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.