USMS was one of the first national governing bodies to take up residence online
It might seem like ancient history now—after all, we all carry around tiny computers that provide near-instant access to the sum total of human knowledge—but not so very long ago, U.S. Masters Swimming was an entirely analog organization. From 1970, when it was founded, until 1996, when USMS’s website was developed, all USMS business was conducted via in-person meetings, phone calls, or snail mail.
But in the mid-1990s, a digital world began expanding, and some savvy members of USMS saw a potential opportunity for the organization to leverage this new technology. Jim Matysek, a longtime member and volunteer recalls that one of his teammates, Betty Barry, of Niagara Masters, had attended the annual meeting in 1995 and told Matysek that the planning committee she served on had decided that USMS should have a website. “She was on my team and she says, ‘Well, how do we go about doing that?’” he recalls.
She asked Matysek because she knew he worked in IT for Xerox and had technology know-how. “At the time, at work I was just managing, and I wasn’t doing the actual technical work anymore because I had a big group,” Matysek says. But he was intrigued about getting back into more hands-on programming and development and he was eager to support Masters. “So I said, ‘You know what? That’s cool. I’ve never done it before, but I’ll learn how to do it and do it for you.’”
Over the course of the next year, Matysek got busy learning how to develop a website and created some content to seed it before launch. “One thing was the 1996 Summer Nationals,” he recalls. It was important to have those results on the website before it launched to show off exactly why this project would be so useful going forward. This was the first time national meet results were available online; prior to that, results were photocopied and mailed to members, a costly and time-consuming process.
By the 1996 annual meeting, Matysek was ready to show the world his labor of love. But then, disaster struck. “It was like the first or second day of [the annual meeting], and I was in my hotel room. I’d put my laptop in this case on the bed. I went to go downstairs to a meeting, and I grabbed the laptop case by the handle. But the bag wasn’t zipped, and my new work laptop went tumbling in full motion through the air and smacked on the ground. It broke the display. So, then I had this $2,000 worthless brick for the rest of the [the annual meeting].”
Back then, Matysek was probably the only person or one of very few people who would have had a newfangled laptop computer on hand—they just weren’t widely available yet, and his computer weighed about 10 pounds, he recalls. Without that laptop, it was hard to show everyone what he’d sweated over for so long. “I could tell people to go to www.usms.org, but I couldn’t show anybody anything,” he says, laughing.
Though the website had a rather inauspicious unveiling, it soon took off as a major component of USMS. Matysek continued to support the site in his free time for the next seven years as a volunteer, though he did receive a $10,000 annual stipend for his efforts.
“I was working full-time at Xerox, and I would work on the website at night.” It was an intense pace, but worth it. “It was fascinating,” Matysek recalls. “I really dove into it, trying to learn as much as I could.”
Matysek’s own swimming life helped inform how he built the site. “Being a swimmer, I thought, ‘It would be cool if I could get this or that information at my fingertips,’” and those sorts of queries drove how the site grew.
In 1998, the idea surfaced to create an online registration system for the national championship meets. Processing the entries for those very large events had long been the biggest time suck for the organization. Someone had to manually enter each registration.
Again, Matysek didn’t know exactly how to make the registration system work at first, but he figured it out and collaborated with the Championship Committee chair to create the exact type of form they needed. “That was a real challenge. It was a big project, but it was fun.” It was also “the first time anybody’d every done that in the world,” he says.
On the registration system’s first outing in 1999, Matysek recalls that out of the roughly 1,700 swimmers who participated in the meet, about 300 signed up using the online entry. The following year, that figure jumped to about 600, “and within a couple years, about 95 percent of the entries came online. Now it’s basically 100 percent.”
These successes were evidence that the technologically forward-thinking moves USMS had made over the previous few years had been wise. But as the site continued to grow, so did Matysek’s time commitment to supporting it.
“I remember at one point, someone said, ‘You’re likely to get an email from Jim at 3 o’clock in the morning. Because that’s when he’s working on stuff,’” he says.
