Mariah Cunnick started swimming when she was a child and has never stopped. Her passion for the sport launched her fundraising career when her team at Dartmouth College lost its funding and she led efforts to raise money to build it back up. The 28-year-old Iowa native found that she had a talent for fundraising and pursued a career in it.
When the USA Swimming Foundation offered her the position as its director of development in 2011, Cunnick found a way to combine two of her passions.
What path did you take to USA Swimming?
In many ways, my role at the USA Swimming Foundation is a full-circle moment in my fundraising career.
In 2002, I matriculated at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. A lifelong swimmer, I decided to walk on as an athlete with the Dartmouth women’s swimming and diving team. When the team was eliminated during my first year, I was devastated. However, this setback provided me with one of my most significant fundraising experiences, allowing me to be involved in the effort to raise funds for the reinstatement of the team.
After graduating from college, I worked in fund-raising and resource development for Chicago Foundation for Women — an incredible organization dedicated to supporting Chicago-area women and girls by expanding their economic security, ensuring their freedom from violence, and enhancing access to health services and information, including comprehensive access to reproductive health care. As a women’s and gender studies major in college, this was a dream come true for me. After nearly five years at Chicago Foundation for Women, I was presented with the opportunity to pursue another passion, and in many ways, the catalyst for my initial interest in fundraising — swimming. And here I am!
What role has swimming played in your life?
Swimming has been a part of my life for nearly as long as I can remember. When I was very young, my mother enrolled my brother and me in swimming lessons for reasons of water safety. Our family had always been active around the water and she wanted to be sure that we both knew how to swim. Although she didn’t have the stats (If a child receives formal swimming instruction, their chances of drowning are reduced by 88 percent), she wanted her kids to be able to save their own lives if they ever fell into the water unexpectedly.
When we got a little older, she enrolled us both in a beginner competition class through our local USA Swimming club. My brother was a pretty incredible swimmer from the start, but he was too shy to join the swim club alone. My mom bribed me to accompany him to his first few practices, and I was hooked. Although I was never going to be a superstar, I loved the camaraderie of my teammates, and loved the challenge that swimming presented…
In college, I was lucky enough to compete for all four years, and was nominated by my teammates to serve as team captain during my senior year. To this date, it is the accomplishment of which I am personally most proud. When I graduated in 2006, I was one of the only walk-on swimmers in the Ivy League to complete all four years as swimmer, and I was honored with the Geer Award, given annually to the Dartmouth female athlete who has contributed the most to the development of the team through day-to-day dedication to the team concept. My team is my closest group of friends (to this day!), and when I’m having a hard day, I can still hear my college swim coach’s advice resonating in my brain.
Since moving to Colorado, I’ve become a member of Pikes Peak Athletics. It’s an incredible U.S. Masters Swimming program run by George and Anna Heidinger, and operates out of the Olympic Training Center here in Colorado Springs. With PPA, I’ve found a wonderful tribe of swimmers that share a love of swimming, and it’s connected me to a great network of like-minded folks here in the Springs.
For me, swimming has always been the “constant” in my life — no matter where I live, no matter how busy I am at work, and no matter what’s happening in my life — the black line on the bottom of the pool is always the same.
Fundraising doesn’t come easily to everyone. What do you like about it?
For me, fundraising is a way to give back to the causes that are most important to me. I also love a challenge. There’s nothing I love more than nailing a big thermometer to the wall, and watching the mercury rise as we get closer to funding an exciting new project. Whether you’re trying to provide kids with the opportunity to learn to swim, or giving women and girls the resources they need to be safe and secure, it takes money. Some people are great at developing programs, some people are great at implementing them, but I happen to be best at helping to find funding solutions to keep programs operating, growing and thriving.
At the end of the day, I don’t see what I do as simply asking for money. Great fundraisers understand that they’re giving people the opportunity to express what they want for the world. That’s a pretty powerful thing. And when you’re asking people to support something that you’re passionate about, it comes naturally. Authenticity is key.
What are your goals for USA Swimming or for yourself professionally?
At the USA Swimming Foundation, our primary goal is to ensure that all children have the opportunity to learn to swim, regardless of their ability to pay for swim lessons. For me, I come to work every day thinking about the startling statistics that plague our country: Ten people drown every single day, and drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death for kids under the age of 14. Seventy percent of African American kids, 60 percent of Latino kids, and 40 percent of Caucasian kids have low or no swimming ability.
Additionally, the Foundation provides funding to support our heroes on the U.S. National Team, giving them the resources they need to train and compete. As a former competitive swimmer, this has special meaning for me — not because I was ever good enough to fathom Olympic or international competition, but because the elite-level athletes in our sport inspire children and swimmers of all ages to work harder, reach farther and dream big dreams.
What advantages and challenges do young professionals have here?
Colorado Springs is a great place to live and work, and I’m finding new opportunities to “plug in” to networks for young professionals all the time. I recently attended my first event with Team USA Young Professionals, and I look forward to becoming more involved with them as they develop and grow.
Unfortunately, I do find that Colorado Springs is often lumped into lots of great networking and community events based in Denver, and geography doesn’t always make it possible to get involved. For example, my local alumni chapter frequently hosts its events in Denver or Boulder, and I’m usually not able to make it to happy hours or other events as a result.
Finally, though Colorado Springs boasts lots of “big city” perks, I would love to see the Springs expand its food scene!