by Jennifer Wedekind (J06)
A crushing and unexpected loss in the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics drove freestyle wrestler Jim Scherr (KSM89) out of competitive athletics and into sports administration. But six years later, a then-35-year-old Scherr attempted an unprecedented comeback and wrestled his way to the semifinals of the U.S. Olympic trials before the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta.
In April, Scherr became CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee, making him the first former Olympian to lead the organization. And he has used that same drive for success that he learned as an athlete to lead the troubled USOC on a comeback of its own.
Scherr was appointed interim director in early 2003 after former CEO Lloyd Ward resigned. Ward was one of nine prominent USOC leaders to resign because of conflict-of-interest allegations and ethics violations.
When Scherr was asked to step up, he combined his athletic experience and business skills to swiftly redirect the path of the organization. Scherr cut the cumbersome USOC board from 123 members to 11 and reduced the more than 20 committees to four.
He confronted athlete doping issues, then turned his attention to finances and worked to double the money funneled directly to athletes.
"We made a focused and deliberate effort to tackle the issues head on. We feel very good about where we've come," Scherr says.
Of the USOC's 2005 budget, 84 percent is earmarked specifically for athlete programs, an improvement of 5 to 7 percent over past years. "He keeps the athletes first and foremost in his actions and thoughts so they have the best opportunity to compete," says Terry Madden, CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
After the USOC helped create the independent USADA in 2000, Scherr — described by Madden as the "mainstay of anti-doping in this country" — helped jump-start the slowly developing program. In May 2005 Scherr told Congress that the USADA "has become the model national anti-doping organization for the world."
Scherr also spoke of a mission to support U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes in achieving sustained competitive excellence. The USOC is the only Olympic committee to incorporate the Paralympics — the Olympics designed for those with physical disabilities — in its organization and recently launched a Paralympic sports program for wounded and disabled U.S. military personnel.
Scherr, who became one of the youngest executive directors of USA Wrestling, the national governing body for amateur wrestling in the United States, in 1990, has a unique viewpoint that is critical to the recent success for the USOC and its athletes. Ken Chertow, a fellow Olympic wrestler turned independent coach, says he often tells his high school students, "'Wrestling is training for the rest of your life.' Jim is living proof."
Now the ever-competitive Scherr has new goals for the USOC. China and Russia recently announced that the two countries will train their Olympic teams together in hopes of keeping Americans off the medal podiums in 2008. "We think it's a good thing and provides a great challenge," Scherr says.
"It's been a good journey so far," he says of the USOC's reorganization, to be completed by 2006. "I'm glad to have the opportunity to further the goals of the U.S. Olympic program — goals that are very close to my own because of being an athlete."