The Brand of a Club

Dec 2, 2015

Three years ago, the Curl-Burke swim club was rebranded in the wake of Rick Curl’s sexual abuse disgrace… Today, the renamed Nations Capital Swim Club is the number one ranked club team in America, led by Katie Ledecky. While the old name has been erased from record, the legacy of excellence never skipped a stroke. Thanks, in large part, to the club’s owner and CEO, Tom Ugast… 

He stood up there at the height of his profession. On a fine recent Sunday evening in Los Angeles, Bruce Gemmell received his third straight Golden Goggles award, as the Doc Counsilman Coach of the Year. He’s Katie Ledecky’s coach, after all, and whoever’s coaching that girl is doing something right. But behind the podium, delivering remarks filled with his usual humility and selflessness, Gemmell stood for a lot more than Ledecky’s leader.

Here was the guy who represented the Nations Capital Swim Club – the one that not so long ago was called Curl-Burke – and it was hard to envision a figure you’d rather have leading your organization. Gemmell oozes integrity. Some people have that way about them, you can smell it a mile away. Some pretend to, some puff out the chest and say all the right things, deliver all the right results, but you can sense something off underneath.

The parents and swimmers of Nations Capital should know. The guy who used to run the place was like that. Rick Curl could coach, no one ever begrudged him that, but as a man there was a fatal secret. This was a man who sexually abused a 13-year-old girl, when he was 33. A guy who got away with it too, for years, despite widespread whispers, until the culture finally caught up to the outrage his crimes deserved. Now Curl is serving seven years in prison, his name verboten on pool decks. Yet somehow the club he founded 37 years ago never missed a beat.

New name, same world class club team. A sprawling program with thirteen sites across the Washington D.C. area that keeps churning out champions like new Ferraris off the assembly line. In addition to Ledecky, there’s Andrew Seliskar, the number one ranked recruit in the country this year, who’ll be joining the Cal Bears in the fall. There’s six members of the National Junior Team and 35 Scholastic All-Americans; it’s a place where team records are frequently NAG records. This year, USA Swimming ranked it first in the nation in its Club Excellence Program.

All this from a club that faced the worst sort of crisis a club can face – on the eve of the last Olympics, when the Washington Post broke the story on Rick Curl’s sexual abuse of his former swimmer, Kelley Currin. For many in the swimming community, it was hardly breaking news. Back then this site called it ‘The Worst Kept Secret in Washington‘, because for swimmers that grew up around the D.C. area, there was nothing secret about Curl’s relationship with his underage swimmer in the mid 80s.

You’ll hear coaches and swimmers say those were different times, and they were. There was always that ugly undercurrent to the sport. Everyone heard the rumors about coaches messing with young swimmers. You never knew what was true and what was slander; you only knew that it happened, plenty. The rumors with Curl were more widespread than most, and more believed, because, well, they turned out to be true. But his actions didn’t exist in a vacuum. In fact, it’s said that in the immediate aftermath of the breaking scandal back in 2012, his initial reaction was one of defiance, at first refusing to admit the full scope of his sin.

His tune changed fast as public sentiment buried the man in overdue outrage. USA Swimming quickly banned him for life and the club that bore his name spun into damage control mode.

Enter Tom Ugast, the current owner and CEO of Nations Capital. I recently spoke with Ugast and he laid out the last three years with impressive candor. Perhaps more than Bruce Gemmell or Katie Ledecky or head coach Pete Morgan, Ugast deserves the lions share of the credit in righting the ship and steering the club through the crises of 2012.

He was a part of Curl-Burke from the beginning. After graduating from American University in 1980, Ugast helped Rick Curl and Pete Morgan get the club off the ground. They were close friends with a passion for coaching. “But back then,” he recalls, “you couldn’t make a full time living as a swim coach. So, I went off and made a career elsewhere.” He stayed on deck part time as much as he could, while embarking on a successful career in printing and publishing – handling distribution for Time, The Washingtonian, The Economist, and other top rags of the day. However, when the financial crisis hit six years ago, Ugast had to lay off about 80 people from a 200 person company. “I thought there must be a better way to earn a living,” he remembers. “Rick was just back from Australia and the club was in growth mode again. I asked him if he needed help running the business side of things.”