Though Matysek left Xerox at the end of 1999 to become an independent contractor, he found that his love of the USMS website—and the growing web-based needs of other volunteers and members—was pulling his attention away from paying work. That could only go on for so long.
Finally, in 2002, Matysek issued an ultimatum. “Jim Miller was the president at the time, and I told him he had to hire me at [the annual meeting] that year or I quit.”
Thus, Matysek became one of the early members of the National Office staff, and he helmed the IT division, managing the website and overseeing the expansion of digital and information technology infrastructure for USMS. He worked for the organization until mid-2017.
Perks and Programs
An early perk of the new site was email aliases—actually forwarding address overlays that point to a personal email inbox—that members could get that would show off their affiliation with USMS. “All USMS members are now able to identify themselves online with United States Masters Swimming,” reads a screenshot of the site from April 1997. “Members can sign up for a free E-Mail alias so that you can receive mail in your current E-Mail box addressed to YourName@usms.org.”
“We got the email address aliases because one of the hosting companies that we had moved to in 1997 offered that as a service,” Matysek explains. “I saw that and thought it was cool that we could offer that to all our members and use that as a marketing tool.”
Although USMS members are no longer able to obtain a usms.org email address, volunteers do, and it helps streamline how volunteers could transition in and out of leadership positions within the organization. For volunteers such as Top 10 recorders or registrars, “I didn’t want to publish anybody’s personal email address on the website. Also, if the registrar changes, I didn’t want to have to train people to stop sending” correspondence to the previous registrar and have to learn a new address.
Instead, it’s much easier to just send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org and have that message forward to the appropriate person—no matter who that is at any given time. Making it all happen is a tiny piece of techno-magic that’s relatively easy to configure behind the scenes.
Another notable addition to the website came in the mid-2000s when Mary Sweat, then chair of the Fitness Committee, developed the now wildly popular Go the Distance program. Originally, Sweat created a fancy Excel spreadsheet that she emailed to members who’d record their swimming yardage and submit their totals at the end of the month back to Sweat. She’d then tally it all up and manually update the leaderboard.
When it was just 100 or so people participating, it wasn’t so bad. But as the program became more popular, Sweat found it became too onerous to continue the manual process. “She asked me to write some code to do it for her,” Matysek says, and thus, the My Fitness Log was born.
The log now provides members a means of tracking not just their swimming, but a wide range of fitness activities, body weight and heart rate to keep tabs on health and performance statistics. Data from the log populates the Go the Distance rankings for members who choose to participate, and that has really helped the GTD program grow.
The Future of Tech at USMS
Over the years, the USMS website has undergone a series of redesigns and overhauls, the most recent having been completed in 2018, the year USMS also launched Club Finder, a tool swimmers can use to find USMS clubs across the country.
As the site has become ever more sophisticated and technology has become increasingly part of everything we do, traffic at usms.org has only increased.
USMS began formally tracking web traffic in late 2009, says Kyle Deery, USMS’s senior director of marketing and communications. He offers some figures to help show the exponential growth of the website that’s only expected to continue increasing in the future. “In January 2010, we had 67,000 users to the site visiting 775,000 pages. In January 2020, we had 146,000 users to the site visiting 1,101,000 pages. That’s roughly 35,000 page views per day and 4,700 daily users.”
More recently, content related to the coronavirus pandemic has spiked traffic to the site, as members and other swimmers around the world search for high-quality information about how the coronavirus is impacting swimming, swimmers, clubs, coaches, and every other aspect of our lives. Some of these articles have drawn a lot of eyeballs, Deery says. For example, “One coronavirus article received over 550,000 page views.”
USMS plans to continue building upon its digital presence. In the summer of 2020, it launched its revamped Workout Library, which allows members to customize their workouts through an integration with Swim.com and to subscribe to have workouts emailed to them each Monday morning.
USMS also plans to launch its overhauled community platform in 2020. This update will allow members to engage with other swimmers through redesigned forums and manage their accounts much easier.
“We have a lot of big things planned for every way our members interact with our organization at usms.org,” Deery says. “We’re excited to provide our members more and better benefits through our website.”
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