The Gold Standard

In memory of Chuck Wielgus, 1950-2017…

Yesterday afternoon my thumb swept mindless through my Instagram feed and stopped. My heart tightened, my breath caught. I knew the moment I saw his face on USA Swimming’s feed, before I could process the years written in small script beneath his name. My friend Chuck had died.

For over a decade Chuck Wielgus had been battling cancer. He beat it once, before it returned in 2012. For the last five years, few knew – or could fathom – the fight he waged. I liked to tell folks that he was the toughest guy I knew. He was. His always cheerful demeanor belied a ferocious will to live on. The man had the spirit of a Navy SEAL under heavy fire. Fearless and loyal and able to stare down death with a defiant smile. That was the Chuck that I came to know so well.

You likely know the broad strokes of his career: twenty years at the helm of USA Swimming as its Executive Director, the longest serving chief executive in the entire Olympic family, across any sport. Under his leadership he doubled the organization’s membership, from less than 200,000 members to over 400,000 today. USA Swimming’s revenues increased by 600 percent with Chuck guiding the business.

His signature achievement may be his transformation of the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials. A swim meet inside an 18,000 seat arena, sold out for every session, eight days in a row? That’s a reality of our sport now, and that’s due to Chuck’s vision more than anyone else. Three years after he took over as Executive Director in 1997, Chuck attended his first Olympic Swim Trials in Indianapolis. Once again it was at the IUPUI pool, which long had the reputation as the temple of our sport. Trials were held there in 1984, 1992, 1996, and 2000. It’s been the site of every meet that matters in the U.S. It was hard to envision a major swimming competition happening anywhere else.

On August 15th, 2000 in Indy, on the night that Erik Vendt became the first American ever to break the 15-minute barrier in the 1500, Chuck stood atop the 10-meter diving platform and surveyed the scene. It was hard not to be giddy as those Trials concluded. (I was a young PA for NBC Sports that week and I remember gushing to senior producers that it was the best meet I’d ever witnessed. Michael Phelps made it at 15! Dara Torres at 33! Tom Dolan gutted out the grittiest 400 IM I’d ever seen! It was hard to envision swimming getting much better than that.)

Chuck took that all in – and he shrugged. Sure, it was a hell of a meet, he thought, but his overriding impression was that we can do so much better. And so he set about doing just that. First came the 2004 Trials in Long Beach, California, which felt like a Pacific-side carnival of swimming, a week-long swimmer festival under the So Cal sun. Then, in 2008, another leap forward, this time to the center of the country, to Omaha, Nebraska, which might have felt like an odd locale after Long Beach, until you stepped into the arena and witnessed just what Chuck had in mind. These Trials had the atmosphere of an NBA Finals.

Fact is, the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials in Omaha are now a better swim meet than the Olympics themselves. Go to both and come back and tell me otherwise. The IOC can’t match what Chuck conceived as USA Swimming’s signature event.

But that’s the stuff you already know. Here’s some that you probably don’t. Chuck was the author of two books: The In-Your-Face Basketball Book, published in 1980, and The Back-In-Your-Face Guide to Pick-up Basketball, published in 1986. His co-author: Sports Illustrated legend Alexander Wolff, then a young on-the-make sports writer who received second billing to Chuck on the cover.

He would go on to forge his career as a chief executive, but Chuck always had the soul of a writer. His curiosity was boundless, as was his appreciation for the well-turned phrase. That would prove to be the connection that forged our friendship. For years we were professionally friendly, in the way of swimming’s extended family, working together on the Golden Goggles, the Swim Network website, and most recently on the documentary, The Last Gold.

In February of 2012, he invited my wife and I to a private five-star feast at Daniel Boulud’s test kitchen in TriBeCa, hosted by Garrett Weber-Gale. My wife, a food writer, was thrilled. So was I, but not only for the food. Chuck said there was something he wanted to discuss with me. Between courses he explained that he wanted to write another book – this one a business book, focused on Olympic Leadership. He asked if I’d be interested in collaborating with him on it. Damn right, I said. The rest of the meal passed with us conspiring about the project. For the next few months we spoke or emailed almost every day. A proposal was composed; an agent was found; the process moved fast.

Chuck wanted to address the highs and the lows, this wasn’t to be a mere victory lap touting USA Swimming’s prodigious success. He wanted us to write about the sexual abuse scandal that was roiling the sport – and how he wished he could have handled it differently at times, especially on his ill-fated 20/20 appearance where his interview unraveled into a PR disaster. He was forthcoming about his faults to, well, a fault. He wanted folks in all businesses to be able to learn from the dark chapters as much as from the outsized success of the American swimming juggernaut. We coined the name a few days later: It would be called The Gold Standard.

