Features

Michelle Steinfeld – USA Swimming

General counsel waters grassroots swimming

When people think of USA Swimming, the sport’s national governing body, they often think of the Olympic team.

While preparations for the Summer Games do consume some of the organization’s time—the “pivot to Paris” is front and center right now—that’s only a small piece of what USA Swimming does.

“So much of what we do involves supporting grassroots swimming,” says Michelle Steinfeld, USA Swimming’s general counsel. “It’s getting kids in the pool. Our USA Swimming Foundation, while it’s also about building champions, is about teaching swimming, providing Learn to Swim grants and access to swimming lessons, especially in underserved communities, and expanding access to facilities—because swimming is the only sport that can save your life.”

Michelle Steinfeld | General Counsel | USA Swimming

Michelle Steinfeld | General Counsel | USA Swimming

Steinfeld says she’s learned more during her eighteen-month tenure with USA Swimming than she did in the first eight years of her career. She credits CEO Tim Hinchey, Chief Administrative Officer Lucinda McRoberts and the rest of the executive team with creating a collaborative work environment that brings out the best in people.

“Everyone here is so passionate about what they do,” Steinfeld says. “There’s just this really good bond that we’ve all built where people jump in and support each other however they can.”

Reshaping governance

With nearly 400,000 members, USA Swimming also relies on hundreds of volunteers staffing roughly 30 committees that make up the organization’s governance structure. Steinfeld was pleasantly surprised to discover how many devoted swimmers, from amateurs to gold medalists, chip in to keep the sport alive.

Recently, Steinfeld’s been revising the governance structure to focus more on athlete representation. In 2020, Congress and the U.S. Olympic Committee made sweeping changes to the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act and to U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee bylaws.

One of those changes required USA Swimming to create its Athletes’ Advisory Council, a nine-person body comprised of retired athletes and active competitors, including veterans of the Tokyo and Rio Olympics. The group formed last September after Steinfeld organized the self-nomination process and ran the athlete election. She meets with the group regularly to discuss governance issues and brainstorm ways to recruit more athletes into volunteer leadership.

Michelle Steinfeld | General Counsel | USA Swimming

“It’s been so awesome for us because we now have this sounding board of really smart, passionate, dedicated athletes who want to be involved in governance,” she says. “It really gives a voice to people we weren’t necessarily hearing from before.”

Steinfeld and her colleagues are now gearing up for the Olympic Trials, slated for 2024 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. The stadium, which will have two Olympic-size pools in it, will seat nearly 30,000 spectators for nine nights of competition. At nearly double the size of the 2020 Olympic Trials venue, this will be USA Swimming’s biggest indoor venue yet.

“The folks in Indy are awesome, we’ve had so much fun with them,” Steinfeld says. “They are so good at what they do, because they put on so many big events.”

Drafting selection procedures

When it comes time to nominate an Olympic team, the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee relies on USA Swimming to draft the selection process. Working with Hinchey and National Team Managing Director Lindsay Mintenko, Steinfeld develops the procedures to pick Olympians as well as other international teams.

“I always thought it was just the fastest two swimmers that make the team in each event,” Steinfeld says. “It’s actually much more complicated than that. Our selection procedures are 20 or 30 pages, depending on the event; obviously, for the Olympics, that would be the most complicated. And we essentially rank athletes based on priorities.”

Developing those rules is an elaborate process; for one event last August, Steinfeld and her colleagues went through 26 drafts before settling on the final procedures. She calls the final product “an incredibly legal document” that is a lot of fun for her to piece together.

Michelle Steinfeld | General Counsel | USA Swimming

“As a lawyer, it’s kind of a logic puzzle,” she says. “You need to think of every single possible scenario that could go wrong. Because the athletes under the Amateur Sports Act have a right to compete, and so we can’t use any discretion in selecting the team.”

Steinfeld’s legal training left her well-equipped to handle those logic puzzles, and to pass on what she’s learned—another passion of hers that grew out of her past experiences.

Paying it forward

A graduate of Vanderbilt University and Georgetown Law School, Steinfeld thought she wanted to work on Capitol Hill, but law school internships quickly changed her mind.

After working at Covington & Burling LLP after law school, she moved to Denver to be closer to family, taking a job with Davis Graham & Stubbs. She spent a few years there, then moved to the oil and gas company Ovintiv, managing the litigation docket until she was recruited by USA Swimming.

Steinfeld says she’s been lucky to have had incredible mentors who helped her figure out what kind of lawyer she wanted to be. So, knowing younger lawyers and employees are eager for feedback, she tries to provide constructive unsolicited advice whenever possible.

Michelle Steinfeld | General Counsel | USA Swimming

“[Mentoring] has been so helpful for me that I think it’s important to pay it forward,” Steinfeld says. “Just checking in on people I think is so important.”

Now, as her organization prepares for the Olympic Trials, it’s also continuing to support swimmers at every level of the sport.

“We are setting ourselves up so come 2024, we are just ready to hit the ground running,” Steinfeld says. “We have figured out exactly what our goals are for 2024 and beyond.”

View this feature in the Vanguard Winter III 2023 Edition here.

Published on: February 3, 2023

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