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by Elaine K Howley

March 1, 2020

USMS’s meetings have been a source of fun and hard work since the beginning

Every nonprofit organization is required to hold an annual meeting of its governing group—either a board of directors or similar leadership assembly—as part of maintaining its status as a nonprofit organization. For some organizations, this can be a chore, but for U.S. Masters Swimming, the annual meeting is often a source of greatness—lots of big ideas, intense debate, and warm camaraderie.

Today, USMS is governed by its volunteers, also known as the House of Delegates. The House of Delegates is composed of approximately 375 volunteers who attend the annual meeting at the United States Aquatic Sports Convention each fall. At the annual meeting, the House of Delegates elects USMS’s Board of Directors and votes on rule changes.

But it wasn’t always this big or established an event. The very first annual meeting was held in 1971 in Lake Placid, N.Y., alongside the Amateur Athletic Union’s national meeting. Founded in 1888 to “establish standards and uniformity in amateur sport,” the AAU has long been a leading organization in amateur sports.

At the time, the AAU was the oversight body for swimming in the United States, and thus, Capt. Ransom J. Arthur and John Spannuth—who developed the concept that would become USMS in the late 1960s—pushed to have swimming for adults added to the ranks of AAU sports. It would take some doing.

The AAU was reluctant to actively support a group made up of adult swimmers primarily because back then, many folks were concerned that adults engaging in strenuous exercise would die in pursuit of their former glory days in the pool. Given how much science has learned in the intervening years about the health benefits of exercise, it seems laughable that anyone ever discouraged adults from swimming and competing. But back then, there was a lot of uncertainty and a good measure of fear that guided decision-making in the governing body overseeing the sport.

But Arthur, a Navy physician, knew better and presented overwhelming evidence that adult swimming would be no more dangerous to health than virtually any other activity adults might engage in—and likely a whole lot healthier. Eventually, he got his point across. He was formally elected president of the young organization during the 1972 annual meeting held in Kansas City, Kan. Robert Beach, a young attorney who would eventually become an esteemed judge in Florida, was elected vice president.

Finally, in 1973, the AAU created a Masters Swimming Committee. For the next several years, Masters swimming’s annual meeting took place as part of the AAU meeting. Beach recalls going to those early meetings, and says that much of the governance portions of USMS meetings that volunteers experience today were handled by the AAU. “I was just kind of a PR guy,” he recalls of being vice president of the Masters Committee. “My job was to promote swimming,” a position he held for several years until career and family obligations forced him to step back from a prominent leadership role.

Beach recalls how Masters swimmers at these early meetings weren’t always taken seriously by representatives of other sports: “There were several that were very opposed to Masters swimming. They thought we were a bunch of old ex-swimmers who got together on Sunday and swam a little and drank beer and smoked cigars.” Undeterred, the group stuck with it and over time, the annual meetings grew in size and significance.

Leaving the AAU 

Just a few years after the hard work to enter the AAU was completed, Masters swimming would leave the organization, in large part because the passage of the Amateur Sports Act of 1978 significantly changed the landscape of sports in the United States. This act altered the way USMS would fit into the spectrum of aquatic sports in America and the way annual meetings were held.

Ross Wales, who had attended several meetings over the years, volunteered to help USMS and several other sports get into compliance with the new law and establish themselves as separate entities outside of the AAU. USMS was incorporated and eventually became part of United States Aquatic Sports, the overarching organization that would represent five aquatic sports (USA Swimming, USA Diving, United States Synchronized Swimming, USA Water Polo, and United States Masters Swimming) in the United States to FINA.

Once USMS was established as part of USAS, its annual meetings would be held as part of the USAS convention and began to look more like what we know today.

Tamalpais Aquatic Masters member Nancy Ridout, an early adopter who joined what became USMS as a swimmer in 1972 and became a long-term volunteer for USMS, recalls attending her first annual meeting in 1982 in Memphis, Tenn. (She’s attended every meeting since except two, one of which was canceled because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.) She had been urged to attend that 1982 meeting by the chairman of her LMSC, Verne Scott, who would go on to become CEO of USA Triathlon.

“He was a very far-sighted person and he believed that we should be participating in the annual meeting. There hadn’t been too many that we’d been invited to before that time, but he thought we should go,” Ridout recalls. Scott organized the financial resources Ridout and others from the LMSC needed to attend. “So I did go and I enjoyed it a lot and met a lot of good people,” she says.

It was there that Ridout’s love of serving USMS as a deeply involved volunteer was solidified. As opportunity upon opportunity presented itself over the next several years, she kept saying yes. By 1997, she was elected president of the organization, a position she held until 2001.

Back then, prior to the founding of the National Office, the organization was completely volunteer run, and that meant a lot of work for national-level volunteers. “When I was president, it was like having two jobs,” one a volunteer position that required almost as much time as her day job. “It was a 70-hour week,” she says.

Annual Meetings Then and Now

Things are very different now than when Ridout attended her first annual meeting in 1982. The accommodations were less fancy than what delegates experience today, and there were far fewer people in attendance than the average of about 375 delegates that participate these days.

Masters was also a breath of fresh air at a Convention that could sometimes be a bit stuffy or formal for the other sports. “The first few meetings I was at, there was a banquet at the end with tiers of podiums and tables with bunting on them,” Ridout says. “It was very formal. But then the Masters kind of loosened it all up because we weren’t that type. We kind of broke the spell on this formal meeting, and we started having our moments of humor during the banquet.”

This eventually developed into the annual skit performed by some of the Masters crew. This performance spoofs age and swimming, roasts leadership figures, and takes a cheeky approach to presenting any number of other topics. The first time it happened, though, was kind of an accident, Ridout recalls.

“It wasn’t a planned skit. It was just an uprising from the audience,” but it “took off from there. It’s now a full-fledged part of the annual banquet,” she says and it’s one of the highlights for representatives from all the various sports. “I remember one year, they put the Masters skit first, and after it was over, half the people in the audience walked out because that’s what they had come for. So [USAS leadership] never put us first again,” she says, laughing.

Tough Decisions

But the annual meeting hasn’t always been all fun and games. The organization has had some real battles over the years about various aspects of governance, rules, and inclusion that have led to lengthy debates and narrow votes on the floor of the House of Delegates.

For example, when the organization was deliberating over whether to extend swimming opportunities to younger swimmers and create an 18-24 age group, things got heated in the House of Delegates. Ridout recalls the vote as being “such a divisive thing that they actually had to divide the house,” and physically move delegates into position on either the “yes” or “no” sides to get an accurate count.

But in the end, the motion passed, and the group was formed. “It all worked out, as things usually do,” Ridout says.

Today, the annual meeting is an event that many volunteers at all levels of USMS look forward to and prepare for all year. It’s a chance to catch up with friends from across the United States and do the important work of the 50-year-old organization. Thus, for about four days every fall, you can find nearly 400 people in an enormous hotel ballroom in one city or another hard at work and play, all in the name of providing more and better opportunities for adult swimmers.    


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