The proposal made the rounds with some publishers. We suffered together through the inevitable passes from editors. He encouraged me that rejection was always going to be a part of the writer’s life. This was no gig for thin egos. We’d fight on. We knew someone would bite, at some point.

But then, as spring turned to summer and the London Games approached, the cancer returned more vicious than ever. By that fall, at the 2012 Golden Goggles in New York, Chuck was in bad shape. Days after the gala, he underwent life-threatening surgery to remove the tumor. It was unsuccessful.

After the procedure, as he recuperated in a rented Manhattan apartment near the hospital I stopped by for a visit. I knocked on the apartment door and waited. I could hear the TV on inside, but no one answered. I waited some more, knocked again, called his cell, and finally went back downstairs and asked the doorman if he might have seen him. The doorman’s face fell. He hadn’t realized who I was going to see. He told me moments before I arrived that Chuck had been wheeled out unconscious. His sutures had broken inside his abdomen. He almost bled out on the apartment floor. His wife Nancy arrived home just in time, and Chuck’s life was saved.

Two days later I went to see him back in the hospital. Despite his latest brush with death, there he was smiling in bed, beaming about Team USA’s success in London, talking contentedly about how proud we should all be about the state of our sport. I left less shaken than in awe at his strength of spirit. He’d been at death’s door – not for the first time – and the man had a will, an optimism that I couldn’t quite grasp. All I knew was that this was a lesson to remember, a man to emulate.

I brought Chuck a stack of books that day in the hospital, and it became a running theme. Each time we saw each other for the next five years, we’d bring each other another book. The titles were not what one would expect. They were seldom non-fiction, almost always novels, and usually on the darker side. He got me Andre Dubus III’s Dirty Love, a collection of stories with perfect sentences and passages that often felt like a punch to the gut. I got him Herman Koch’s The Dinner – a black comedy / crime novel so twisted that you’d only give it to a fellow traveler, someone you knew would get it. He did.

Other books would follow. We knew each other’s taste. Our correspondence soon became more about books and writing, and less about swimming, though that would always be the common bond. I have a book coming out now myself – a crime novel called Under Water. Chuck knew all about it. The advance galleys are due to arrive next week. I couldn’t wait to send it to him. In our last email exchange a few weeks ago, he wrote about holding a first book in your hands. He said: “next to the birth of a child, it doesn’t get much better.”

It doesn’t get much better than Chuck Wielgus. He was a mentor and a true friend, and one of the all-time greats the sport of swimming will ever know.

I’ll miss him.

Postcard of a Hanging

Ryan Lochte’s public shaming – a Darwinian fall from grace…

I don’t think he reads many books. But if there’s one book that belongs on Ryan Lochte’s nightstand right now, it’s this: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson. It came out this spring to glowing reviews and the title pretty much says it all. Lochte’s current predicament could be a case study for a future expanded paperback edition.

Public shaming has always been a preferred form of societal revenge. Ronson points out that it was not only popular, but a state-sanctioned form of punishment in Colonial America. Nowadays it doesn’t need to be legalized; the ubiquitous cameras recording our every move and the light speed terror of social media make it inevitable. It quenches an ugly desire in all of us to devour that pound of flesh when public figures are caught behaving badly. The better looking, richer, and more successful, the better.

It happens in an instant. The outraged blood thirsty masses pounce and gorge in a frenzy. 48 hours later they’re wiping the meat from their teeth, while some scolding network anchor chides the shamed into a tearful mea culpa.

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What Didn’t Ryan Lochte Do?

The instantly infamous ‘Lochte Mugging’ in Rio has become an international incident spinning out of control… While his three American compatriots are left scrabbling to get their stories straight in front of an unamused host nation, the ringleader and superstar is somewhere stateside with a lot of explaining to do…

Congrats, boys. You’re part of one of the most successful and inspiring U.S. swim teams in history. A team packed with rookies, that entered Rio under a forecast of fading American swimming prospects. Instead, Team USA stepped up beyond all expectations. They collected an astonishing 33 medals in the pool in Rio, and this without two of their four superstars (Missy Franklin and Lochte himself) showing up much at all. U.S. swimmers always seem to dominate, but this was a special, transcendent team. Congrats, boys, you were part of that. You should be proud.

Except now, based on a few hazy drunken hours over the weekend, your team’s performance is no longer the headline. Your behavior – and your sketchy truthiness – is the thing that’s making international headlines. What the hell happened that night? Were all four of you blackout drunk? At this point, I hope so. Because that’s looking better than the alternative – that you collectively lied about something that has embarrassed and offended both your country and your Olympic host.

