Before John Leonard agreed to take the helm of the American Swimming Coaches Association he wanted to know one thing: What were the limitations of his authority and responsibility? The board told him none — as long as he was successful.
That was 20 years ago, and today Leonard has used that powerful carte blanche to become one of the most influential — and successful people in aquatics.
Since 1985, he has grown ASCA from just 1,600 members to 5,200. He’s helped develop 22 different coaching schools, which have certified more than 8,000 coaches. All the while, Leonard has made ASCA an advocacy group respected around the world for taking on the tough issues.
Take the group’s anti-doping stand. Upon taking over ASCA, he quickly steered the organization in the right direction at a time when no one wanted to discuss the issue of drugs and sports.
“I had to do some very, very unpopular things in the early years because people wanted to stick their heads in the sand internationally,” the 56-year-old recalls. “But it was clear that parents were not going to have children involved in sports activities in which reaching for excellence required dangerous chemical involvement.”
It took a few years, but in 1996, the sports world acknowledged his role in helping to make the sport a leader in the anti-doping movement with the USA Athletes Appreciation Award. Leonard was also just elected chairman of the USA Swimming group that will guide the national team through the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
He’s not finished advocating at home, either. He and ASCA are now leading the fight to allow student athletes to train as much as they want, rather than be restricted by school rules. For instance, collegiate athletes are only allowed to train 20 hours per week. But that too may be changing, thanks to Leonard’s efforts. Missouri recently ruled that athletes can practice as much as they want so long as they first fulfill their obligations to the high school swim team. It’s a move that sets a precedent for schools across the country.
Leonard’s other big push these days is the organization’s learn-to-swim program, called Swim America. Started in 1988, the licensing program has gone from zero to nearly 1,000 instructors. Leonard says it shows how hungry the public is for quality learn-to-swim programs, and he says many municipalities are missing a lucrative opportunity by not offering them.
“Far more pools across the country could support themselves much better with quality learn-to-swim programs,” Leonard says.
But there’s a far more fundamental change that needs to happen first, he says: a move away from base pay to pay based on success. In other words, Leonard says, most aquatics directors have no incentive to make their pools profitable. “If a city wants a pool to break even someone has to be responsible for making that pool break even. Unless there’s an incentive for education that works, it’s just not going to happen.”
If that were to happen, he says, a revolution would occur.
“It would be the most far-reaching change, because pools would instantly become profitable,” he says. “You’d have a whole different set of people who would want to become pool managers and directors if you changed the system.”