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by Elaine K Howley

July 13, 2020

How USMS volunteers recognized a need and built a professional staff to serve a growing organization

Over much of its 50-year history, U.S. Masters Swimming has depended on untold millions of hours of work from a vast network of volunteers. These dedicated individuals have poured more time and energy into the creation and development of the organization at the club, LMSC, and national level than can ever properly be recognized.

Alongside those dedicated and self-sacrificing volunteers has been a small number of equally passionate employees who have made a living while supporting the goals of Masters Swimming in the U.S.

The story of the volunteers and employees can’t be told without recognizing one particularly energetic and impactful person who had a wide-ranging influence: Dorothy Donnelly.

The Dorothy Donnelly Years

Donnelly served as U.S. Masters Swimming’s executive secretary for 11 years, from 1985 until Dec. 31, 1996. In that capacity, she answered the phones at the National Office—which was just a fancy term for her house—and assisted each president with his or her tasks in serving the membership and building the organization.

Not just a savvy secretary, Donnelly was also a talented swimmer. Though she only learned to swim at age 14, she wasted no time getting to the top of the podium. She earned a berth in the 100 and 400 freestyle and the 4 x 100 freestyle relay at the 1940 Tokyo Olympics, which were canceled in the run up to World War II.

Nevertheless, Donnelly found a swimming home with USMS in the early 1970s. She served as the registration chairperson for the Connecticut AAU for 20 years, and in 1983 received the Capt. Ransom J. Arthur MD Award, USMS’s highest volunteer honor. The following year, she was hired as the executive secretary, assisting the president of the organization in all things Masters Swimming.

From helping swimmers register and answering questions to making sure the president’s calendar was appropriately managed, Donnelly handled it all. Over the years, Donnelly contributed so much to Masters Swimming that Jack Geoghegan, a longtime USMS member and a member of Connecticut Masters, once referred to her as the magically beneficent caretaker of Masters Swimming. “If Ransom Arthur is the ‘Father of Masters swimming’ and June Krauser is the ‘Mother,’ then you are the ‘Fairy Godmother’ who makes everyone feel good about our sport,” he said.

Each year, the Dorothy Donnelly Service Award is given to volunteers whose service has contributed to the growth, improvement, or success of USMS locally, regionally, or nationally.

Passing the Baton

When Donnelly retired, New England Masters Swim Club member Tracy Grilli took over as executive secretary. “I was essentially the office manager for USMS,” Grilli recalls.

But Donnelly was still involved, mentoring and assisting Grilli in getting up to speed on the thriving organization’s many needs and members. Transitioning took a lot of coffee and time sifting through paper, back at the dawn of the internet age, Grilli recalls. “I would drive down to her house in Rutland, Mass., two days a week after I put the kids on the school bus. She would have coffee and I’d bring pastries and we’d sit at her kitchen table and go over everything. There were these boxes and boxes of papers that we would go through.”

The pair bonded over swimming and the administrative minutia of running a nonprofit. Not only did they become forever friends, but Grilli was also well set up to provide support and worked in the National Office until 2017.

For over two decades, Grilli came into contact with virtually every member, either when mailing membership cards each year initially or when fielding their emailed questions more recently.

Grilli is also an accomplished swimmer who never missed a national championship or local mini meet. She’s still greeted warmly on pool decks across the country for her work for the organization.

Creating a Sarasota Headquarters

During Grilli’s 20 years with Masters Swimming, the organization grew from 35,000 members to more than 65,000 in 2016. That robust growth meant that USMS would need more than Grilli and Jim Matysek—the organization’s second paid employee, who built USMS’s website—to assist, and over the years, the number of employees slowly increased. To help manage all this, USMS’s Board of Directors decided it was time to establish a National Office and hire an executive director. In 2008, Rob Butcher was hired and tasked with leading USMS into this next transition.

After a nationwide search and request for proposals, the National Office was established in Sarasota, Fla. Rob Copeland was president of USMS at the time and said in a press release that it was a “significant milestone in the history of U.S. Masters Swimming. For nearly 40 years, we have existed as a virtual, volunteer-run organization. Our membership has continued and is continuing to grow. We are now at nearly 50,000 members, and with the hiring of an executive director and additional staff, establishing a national headquarters is a natural evolution.”

The establishment of the National Office headquarters in Sarasota, Fla., gave USMS a physical space to call its own where staffers could collaborate in person. The organization benefited from that focused, professional attention and the development of a dedicated home base.

For seven years, the National Office was housed in the glass-walled and blue-roofed Pagoda Building, a historical structure designed by architect Victor Lundy in 1956. A small space, the Pagoda Building was perfect at first, but eventually proved a bit too tight as the number of professional staffers grew. In 2015, the National Office staff relocated to a larger space in Sarasota. The hard work the staff members contribute every day will continue long into the future in support of USMS’s goals of getting more adults swimming.


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