Ryan Lochte, Jimmy Feigen, Gunnar Bentz, and Jack Conger – now’s the time to start talking. Your stories weren’t straight the first time you told it, and now the security footage is coming in, and that’s looking pretty damning.

Look, I don’t doubt that you were robbed. I don’t doubt that a gun was pulled. I don’t think you made this whole thing up from whole cloth. Why would you? There’s nothing to gain, and everything to lose. But it does seem as though you weren’t entirely honest about how it all went down.

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Canada’s Penny Wins Gold! (Not that NBC Noticed…)

USA’s Simone Manuel and Canada’s Penny Oleksiak tied for Olympic gold in the women’s 100 Free… A case study in the bias of knee-jerk nationalism and getting so caught up in one moment, you miss the other…

Look, I get it. This was a lot more than another American winning gold. This was the first African-American woman ever to win an individual Olympic swimming medal. This was big and it was bad ass and Simone Manuel deserves every bit of love and praise coming her way.

But here’s a quick memo for the good folks at NBC calling and producing these races: She TIED.

The other gold medalist, the equal gold medalist, was a 16-year-old Canadian by the name of Penny Oleksiak. A swimmer who is now the greatest ever in Canadian Olympic history. At 16-years-old, that swim stamps Penny as Canada’s all-time best in an Olympic swimming pool.

This isn’t just a foot-stomping former Canadian Olympian ranting about one his own not getting her due. This was poor pro-USA television. This was about getting so swept up in one achievement that the other, equal champion got this: An afterthought tag about “what an Olympics Penny Oleksiak is having” while the going-to-commercial music cued up.

At four Olympics, in 2000, 2004, 2006, and 2008, I was among the NBC team. At each of those Games, and I’m sure at every one before and since, every production staffer was required to attend a do’s and don’ts seminar right before the Olympics began. It was mostly a rah-rah self-congratulatory show for the pooh-bahs who ran things from the control rooms, but it was also a repetitive reminder to cool it with the Go-USA crap. Something that, no matter how many reminders, never ceases to seep deeply into the NBC broadcast of the Olympics.

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“The Truth Remains That No One Wants to Know”

On the loss of Olympic faith…

I was driving north up the New York thruway yesterday, glad to be a million miles from Rio, wishing I could be more excited by the many inspiring performances down there, when an old Kris Kristofferson song came on called “To Beat the Devil.” How apt, thought I, immersed as I’ve been with some particular devilish battles of late. Turned it up, let him lay it on me.

The truth remains that no one wants to know…

Truer words. The devil in the song was an old man sitting at the bar, looking to crush the dreams of the dead broke kid beside him holding his guitar. No need for further details. The beauty of the good tunes is their ability to set your mind spinning wherever it needs to go.

My mind went to the NBA, to the NHL, to the NFL, to FIFA, and to every other major sport that consumes so much of our time and passions. And of course thoughts went to doping, the devil that lurks inside each and every one of them.

As I understand it, neither the NBA nor the NHL bother to test players at all during the playoffs. You know, when you have groups of obsessively competitive multimillionaires competing in insanely draining series, where recovery is paramount. As far as I can tell, the NFL just doesn’t give a shit, and nor do its fans. And to be fair – to be a fan of American football (as I am), means suspending your moral compass for your own vicarious enjoyment. These guys are killing each other; they’re all likely going to die at an earlier age than you or I because of what they do for a living. In that context, one can see how the cleanliness of your favorite aging linebacker or quarterback seems a little less urgent.

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Mack Drives in the Knife

On the first night of swimming in Rio, Aussie Mack Horton out-touched China’s Sun Yang for gold in the 400 free… He did something that few athletes have the courage to do these days: He called his competitor a “drug cheat” and questioned why “athletes who have tested positive are still competing”… A good question. Why aren’t more athletes stepping up, stating the same, and showing the courage of their convictions?

It started with some warm-up pool taunting. Sun was trying to get into the 20-year-old Horton’s head. Word is he splashed him. (‘Bush league psych-out stuff’, in the words of the Big Lewbowski’s Jesus Quintana…) Horton wasn’t having it, and he wasn’t afraid to speak up either. He was soon telling the media that “He just kind of splashed me but I ignored him because I don’t have time or respect for drug cheats. He wasn’t too happy about that so he kept splashing me. I just got in and did my thing.”

His thing: To win Olympic gold in the 400, taking down Sun, the defending Olympic champion, by .13.

Then, at the post-race new conference, with Sun sitting next to him, he stuck by his previous comments, stating “I used the word drug cheat because he test positive. I just have a problem with athletes who have tested positive still competing.”

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