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by Elaine K Howley

May 1, 2020

In 1978, USMS took charge of its own destiny

Between roughly 1750 and 1850, the Industrial Revolution completely rewrote how the Western world worked. A major consequence of that dramatic shift was an increase in leisure time among many people. This in turn led to the expansion of athletic pursuits and sports into more established competitions.

To help manage this emerging trend, in 1888, the Amateur Athletic Union was formed with the task of organizing and overseeing amateur sports in the United States. For nearly a century, the AAU was the leader in sports government in the U.S. and supported a variety of amateur competitive sports around the country. The AAU was also an important partner in the early Olympic movement and helped develop the U.S. into an Olympic powerhouse in many athletic disciplines.

But as competitive sports grew more complex, the landscape changed, and by the 1970s, the National College Athletic Association and the U.S. Olympic Committee also made claims to governing aspects of amateur athletics in the country. A power struggle ensued surrounding the definition of amateur athletics and which group should be in charge.

But First, Masters

But before those issues all came to a head, a young Navy doctor in San Diego named Ransom Arthur began championing a radical idea for adult swimming for fun, fitness, and competition. In 1968, Arthur connected with John Spannuth, then president of the American Swimming Coaches Association, a professional organization for swimming coaches at all levels, and together they championed the new concept.

Not long after they began working on building the Masters Swimming movement, Spannuth became the aquatics administrator of the AAU, and the idea of bringing Masters Swimming under the AAU umbrella seemed a no-brainer to him and Arthur. It just made sense to create a more formal framework around an idea whose time had come.

But it wasn’t the same easy sell for everyone. See, back in the 1960s, many people still thought it would be dangerous if a whole bunch of adults started exercising—it was thought that heart attacks and strokes would happen left and right if a bunch of 50-something ex-swimmers started trying to relive their college swimming days.

“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,” says Bob Beach, a retired judge in St. Petersburg, Fla. Beach has been deeply involved with Masters Swimming since the early days and says that overcoming those prevailing attitudes to convince the powers that were that adult swimming wasn’t just safe but actually great for health and wellness took a lot of effort.

Finally, in 1972, the AAU formally added Masters to the fold, and the adult swimming organization began growing like a weed as it became easier to stage meets around the country within the AAU framework. For the next several years, Masters Swimming introduced thousands of adults to competitive and fitness swimming via the AAU’s network and through meets and events sponsored, sanctioned, and supported by the AAU.

Untying the Knot

But by the late 1970s, the landscape for amateur athletics had started to change. Competing interests of the AAU, the USOC, and the NCAA meant the definition of “amateur” athlete was evolving, as were the rules of competition. The AAU had long championed a stricter sense of “amateur” than the one we know today, but as amateur athletics became ever more developed and robust, this led to tension between athletes wanting to maintain their competition status but needing to earn a living. (That struggle has recently been echoed inside the NCAA with ongoing debates regarding whether college athletes can earn compensation for their athletic skills.)

The AAU also earned a black eye in the late 1960s by maintaining controversial rules prohibiting women from participating in running events longer than 2.5 miles. Marathon runner Kathrine Switzer famously flouted the AAU rules that governed the iconic Boston Marathon at the time by registering for the race with the gender-nonspecific name K. V. Switzer. Photos of a race official attempting to push her off the course and rip her bib from her shirt raced around the globe then and still circulate every spring when the Boston Marathon prepares for its annual run.

After Switzer’s famous 4:20 Boston Marathon finish, race director Will Cloney reportedly said “women can’t run in the Marathon because the rules forbid it. Unless we have rules, society will be in chaos. I don't make the rules, but I try to carry them out. We have no space in the Marathon for any unauthorized person, even a man. If that girl were my daughter, I would spank her.”

These sorts of sentiments were seen by many athletes across the country as evidence that the AAU and its rules were falling out of step with the times. The passage of Title IX in 1972—though not specifically intended to improve access to sports for women nevertheless did just that—further showed that some of the AAU’s policies were outdated and difficult to square with the rise of other sporting organizations such as the USOC and the NCAA.

Second Act

In 1978, Congress passed the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, which was intended to stop infighting and improve coordination and oversight across the spectrum of amateur athletics. (When the Act passed, Masters Swimming was the second largest aquatic organization in the U.S., and other countries were following suit in establishing entities for their own adult swimmers.)

The Act, signed into law by President Jimmy Carter, empowered the USOC to oversee all national governing bodies for each Olympic and Pan-American sport in the U.S. This meant unraveling the various swimming groups from the AAU and establishing their own governing bodies.

Ross Wales, then a young, self-described “hot shot lawyer” who had swum as an undergraduate at Princeton University and knew Ransom Arthur from his promotions of Masters swimming to college campuses around the country, had gotten involved with the AAU and explains that by 1977, “the handwriting was on the wall” that the AAU would “be stripped of its national governing bodies.”

Wales was in position to draft the legal documents to establish those NGBs as entities separate from the AAU. “I volunteered to draw up the paperwork for the entities of the competitive swimming committee of the AAU. When the other sports within the AAU found out I had done that for swimming, then all the sudden I realized I had to incorporate 10 or 11 other AAU committees,” he recalls. In the scramble to disband entities under the AAU, much paperwork needed drafting, and fast.

It was a lot of work, Wales recalls, but Masters Swimming became completely self-governed in 1982 as United States Masters Swimming Inc. “It was not in the same situation as the majority of the other entities that I had created,” Wales recalls, because Masters Swimming wouldn’t be sending athletes to the Olympic Games. This made it fundamentally a different type of organization from USA Swimming or USA Diving, for example.

Self-Governance and Robust Growth

But the shift to self-governance was a really important one for USMS, says Tom Boak, a Woodlands Masters Swim Team member who served as president of the organization from 1985 through 1989.

“In the history of our organization, moving from the AAU to U.S. Masters Swimming’s own corporation is probably one of the two or three most important things that happened,” he says. That’s because “it established Masters Swimming as the legal entity responsibe for adult swimming in the U.S,” and it created a new level of autonomy that gave the organization “complete control over its program. It was very unusual in the world of sport and monumental in terms of the future of our organization.”

After being formally recognized by FINA, the international federation that oversees aquatic sports around the world, in 1976, USMS became part of United States Aquatic Sports, the national federation that represents aquatic sports in the U.S. to FINA. USAS also represents USA Swimming, USA Diving, USA Water Polo, and USA Synchro, and USMS’s annual meeting occurs at USAS’s convention each fall.

Since USMS split from the AAU, it has been able to control its own destiny and forge its own path, and the AAU has carried on. The organization has switched its focus to the promotion and development of amateur sports and physical fitness programs, with a lot of effort placed on youth athletes. The AAU has nearly 700,000 members and 150,000 volunteers involved in 41 sports programs across the country.


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