In Deep Water: The recent struggles of collegiate swimming programs

  48 SwimSwam | February 05th, 2013 | AAC, ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, College, Ivy League, NAIA, NCAA Division I Mid-Major, NCAA Division II, NCAA Division III, News, Pac-12, SEC

Natalie Schumann is a former high school swimmer and State Championship qualifier from Pennsylvania, and is now a sophomore journalism major at Indiana. 

These are not fruitless swim teams unable to recruit or unable to win in competition. This is not about lackluster school pride or failing team spirit. These are historically successful swimming and diving programs that have produced NCAA champions, All-American athletes, Olympic Trials qualifiers and Olympians.

These are teams that, in some cases, have flourished for almost 100 years. These are teams that have achieved winning records during regular season competition. And these are teams that have been cut.

Since 1993, over 35 college swimming programs, including those at the University of Maryland and the University of Washington, have found themselves on the chopping block, according to International Swimming Hall of Fame member Phil Whitten. Perhaps one of these programs would have one day produced the Michael Phelps or Ryan Lochte of the future.

Universities nationwide have been eliminating swimming and diving programs in the last two decades, causing hundreds of student athletes’ careers to come to a screeching halt. Colleges large and small, from NCAA Division I schools to Division III schools, have been affected by this growing trend.

No collegiate athlete commits to a program expecting to be told in the middle of their career that their sport will no longer exist at their school. Likewise, no athletic department expects to be forced to cut programs with rich histories and numerous success stories.

Clemson University, the University of Washington, Rutgers University, and the University of Maryland are among the most notable programs that have received the axe from their respective athletic departments in the past decade. Out of these programs, the freshly eliminated University of Maryland program alone sent six swimmers to the 2012 Olympic Trials.

Programs that once fostered a spirit of commitment, dedication, and passion for the sport are no longer in existence. “You just can’t take the fact that you have a swim team at your school for granted,” said Bob Groseth, former Northwestern University head coach and former director of the College Swim Coaches Association of America (CSCAA).

Breaking the news

During the 2011-2012 athletic season at the University of Maryland, athletic director Kevin Anderson announced that the men’s and women’s swimming programs would be dropped immediately after the conclusion of the season.

For swimmer Kelly Carroll, a freshman at the time, November 8, 2011 began as a completely normal day, her schedule filled with the usual alternation of time in the classroom and time in the pool. When her coaches called an impromptu meeting before afternoon practice, the team members began to whisper speculations of a men’s team cut due to lack of success and high costs, recalled Carroll. “But never in any of our minds did we think the women’s team would be cut—we were ranked 19th in the country at the time,” said Carroll.

Team members, gathered in a classroom overlooking the pool, reacted immediately to Anderson’s news of the proposed program cut. The room was silent and tearful, swirling with feelings of shock, confusion, and denial. “Even my coaches were crying,” said Carroll. “My head coach looked like he was going to pass out or punch a wall. I was just in such denial and shock that I couldn’t show emotion.”

As the unthinkable became reality, the swimmers met with their team captains to process the news. Gathered on benches in the women’s locker room, Carroll and her teammates discussed their fate. “Everyone was bawling, and I was too. But we decided we wanted to fight for our program,” she said.

The team called a meeting with University of Maryland president Wallace Loh and spent a week preparing for battle. They discussed possible budget reductions, weighed all options, and practiced speeches about the importance of the program to present at the meeting. Two days after the meeting, Carroll and her teammates received an email stating the final decision: the University of Maryland’s men’s and women’s swimming teams would be cut due to financial issues.

Some team members chose to stay; others began talking to other schools and considering transfer options. Carroll chose to transfer to Fordham University, where she is continuing her collegiate swimming career. Carroll’s experience at Maryland is similar to that of many other swimmers across the country.

Just a year and a half before, Clemson University announced two and a half years ago that men’s and women’s swimming as well as men’s diving were going to be phased out over a two year span. Clemson Director of Swimming Phil Grayson recounted the day the Clemson teams were told the news.

The athletic department informed the team at the end of the spring semester of 2010, and the reaction was less than positive. “They were stunned more than anything,” said Grayson of the Clemson team’s initial reaction to the news. “They were pretty subdued, and you could see that they were shocked at hearing that. When you have that, it’s not the time to process the details. They just knew that the program would be cut and that it would be a very traumatic experience for them,” Grayson said.

At Rutgers University in New Jersey, the men’s swimming program received the same fate after the 2006-2007 season. Chuck Warner, the coach at the time, did not take the news well.

“I felt like a parent walking their child across the street, and a car hit them because I wasn’t holding their hand the right way,” he recalled. “I felt like I let down not just the team but the legacy of the sport of swimming in New Jersey. I felt like I let everybody down,” he said.

Warner recounted the story of one of his male swimmers who chose to transfer to the University of Maryland when the Rutgers’ men’s team was eliminated. During his collegiate experience, Warner’s former swimmer had three coaches in three years at two different programs. Today neither of those programs exists.

The program at the University of Washington met a similar demise, even after solid attempts by student government, faculty, coaches and swimmers to protest the decision to cut the teams. Syracuse University, the University of Illinois, and many others also no longer have teams of one gender or the other.

Why?

