Ray Essick
USA Swimming Ray Essick

Ray Essick, the first executive director of USA Swimming, passed away in late May. He was 82.

Essick held his position at USA Swimming from its inception in 1980 until he retired in 1997. The torch was then passed to present executive director Chuck Wielgus.

“Ray Essick led our sport through a period of enormous growth and prosperity,” said Wielgus in a press release. “He brought his passion as a coach and his drive for success to his role as USA Swimming’s first executive director. He was a mentor and a dear friend.”

During his years of service to USA swimming Essick grew the organization from four to 50 employees and established safety training requirements for the organization’s coaches.

Essick enjoyed several honors throughout his career. The American Red Cross presented him with the Good Neighbor Award, one of the highest national awards given to an outstanding volunteer. In 2015 he was inducted into the American Swim Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

Essick’s professional swimming career dates back to 1960, when he started the Lake Forest Swim Club in Lake Forest, Ill. He later became the head swim coach at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill. and then went on to serve as head swim coach at Harvard University from 1973-76.

Colleagues said Essick left his mark on each swim program, particularly at SIU. “I think here at SIU, he took the program to an all-time new level by raising the bar and the standard,” said Rick Walker, head swimming and diving coach at Southern Illinois University. “The results were …producing national-caliber and world-class athletes…recruiting them and getting them there to the university.”

Essick also played an integral part in helping open water swimming become an Olympic event, Walker said. Essick provided input to Walker, who was part of a USA Swimming committee that was working to push the event all the way to the Olympics. Walker followed Essick’s guidelines for integrating the sport into the Games, and presented his case to a number of domestic and international Olympic committees over a number of years. The sport premiered as an Olympic event at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.

Essick’s love for swimming even played a part in his early retirement, according to Carol Zaleski, former president of USA Swimming. Had he retired on schedule, it would have been about the same time that the sitting USA Swimming president’s final term was up as well. He figured that the new executive director would have a greater chance of success if he were able to work with an experienced president, rather than coming on board at the same time as a new president. He decided to step down early in order to do what he felt was best for USA Swimming.

“The fact that he retired early showed how much he cared about the organization,” said Zaleski.

Essick is survived by his wife Toni, and children Ray, Annie, Brad and Kate.