Curl said yes, and Ugast joined the club as Chief Operating Officer in 2010. While he heard the rumors about his old friend like everyone else, he couldn’t have known what was coming two years later, when Currin came forward and Curl became public enemy number one of the swimming world.

“We knew nothing that went on,” he says. “We knew they were very close, but if we knew there was something sexual there, you can bet we would have said something.”

Now, I know former swimmers and parents who may roll their eyes at that. Of course you must have known, they’ll say. He was your friend. But have you ever learned something dark and terrible about someone you called a friend? Someone you thought you knew? Fact is, friends are often the last to know – because, one, they don’t want to believe the worst, and two, the perpetrator will take extra measures to shield his crimes from those closest to him.

Regardless, Ugast stepped into the fire created by his old friend and he set out to save the club from imploding. “The underlying thing, for all of us,” he says, “was – I wasn’t going to let this fall apart. This team is bigger than one individual, even if his name was on the door. These kids now, and the families, they had nothing to do with what happened 28 years ago.”

As the London Olympics unfolded and Katie Ledecky raced to upset gold in the 800 free, Ugast was busy working the phones, talking to hundreds of parents. “We had great parent support, lawyers and consultants who helped walk me through it,” he says. As the most prominent club team in the Washington, D.C. area, the parents of NCAP naturally include some political heavy hitters adept at crisis management. They helped ensure that their kids’ swimming ambitions would not be derailed by the founder’s past crimes.

Next, Ugast had the club valued, settled on a price, and purchased it from Curl. He ascended from COO to CEO and owner – and then stripped away the name. In early September of 2012, soon after the Games ended, the Nations Capital Swim Club was introduced. Same pools, same coaches, same swimmers – new brand.

Ugast thought he could finally exhale. Then came another blow, albeit one without scandal. Katie Ledecky’s longtime coach, Yuri Suguiyama, was being courted by Cal Bears coach Dave Durden. Yuri liked what he found at Berkeley, had long term goals to be a college head coach, and returned to give his notice. “I’d gotten through everything else,” says Ugast. “Salvaged the club, and then I thought – I’m going to lose the Olympic gold medalist.”

He remembers that Ledecky’s parents were less than pleased when they learned that Suguiyama was leaving. And they were less than impressed when Ugast told them of the coach he had in mind to replace him – Bruce Gemmell. They’d never heard of him.

So, Ugast called swimming’s quiet king maker – Jon Urbanchek. (If there’s a more beloved figure in this sport than Urbanchek, I’ve never heard of him…) In the lead-up to London, Urbanchek helped coach Ledecky at the U.S. training camps. Both athlete and parents were impressed with him; they trusted him. Turned out that Bruce Gemmell had once swum for him. Ugast called up Urbanchek and related the situation. It was solved with a phone call. The Ledeckys talked to Urbanchek and hung up feeling convinced that Gemmell was the man to coach their daughter after Yuri’s departure.

Flash forward three years. Back to that Golden Goggles stage in Los Angeles. Ledecky has already won her fourth straight Race of the Year honors; it’s a given that she’ll soon win Female Athlete of the Year again. Her coach, Bruce Gemmell, is accepting his third straight Coach of the Year award. He’s telling the well dressed crowd to remember, the next time you see Katie do something astounding in the pool, that she’s an even better person outside of it. Then he’s leaning in, hands gripping each side of the lectern, voice dipping a bit. And he’s thanking all the coaches’ spouses out there. Those long suffering spouses who know just how great a commitment it is to coach, living with partners who are out the door before dawn, gone too many weekends to count, and not making much money to do it.

A few years ago, Rick Curl showed us the worst underside of the sport. Three years later, the team he founded, thanks in large part to Bruce Gemmell and Tom Ugast, is an example of the very best.