Young Athletes & USA Swimming’s 2018 Governance Restructure

A conversation on the role of young athletes in USA Swimming’s 2018 governance restructure and on sports organization governing boards at large.

While sports organizations are primarily comprised of young athletes, their governing boards rarely reflect the composition of the teams. To protect the rights of athletes, the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act requires that amateur athletes must hold 20 percent of the voting power on boards of directors in national sports governing bodies; this has recently been revised to 33 percent. Team USA’s 554 athletes were an average of 26 years old in 2016. USA Swimming — whose average athlete member was just 12 years old in 2019 — made substantive changes to its Board of Directors’ structure and focus in 2018.

Meet The Panelists

Last Saturday, The Boarding School sat down with Van Donkersgoed and Michael Gibbons to discuss the role of young athletes in USA Swimming’s governance restructure and on sports organization governing boards at large. Joining the conversation were representatives from USA Soccer, Gymnastics, Table Tennis, Archery, Dance, and Speed Skating.

Van (left), Michael (right)

Van is an avid swimmer and 2014–18 officer of the USA Swimming Board of Directors, where he was actively engaged in the organization’s governance restructure in 2017. He now serves as Board Chair of Wisconsin Swimming and Vice President of Pan American Aquatics, which oversees five aquatic disciplines including the quadrennial Pan American Games.

Michael is an attorney and 2015–18 member of USA Swimming’s National Governance Committee and Board Governance Task Force, which produced a series of sweeping restructuring recommendations approved in 2017. He recently completed his service as Legislative Chair of the Minnesota Swimming Board of Directors, and specializes in legal, financial, and governance matters surrounding nonprofits, estate planning, and sports and entertainment law.

Brianna (center)

We were also joined by Brianna Pinto, a member of the under 20 U.S. women’s soccer team. As part of a slate of young athletes — Next Gen United — supported by The Boarding School, Brianna and four others claimed seats in the U.S. Soccer Federation’s Athlete Council this past October on an equity and inclusion platform.

Tony Sanneh, a former soccer player on the U.S. men’s soccer team, brought an additional perspective into the conversation. In 2013, he founded the Sanneh Foundation, which focuses on equity and access for youth development. As one of the few people of color in professional soccer growing up, Tony witnessed the existing divisions in the system across many lines: professional soccer players, women, youth, special needs, among others.

“At the end of the day, I don’t think people want to hurt each other or realize it. Some people are self-absorbed on ‘what’s best for me or my group,’ but when you really think about what those decisions are doing to others, it lets you change the frame of your thinking.”

USA Swimming’s Restructure

To provide context for the conversation, Michael explained that boards often start out doing the day-to-day tasks, but as they grow and hire staff, they should transition away from management to governance such as long-term, strategic planning.

“The board should be more looking at down-the-road and less looking at today-or-tomorrow. We refer to that as the difference between management and governance.”

Michael highlighted that the common characteristics of good governance are accountability, transparency, self-assessment and responsibility. The members should know how decisions are being made and if those decisions don’t produce the results promised, then they should take ownership and adjust.

“It’s a process, not a place. You have to constantly reevaluate, reassess, and readjust.”

When Van joined the USA Swimming Board in 2014, it was large and unwieldy with a total of 35 members and 59 subcommittees known as Local Swimming Committees (LSCs) based on geographical location. Although they had 95 full-time staff members, they had not yet made the jump from day-to-day management to strategic governance. The young athletes on the board were the primary advocates for a sweeping restructure, bringing a fresh perspective for non-athlete members. With the proposal met with open arms, the first step was cutting down the size of the Board to maximize efficiency. The Board was cut to 15 seats, three of which were reserved for USOPC-certified athletes. The second step was instituting lifetime term limits. Previously, the same board members could stay on the Board perpetually by rotating from one position to another every two years. In addition to the three athlete members on the Board, USA Swimming also has an Athletes’ Executive Committee that is completely comprised of college students or recent graduates, from which an athlete board member solicits younger perspectives.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

However, the USOPC requirement may have cut out voices at the grass-roots level because it restricts the candidate pool to athletes who have finished in the top half of nationals within 24 months prior to election. Michael warned that the separation between elite Olympic-level athletes and everybody else is a significant problem.

“We all need to invest in the base of the pyramid… we can’t rely on the ten kids who are playing to be elite athletes.”

Swimming, for the most part, is low-cost in terms of equipment, but one problem is the cost of competition suits, also known as tech suits, that are very expensive — upwards of $500 for a swimsuit that might be only worn 8 to 10 times. The LSCs were trying to take steps to restrict the use of tech suits, so USA Swimming’s Age Group Development Committee decided on a national restriction for 12 and unders wearing tech suits in competition. However, this decision wouldn’t be supported by an elite athlete sponsored by Speedo or Arena, which demonstrates a clear example of the disparity in interests between professional athletes and rank-and-file athletes. Similarly, some teams are sponsored by swimsuit providers as well, so the coaches who run the teams don’t have an incentive to limit the use of tech suits.

One of the ways that USA Swimming counters this dynamic is developing close relationships between older gold-medal athletes and younger grass-roots level athletes.

“…that ongoing communication and appreciation for what the 10- to 18-year-old experiences at their run-of-the-mill weekend swimming competition and on the other hand, the issues and challenges that a world champion or Olympic medalist faces at professional competitions.”

Additionally, the LSCs are working to empower leadership development at the local level to create a more inclusive community for everyone. However, Tony added that voices are important only when they are heard, so there needs to be accountability for the people that have the votes to accurately represent the views of those sitting on committees such at the Athletes’ Executive Committee who don’t have voting power.

“There does have to be a place and a platform for different voices [because] eventually if their voices are never heard, they’ll just go away.”

Additional Resources

Xiao, Han. “Significant changes needed to narrow the power gap between Athletes’ Commissions and organisations.” Inside the Games. 18 February 2021.

Sparre, Kirsten. “Human rights in sport rises to the top of the agenda in the Council of Europe.” Play the Game. 17 February 2021.

Back, George. “Simone Biles ‘wouldn’t feel comfortable’ letting her daughter be part of USA Gymnastics following abuse scandal.” Yahoo Entertainment. 15 February 2021.

IOC Media Relations Team. “IOC Executive Board Proposes Olympic Agenda 2020+5 as the Strategic Roadmap to 2025.” International Olympic Committee. 15 February 2021.

Pavitt, Michael. “IIHF confirm ‘unavoidable’ decision to move Men’s World Championship out of Belarus.” Inside the Games. 18 January 2021.

Keith, Braden. “Member of USA Swimming Age Group Committee Appeals for Tech Suit Votes.” Swim Swam. 27 September 2018.

Ceallach Gibbons ’17 Swims the English Channel to Help Raise Awareness of Sexual Violence.” Wellesley College. 31 October 2016.

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Emily Hsu

Emily Hsu

Emily is a first-year student at Stanford University and she is part of the team developing The Boarding School's educational programs.