I talked with Mary Jo Swalley during a break at the Women’s PAC 12 Swimming and Diving Championships in Federal Way, WA where she was wearing one of her many hats in the swimming world. She was serving as an official, a role she’s held for years, as well as being the executive director of Southern California Swimming and vice president of USA Swimming.
Her swimming career began in high school when swimming was a mandatory class. She grew up in Antioch, CA and there was a state law that if a school had a pool, by their senior year, all students had to know how to swim. She said that at 5’ 11” she was an “aquatic type” and she taught others how to swim in high school. In high school, students tried different sports for six-week blocks of time. She said that rather than being competitive in a sport, the goal for the girls was to “learn the rules and socialize.”
In college, Mary Jo was one of the first 16 women to graduate from University of California, Berkeley Law School.
Eventually, she moved to Santa Barbara and when her son was three they got involved with swimming. The aquatics director for the YMCA lived up the street. Next thing she knew, she became commissioner of the YMCA. There were 28 teams and she was responsible for all their schedules. Among the biggest teams in those days were Santa Barbara, San Bernardino, Glendale and Peninsula. The YMCA championships were held in the Belmont Pool.
Mary Jo mentioned that her son swam with Olympic medalists John Mykkanen and Dara Torres. When her son was older and transferred to SCS, Mary Jo soon became involved with the LSC.
In 1983-84 one of her best memories was working with Christina “Tina” Martin on the 1984 Olympics. She said her good friend Tina talked her into it. They stayed in a “roach-infested apartment and lived off of frozen pastries for a month.” Mary Jo was in charge of the ceremony and awards, while Tina was in charge of the venue. As Tina said, the experience was “life altering” and the highlight of their years working in the swimming world.
After more than 30 years as Executive Director, Mary Jo retired in December 2016. She began her journey running Southern California Swimming when USA Swimming broke off from AAU. Her responsibilities grew along with the SCS, which began with 6,000 swimmers in 1984 to 25,000 today. She described her job responsibilities as serving the board as needed and conducting the day-to-day business of running the LSC. The board itself is made up of volunteers. Her office was responsible for developing the website https://www.socalswim.org/ on an original Mac. Mary Jo handled everyday issues, including membership, scheduling, website, meet settlements and other duties.
Mary Jo said the biggest growth happened across the country with the popularity of Michael Phelps and that was true in SCS as well. She said the Eastern Section saw an increase in membership by more than 12%.
One of the changes she’s seen in swimming throughout the years is that kids specialize in one sport at a very young age today. They didn’t use to and her own son swam three days a week in the 11-12 age group and did just as well as those who swam six days a week. She said that trying a variety of different sports is better for kids overall.
She recalled one of the worst calls she received from a parent. The mom wanted to know where the nearest Olympic Training center was. She said she had been told that her children were gifted in swimming and she wanted them with the best coach and team. “I told her it was best to swim close to home. Then, I asked how old her kids were—they were two and three,” Mary Jo said.
According to Mary Jo, “The solution is to provide more parent education. USA Swimming Safe Sport needs to be used by the parents. If the parents don’t access it, the kids won’t know about it.”
In all of her years dedicated to swimming, Mary Jo’s legacy was always placing the needs of the children first. “It should be about the swimmers,” she said.
Here’s a list of accomplishments and roles Mary Jo has held, from her bio on USA Swimming:
USA Swimming Elected Offices
USA Swimming Volunteer Contributions
Southern California Swimming Service