U.S. Masters Swimming provides support for 6,400 CCS swimmers across the U.S.
In the early 2000s, University of Houston student Bridger Bell wanted to swim. His school didn’t have a men’s varsity team, so he trained with the women’s team as an NCAA practice partner but wasn’t allowed to compete.
To scratch his competitive itch, Bell looked to club swimming. There was no club at UH at the time—this was 2003—so he founded his own. “I immediately looked to see if there was a national organization that we could compete in, but there was not,” he says. At the time, the “competition landscape was scattered invitational meets.”
So again, Bell took matters into his own hands and founded the American Swimming Association University League. For the next seven years, he served as national director.
College club swimming grew during that time, increasing access to the sport for many. Swimmers who were fast enough for, or didn’t want to dedicate the time to, their school’s NCAA program took advantage. Swimmers, such as Bell who happen to be attending a college that just didn’t have an NCAA program also benefit. And those who just wanted to begin swimming during college also go access in a way they couldn’t have without club swimming. College club swimming offered a fun and competitive outlet for scores of college swimmers for about a decade—and it was just getting started.
The Evolution of College Club Swimming
In 2017, U.S. Masters Swimming and college club swimmers nationwide formed a more formalized organization called College Club Swimming, which now has 169 registered teams and more than 6,400 swimmers.
The organization grew out of the East Coast Championships, a separate college club swimming championship meet from what had been hosted by Bell’s ASAU group, which last contested a national championship in 2010. Between 2010 and 2017, the ECC meet had become sort of a de facto national championship event for college club swimmers, and as such it would provide a helpful jumping off point for the new CCS organization.
Rob Copeland, a former USMS president and longtime volunteer with Georgia Masters, helped run and officiate ECC, which was hosted at Georgia Tech. Seeing a natural parallel between the aims of college club swimming and USMS—fun, fitness, friends, and competition—Copeland suggested to USMS’s National Office that there seemed to be a natural fit between college club swimming and USMS that might be worth exploring further.
Kyle Deery, USMS’s senior director of marketing and communications, first attended the ECC meet in 2011 in an effort to educate college club swimmers about USMS and explore the college club landscape. It was a tough sell initially, as many of the college swimmers associated Masters with much older people than themselves. “Their response initially was, ‘My mom and dad swim Masters. My grandpa does it. We’ll take your sticker,’” but we won’t be joining until we are older, Deery says. “They didn’t realize, at first, it was not only a resource for them now but even more so when they graduated.”
But he stuck with it. Over time, the message that Masters swimming can be a lifelong extension of college club swimming started to sink in. What also became apparent was that USMS could help solve some of the issues college club swimming presidents routinely faced—eliminating the loss of institutional knowledge that plagued programs when leaders graduated, creating centralized communication, establishing a more formalized network of meets and events, and developing a results database that would make meets more fun and competitive.
Forging a Framework
In February 2016, after several years of listening to swimmers and understanding the college club swimming landscape better, Deery set a meeting with 11 club presidents and a few club sport and facility directors to have a more robust conversation around how USMS could help them create a more formalized and sustainable organization to grow and support the sport they love.
This was an ah-ha moment, says Kristof Kertesz, an Advisory Board member for College Club Swimming who was club president at the University of Florida and in attendance that day. “I thought it was going to be a short conversation,” but it turned out to be two days of talking as the student-leaders laid out the issues they were facing. Deery listened and provided suggestions for how USMS could help. Kertesz says the students in the room “were very skeptical at first. We’d been approached before by an organization trying to make money off us,” and they were concerned that USMS was only in it for the same reason.
But that concern soon evaporated, Kertesz says, as it became evident that “the ideologies and spirit of USMS and college club swimming were in parallel. It’s people who love swimming. They love it because they want to be active. Some want to be competitive, but they want to be around a team and have fun. We realized there was something there,” says Kertesz, a member of Swim Fort Lauderdale.
Helping create an organization for college club swimmers would help legitimize the sport at that level and strengthen the clubs’ relationship to each other and their universities. But more importantly the relationship would introduce a group of young adults to swimming or provide a swimming outlet past high school and USA Swimming, thus fulfilling USMS’s mission of providing swimming opportunities to even more people.
College Club Swimming launched its first official season in August 2017 and had its first national championship in April 2018 at Georgia Tech.
USMS hosts a website, through Club Assistant, for CCS that provides a club look-up tool, a calendar of events, event results, and an individual results database. Though CCS is a division of USMS, its organizational decisions are almost entirely student run. A few CCS alumni and USMS members, including Copeland and Kertesz, are on the Advisory Board to help guide and assist, but the students are responsible for most of the decision-making and development of the organization.
With the creation of CCS, USMS needed staff support to help address some of the needs of CCS. Onshalee Promchitmart, who was the president of the University of Colorado Boulder Club team and was on the first advisory board that met with USMS, was hired by USMS in July 2017 and serves as coordinator of events and partnerships, supporting both CCS and USMS members, volunteers, and events.
For CCS, she answers questions and works with the Advisory Board to address any issues and concerns that crop up. Nearly all of the interaction is student-to-student, but Promchitmart provides resources and support in the background for club presidents and Advisory Board members.
She also works with volunteers across USMS and says that both CCS and USMS are very similar in how they’re structured. “Being on the other side of the email, I see the same concerns coming from a CCS swimmer as I do from Masters swimmers,” she says, and the solutions from one organization can provide helpful insight to the other sometimes.
Her background as a CCS swimmer is also helpful, she says, as “it makes it easier to answer students’ questions if I speak the lingo and know what some of the clubs are dealing with” within the recreational sports departments at their universities.
CCS has grown since its inception. Over three seasons, some 12,000 swimmers have been members of College Club Swimming, and club membership has increased 133 percent from the first season to this season. More than 1,160 CCS members have also been USMS members. The 2019 FINIS College Club Swimming National Championship drew 1,863 athletes from all over the United States. (The 2020 event was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.)
In addition, over the past two years, 368 CCS swimmers have become USMS members via the bridge membership program designed for registered CCS swimmers and recent graduates who want to do more with USMS. That program offers a “USMS Lite” membership for just $25, which includes access to USMS events and programs and includes a digital-only SWIMMER magazine subscription.
The connectivity between the two organizations is strong and appears to be on a growth trajectory for the future, which pleases Bell, who started the University of Houston club program in 2003. “I think that’s a really valuable structural benefit with CCS being associated with Masters Swimming,” he says. “It naturally encourages college swimmers to participate in other USMS meets while they’re in college and they can graduate into full USMS membership” when they leave their college club teams.
It also helps support and reinforce the best aspects of swimming—camaraderie, fitness, and hard work.
“Going to practice being surrounded by other people who are suffering together—but doing it for the love of the sport—is at the heart of College Club Swimming and continues to be the motivation for the organization that has grown and matured,” Promchitmart says. It’s also at the heart of what it means to be a Masters swimmer and a member of USMS.
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