For the first time since 1997, USA Swimming is in the market for a new Executive Director. Chuck Wielgus is stepping down after 19 years at the helm of the sport’s national governing body. In this multi-part series, SwimSwam will tackle the specifics of the job and what to look forward to as USA Swimming continues to search for Wielgus’s successor.
We’ve looked at the job itself and the process USA Swimming will follow in finding a successor. But who are the top candidates to fill the position? We run through some of the early frontrunners here:
Mike Unger, Assistant Executive Director, USA Swimming
One of the top internal candidates to replace Wielgus, Mike Unger has been a part of USA Swimming since 1993. Unger has served in a number of roles, including Marketing Director, National Events Director and Chief Operating Officer. Maybe most high-profile is his hands-on work with all of USA Swimming’s TV broadcasts, including the U.S. Olympic Trials. Unger has also worked with NBC Sports on broadcasts of international meets. Unger has also taken a very active role in helping run USA Swimming as Wielgus dealt with cancer treatment over the past several years.
Matt Farrell, Chief Marketing Officer, USA Swimming
Matt Farrell seems to be the other front-runner internally to replace Wielgus. Farrell is in charge of USA Swimming’s business side, including marketing, promotions, social media, sponsorships and public relations. USA Swimming has excelled in that area lately, rising rapidly in visibility, and is currently one of the highest-profile U.S. Olympic sports. Farrell has been with USA Swimming for 12 years now and has previously worked with the U.S. Olympic Committee and Warner Bros.
Debbie Hesse, USA Swimming Foundation Executive Director
Debbie Hesse made the jump from USA Diving in 2010, becoming the executive director of the USA Swimming Foundation, the philanthropic arm of USA Swimming. Hesse has a wealth of executive experience, having led the diving federation in a President/CEO role for almost 4 years and having served as executive director for U.S. Synchronized Swimming for 7 years.
David Berkoff, attorney and former USA Swimming Board member
One outside-yet-inside hire would be David Berkoff, 1988 and 1992 Olympian and originator of the “Berkoff Blastoff.” Berkoff served as a member of USA Swimming’s Board of Directors for four years, though he moved away from that position back in 2014 and is currently unaffiliated with USA Swimming. Berkoff is still a regularly-heard voice on issues of coaching abuse, and his tenure on the Board helped produce the Safe Sport program aimed at protecting swimmers from abuse. With perhaps the biggest criticism of Wielgus being a perceived softness in dealing with coaches accused of abuse, tabbing Berkoff as his successor would be a strong message by USA Swimming of its seriousness in dealing with future coaching abuse allegations.
Rob Butcher, President and CEO of Swim Across America
Rob Butcher has executive experience within the aquatic realm, most notably from serving as executive director of U.S. Masters Swimming for almost 8 years. Butcher left that job at the end of 2015 to take over as President and CEO of Swim Across America, a non-profit organization aimed at curing cancer through raising money to fund research and clinical trials.
Janel (Jorgensen) McArdle, Former President of Swim Across America
Butcher’s predecessor, Janel McArdle, could also be in the mix for USA Swimming’s post. McArdle stepped down from her position at Swim Across America in 2015 to spend more time with family. She had been the organization’s executive director for a decade prior. Like Berkoff, McArdle was a 1988 U.S. Olympian, then swimming under her maiden name of Janel Jorgensen. After he swimming career, McArdle served as Director of Operations for the Oracle Corporation for about 12 years.
Mark Henderson, CEO and Co-Founder of The Athletes Village
1996 U.S. Olympian Mark Henderson is another outside candidate, particularly due to his work with the USOC. Henderson was the chair of the USOC’s Athletes Advisory Council from 2004 to 2008, helping expand communication between athletes and the U.S. Olympic Committee’s board of directors. He currently leads The Athletes Village, his own startup designed to help support athletes by connecting them to important information and tips while connecting athletes to parents, coaches, sports psychologists, nutritionists and others from across the world.
Keep an eye on high-ranking officials from other USOC federations, as USA Swimming’s job is high-profile enough to draw interest from a wide range of candidates. Wielgus himself came from the sport of golf before taking USA Swimming’s top job, and USA Swimming officials have frequently gone to other sporting federations, including USA Track & Field CEO Max Siegel, who took that job in 2012.
It’s also worth watching the higher-ups in college athletics who have swimming ties. Athletic Directors at major universities or CEOs/Presidents of college conferences with backgrounds in swimming could all be outside hire candidates if USA Swimming is looking outside its own staff to fill Wielgus’s seat.