles.

“We couldn’t do everything remotely,” says Montgomery Ancient Mariners member Jeff Roddin, chair of the Championship Committee in 2012. “That meet absolutely wouldn’t have happened without her.”

Boak says he traveled to Omaha four or five times in advance of the meet for various negotiations and meetings, and there was a lot to manage.

“I had a whole list of responsibilities that we needed to pay attention to,” he says. “I had spreadsheets ad nauseum that laid out all of the responsibilities, created the committees and who was staffing them. I just had to adjust a little because I wasn’t there on site all the time. I couldn’t just hop in the car and go down to the pool to meet with the director like I would do for nationals here [locally]. But we did a lot of things via conference call.”

Boak also worked very closely with Butcher, and as the meet drew closer, the two were talking four or five times a week to make sure everything was set and ready to go. “I couldn’t have done that meet without his support,” Boak says. “There was so much that USMS was responsible for, and he drove all of that.” Boak calls their partnership one of “total cooperation.”

Financial negotiations with the Omaha Sports Commission and the venue, however, were challenging. National championships can be expensive to run, this one especially so because USMS footed the bill for keeping the state-of-the-art facility open after trials concluded. USMS went into the event anticipating operating the meet at a loss. Boak knew upfront that finances were going to be critical, so he took full authority. As it turned out, his financial acumen saved USMS nearly $50,000.

But finances and the need for big venues to make money off events—say a monster truck rally or a convention—meant that USMS would be unlikely to duplicate the feat in future years. Masters swimmers, apparently, just don’t bring in as much revenue as Madonna.

Nevertheless, that 2012 meet was a moment of swimming and meet management kismet. And for Boak, being the meet director at the Omaha Nationals “was one of the greatest experiences of my life in swimming. It was fun. It was exciting. It was dynamic. It was an opportunity for our swimmers to do something they’d never been able to do before.”

For the 1,257 swimmers who participated in the meet, the advanced technology on site, including a state-of-the-art Myrtha Pool and an eight-sided Jumbotron hanging above it, was a special treat that let them feel like they really were competing on the sport’s biggest stage. Because they were.

Tom Barton of Lone Star Masters attended the meet and says, “It was magical and exciting to swim in the same facility as the Olympic trials hopefuls. While I didn’t swim as well as I would have liked, the pool felt fast. It was and is a wonderful building, and to have a pool inside just added to its allure. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.” 

Roddin remembers walking on deck the day after trials concluded to begin transitioning the space for the USMS event. There sat a red British phone booth that all newly minted members of the U.S. Olympic team had autographed after punching their ticket to London. “The phone booth was still there when we first got there and there was a Sharpie on the ground,” Roddin says. “I joked to my wife, Julie, ‘Should we have [their toddler daughter] Rachel scribble her name on the inside of the phone booth?’ But within an hour or two, it had been taken away.”

Still, being in that space so soon after the greatest swimmers on the planet had done their thing was a special feeling. “If you’re a swimming geek who just watched trials, it was not just any other pool. It’s not something you’d understand unless you really follow the sport,” Roddin says. “The buzz was still there.”

Roddin swam in the last event of the meet and was in one of the later heats. He recalls that the local fire department was on hand waiting for swimmers to finish up so it could drain the water into the nearby Missouri River. (Yes, all necessary environmental precautions were taken.) Being one of the last swimmers in the pool was a bittersweet feeling, he says.

Once the pool had been drained and deconstructed, it was packed and shipped to Boston. It had been purchased by Stephanie Wriede Morawski, head coach of the Harvard University women’s swimming team, and her husband, Mike Morawski, for their growing Charles River Aquatics Masters workout group, then based at Harvard. The pool sat in storage for several years until a suitable site could be found, and a facility to house the pool was constructed.

Today, the pool is sparkling and bright and plays host to many Masters swimmers who train with Charles River Aquatics Masters at the Boston Sports Institute in Wellesley, Massachusetts. The 130,000-square-foot recreational facility that now houses the pool features an innovative energy return system that heats the pool with warm air pulled off the ice rink on the other side of the building.

Most swimmers who take a daily swim or compete in a meet there probably don’t know of the pool’s unique pedigree. But for those who’ve swum in its cool waters, it’s fun to imagine and hope that perhaps one of those Olympians left behind just a hint of their athletic skill for us mere swimming mortals to absorb.


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