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America’s Swimming Program – An Excellence Study


Up to this day, the U.S.A Swimming Team has won a total of 520 Olympic medals, 220 of which are gold, giving the country a sturdy lead in the international event. The runner-up, Australia, has won only 171 medal.

This great number of medals is the only proof one needs to acknowledge the fact that swimming has been among the most successful Olympic sports for the U.S. for more than 25 years. But the question still remains: How can America be so good at swimming?

Sports & management – a wondrous relationship

You might think that the answer is Michael Phelps, but you would be wrong. The U.S. has been dominant in the sport long before Phelps’s first Olympics. What is more, the organization has produced a study that might have found the answer to that question, namely management.

This study is known as the Excellence Study and it closely examined the leadership and structure of America’s swimming program and arrived at the conclusion that it is the school and not any individual teacher or student, that drives success.

Finbarr Kirwan, the U.S. Olympic Committee’s high performance director, says that the study rests on the premise that consistency in structure has served American Olympic swimmers better than any one part of the program. The USA Swimming’s motto is: “Build the base, promote the sport, achieve competitive success”.

Based on this motto, Kirwan explains that each tenet – build, promote and achieve – overlaps and feeds the others.

  • the “achieve” pillar includes – trusting in the individual, pairing swimmers with individual subject-matter experts, and imbuing them with a service mentality.
  • “build” includes – a strong talent pipeline and the establishment of a team environment.
  • “promote” means – giving support to swimmers in their swimming career and in their career outside the pool, as well as mentoring young athletes and making swimmers adaptable to change.

At the very center of these three pillars stands a “bottom-line results focus”. This means that Kirwan’s diagram is based on results, and the results show that U.S. Olympic swimmers win constantly.

Clear definition of roles is another key to the program, and it provides something of a corporate management lesson. Chuck Wielgus, Executive Director of USA Swimming, uses his own job as an example.

Although he is the executive director, and the coaches and athletes know him, he keeps to his own duties. He lets the trainers and coaches fulfill their roles without trying to meddle in the way they do their jobs.

He believes that “Performance by committee is a major mistake,”, and that “…coaches run their show, directors do their part, and it’s a separation of state.”

Apart from good coaching, there are also individual stars who have a profound influence. At the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, the U.S. took home 31 swimming medals, 6 of which were won by Phelps.

Nevertheless, Wielgus claims that it would be shortsighted to place all the credit on one star:

“Consistency is underrated. If you have consistency across your culture, you will always be at least in the top 80 percent. Then, from time to time, you might have a huge star pop up [like Phelps], but even if you don’t, you’ll still have your 80 percent.”

However true that may be, Phelps remains a true product of the USA Swimming program, and a personal example of just how strong the program builds its family environment.

In the end, it is clear that both the school and the individuals within it are the reason why the U.S.A Swimming Team has known such heights and has developed so much over the course of time. Their performance is the product of a well-oiled system that follows a rigid management map that focuses on consistency, clear definition of roles and good coaching.

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