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The Chuck Wielgus Blog: My First Swimming Lesson

9/25/2013

In the late spring of 1975 I found myself in the position of trying to start a new summer league swim team in Woodstock, VT.  

The Woodstock Recreation Center had two outdoor pools, one of which was a 6-lane, 25-yarder.  This small town of 3,000 people had never had a swim team before, and I had been told that previous attempts to start a team had failed.  “We never had enough kids sign-up,” was what I was told.  

I was determined to start a team, but now knew I needed something better than a sign-up sheet as a strategy to attract kids.  Besides, basketball was my game and I had a lot to learn about swimming. Throughout college I worked summers as a lifeguard at the beach along Long Island Sound, but that was far different from organizing and coaching a swim team.

I came up with a plan and waited for the first really warm day to make my move.  At about 2 p.m. the 6-lane pool was packed with kids of all ages.  I went to the side of the pool deck, blew my whistle and ordered everyone out of the pool.  I put all the kids in a line and had them count off by sixes.  When that was finished I had everyone go stand in the lane that aligned with their number.  

“Okay, we’re now going to have a relay race.  Everyone swims up and back and when they touch the wall the next swimmer in line goes.”  By the time the second swimmers were in the pool all the kids were cheering and yelling for their new teammates.  It was obvious the kids were having a blast and so we had a few more races before I again ordered everyone out of the pool.

“Alright, that was pretty good.  I think we can have a really good swim team here and if you’d like to be a member then be here ready to race again at 2 p.m. tomorrow.”

I had no idea how many kids would show up the next day, but when I walked onto the pool deck at the announced time, there were about 50-60 kids there.  We were on our way.  

I studied Doc Counsilman’s, The Science of Swimming to develop practice plans; arranged for dual meets with other teams in the area; organized the parents to help with meet administration duties; and did all the other things required to run a summer league team program.  When we hosted the first-ever home meet at the rec center pool, I realized we had no public address system, so I brought my own stereo system to the pool and jerry-rigged a set-up that would have made Rube Goldberg proud.

We weren’t very good that first year, but we had a blast and I knew we’d started something special.  Over the winter months, our parents got more organized and I expanded my coaching knowledge.  By the time the spring thaw came to Vermont, we were itching to get started and this time we had no problem getting kids and their parents to complete registration forms.  In fact, we almost had more kids than we could handle.  

This experience seared into me an important leadership lesson: a leader needs to be enthusiastic, dedicated and to make things fun.  It’s something that USA Swimming’s 17,000 coaches do day-in and day-out on pool decks across the country.  

While my brief foray as a swim coach is humble comparatively, I’ll still never forget that first swim team in Woodstock, and when I arrived at USA Swimming 22 years later in 1997, the first picture I hung on my office wall was of that group of young swimmers who taught me so much.  

Comments and suggested blog topics can be sent directly to Chuck Wielgus at: cwielgus@usaswimming.org