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by Elaine K Howley

December 22, 2022

Spannuth joined Ransom J. Arthur in hosting the organization's first swim meet in 1970

If June Krauser was the mother of U.S. Masters Swimming and Ransom J. Arthur was the father of the organization, then the architect making lots of savvy moves behind the scenes was John Spannuth. The lifelong swimmer and ardent proponent of all things swimming passed away on Monday at the age of 89.

Spannuth’s rise to prominence in aquatics circles seems unlikely, given that he nearly drowned at age 6. But taking that as a warning, his parents enrolled him in swimming lessons and before long, Spannuth had joined a local swim team. He began coaching and teaching other kids when he was just 12. He soon progressed to lifeguarding and began a progression up the ladder of aquatics management.

“I was a troubled kid when I was young,” Spannuth said during a 2017 interview with SWIMMER magazine. “I was always in trouble, but getting into aquatics helped me get out of that.”

During college, he began working at the Reading YMCA in Reading, Pennsylvania, and built the local age group swimming team from just 12 kids to 130 kids within three years. He was named aquatics director there in 1955. “As far as swimming instruction, we were passing more people on all levels of swimming instruction, more than any other Y in the state,” Spannuth recalled.

From there, Spannuth began garnering attention as an up-and-coming leader in aquatic sports. He was elected president of the Berks County Swimming Association and was recruited by the swimming coach at West Chester University. “The coach was amazed at all the national-level swimmers I’d produced, but he knew I hadn’t finished college. He encouraged me to come to West Chester University and work with him as assistant coach and freshman men’s and women’s varsity coach while I was going to school. The teams did very well; we won the mid-Atlantic championship,” he recalled. 

After the top amateur basketball team it had sponsored for nearly 50 years lost many of its players to a new professional league, the Phillips Petroleum Company pivoted and directed its funding toward the Phillips 66ers Swimming Club (now called the Phillips 66 Splash Club), and they moved Spannuth to Bartlesville, Oklahoma, to lead the age-group program in 1961.

For the next seven years, Spannuth led the team to success, until a group of swimming parents in Amarillo, Texas, recruited him to their area to build a team. “I wrote to them that they would have to offer me twice my annual salary and twice the benefits,” Spannuth recalled. They complied and he soon landed in Amarillo where he helped direct the building of a state-of-the-art indoor aquatics center.

Spannuth was elected to lead the American Swimming Coaches Association in 1968, and it was his solicitation for ideas on how to expand swimming to serve more people that eventually got the Masters ball rolling. It was in response to his request that Arthur, a young Naval doctor in San Diego, submitted a proposal encouraging older adults to swim more. “Arthur sold it as a way to encourage people to swim on a regular basis and be concerned about physical fitness,” Spannuth recalled.

Entrepreneurial and a lifelong swimmer, Spannuth immediately saw the possibilities in what Arthur was suggesting, and he set about to help build Masters Swimming as a sport. But it wasn’t an easy road; back then, many people—some doctors included—thought that encouraging adults to swim and compete would cause a rash of medical problems and deaths.

As a doctor, Arthur knew better, and he and Spannuth worked very closely together to refine the concept of Masters. They decided staging a meet would be the best way to launch the new program. So in May 1970, they hosted the first unofficial Masters swim meet in Amarillo. Forty-six swimmers participated. “Masters swimming was a neat idea, and having a meet brought a little attention to it,” Spannuth said.

Shortly thereafter, Spannuth joined the Amateur Athletic Union as the aquatics administrator. In that role, he was able to bring Masters Swimming into the fold of the then-national governing body for aquatic sports, but again, it wasn’t an easy sell. As longtime USMS member Bob Beach recalled during a 2017 interview, “there was a lot of resistance to AAU taking Masters Swimming over because they looked upon us as just a bunch of old ex-swimmers who got together on Sunday and drank a few beers and swam a 50 and talked about their old glories, which was obviously not the case.”

Despite health and safety and space constraint concerns at pools, eventually—after two years of lobbying—the AAU added Masters Swimming as a discipline under its umbrella in 1973. “It was because of John’s efforts,” Beach recalled, that the organization was accepted and began growing rapidly.

From just 160 swimmers at the second meet they held in Texas in 1971 to more than 65,000 registered members at its largest in 2017, U.S. Masters Swimming expanded rapidly in large part because Spannuth pushed to make it happen. “Once the AAU made it an official sport, it really took off,” he recalled.

Spannuth also served as the International Director of the Special Olympics in Washington, D.C., and developed national swimming programs in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia for more than four years.

In Bahrain, he wrote a feature article every week for the English-speaking newspaper, and one of the articles was about how to swim. That led to a major resort asking him to come give lessons, and before he knew it he was teaching the three sons of the Emir of Bahrain, the heir apparent to the throne, how to swim. “I would go out to the palace three times a week and work with the three kids,” Spannuth said.

In Saudi Arabia, he served as the director of recreation for the sports academy and put together a master plan for physical education for the Saudi Air Force. “I just love building things and making things happen,” he said. “That’s been the story of my life.”

Always humble, Spannuth didn’t seek the spotlight or credit for his efforts in bringing swimming to the world. “I’m about helping people and growing aquatics,” he said. Nevertheless, in 1988, Spannuth received the Capt. Ransom J. Arthur M.D. award, USMS’s highest honor. That same year, he founded the United States Water Fitness Association, a nonprofit organization that promotes aquatic and water fitness. He led the organization until he retired recently.

For his efforts across all these aquatic endeavors, Spannuth was awarded the International Swimming Hall of Fame’s Presidential Honor Award in 2016.


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