Reasons for program cuts vary, but one reoccurring theme involves budget limitations. From a business perspective, it all comes down to money, said Kirk Sanocki, President of the College Swim Coaches of America Association (CSCAA) and head coach at Wingate University. Regardless of the high grade point averages reported by teams and the countless feel-good success stories of swimmers achieving their goals, swimming typically resides at the bottom of the totem pole that is collegiate athletics.

At Maryland, the story revolved around inadequate funding. Prepared to lose nearly $4.7 million in budget cuts, the athletic department made the decision to eliminate the swimming program as well as five other sports teams.

Clemson University found themselves in a very different position. For Grayson and the rest of the athletic department administration, the problem was not funding but lack of facilities. As one of few ACC conference schools without a 50-meter pool, Clemson felt that their aquatic center was simply not conducive to successful training and competition.

“It wasn’t an issue of not having money to fund the program. We felt that we couldn’t compete at such a high level without a 50-meter pool. We didn’t have the money, we didn’t have the facility,” Grayson said.

Another alarming issue involves Title IX. Enacted in 1972, Title IX’s goal was to prevent discrimination against women in sports at all levels, including collegiate. Today, some argue that strict Title IX requirements are putting men’s programs in jeopardy and leading to a type of reverse discrimination. Groseth, who has seen this firsthand, recalled a story from an end-of-season banquet he attended at Northwestern University many years ago.

“This guy got up and he said, ‘I came to Northwestern as a walk on baseball player and I made the team and got to play. After my sophomore year, I decided to go out for football and made the team, eventually started on the team and played in the Rose Bowl. When you cut sports or put caps on men’s teams, just remember I’m the guy you’re cutting. I’m the one you’re taking the opportunity away from,’” said Groseth.

The same issue afflicts men’s swimming programs and eventually affects the women’s as well. Often, when a men’s program is eliminated the women’s team is weakened because of close relationships formed between the teams and the lack of unity exhibited.

What is at stake?

The effects of the eradication of collegiate swimming programs could potentially reach a national and international level. Currently, the United States dominates in the pool at international competitions such as the Olympic Games and the FINA World Championships. However, many successful members of the national team got their starts in college programs.

Cullen Jones is a two-time Olympian and a member of the world-record-setting, gold-medal-winning 4×100 freestyle relay team that upset France at the 2008 Beijing Games. Jones attended North Carolina State University and did not appear on the international scene until the end of his college career.

Scott Weltz, a graduate of University of California, Davis, made his Olympic debut at the 2012 London Games, and placed fifth in the 200-meter breaststroke. Weltz did not even make the UC Davis team his freshman year, and was not a contributing member until his junior and senior seasons. The swimming program at UC Davis no longer exists.

“Here’s a kid who wouldn’t be on the Olympic team if he hadn’t gotten the opportunity to develop his full potential,” said Mickey Wender, head coach at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Wender swam for the University of Vermont and coached at California State University, Northridge, both of whose programs have since been dropped.

Wender added that swimmers develop at an incredibly fast rate during their college years. “The college swimming environment is so unique and special, such a fun way to train, and people typically improve by leaps and bounds,” he said.

In other words, the late bloomers and hidden stars are the ones who will be affected by program cuts, even at small schools. “You’re going to miss the Cullen Jones’s and the Scott Weltz’s, the diamond-in-the-rough type of kids. Those are the guys at the upper level that we’re going to lose,” said Groseth.

Even Olympic gold medalist Tyler Clary got his start in a collegiate program. Before he achieved success at international competitions and struck gold at the 2012 London Games, he swam for three years at the University of Michigan. Clary still trains there today.

“I left after 3 years to focus mainly on making the Olympics, and missed the college team quite a bit while I was gone. It’s great being back with the guys,” said Clary. He added that swimming in college helped him get to where he is now in his swimming career.

“It put me in one of the most competitive swimming leagues in the world and opened my eyes to my ability as well,” said Clary.  He also believes that college swimming programs are crucial to making the step from high school to international competition.

Limitations placed on collegiate swimming opportunities could certainly cause the United States’ pool of future Olympic athletes to dwindle, but the international success of United States swimming is not the only valuable thing at stake. Events occurring now will inevitably affect future generations of swimmers.

“If you have a son someday, the chances of him having a program is slim to nothing,” said Warner. “The kids today will be okay and survive and move on, but what doesn’t survive is the chance for the next 14-year-old boy to think about going to college to swim.”

What can be done?

College swimming may be slowly sinking, but it has not drowned yet. Swimming organizations such as the CSCAA are becoming increasingly focused on proactive planning to save collegiate swimming. Sanocki said that the CSCAA is committed to remaining aware of new potential cuts and trying to rally the swimming community in order to save the programs.

The main focus is on education. By ensuring that coaches are educated about how to be better business managers of their programs, the CSCAA hopes to decrease the amount of programs lost.

Whitten, a former CSCAA director, emphasized the responsibility of the coaching staff. “When someone becomes a swim coach, he or she is no longer just a coach,” he said. “They are the CEO of the team—past, present, and future.”

As far as finances go, many schools could be on the wrong track. Athletic departments confuse two very separate things: revenue producing programs and profitable programs. “Anyone can be revenue producing. The trick is to be profitable,” said Whitten.

According to Groseth, publicity is crucial to saving these programs. By ensuring that the public knows when their athletes are being good citizens, contributing to the university community, and getting good grades, coaches can ultimately decrease the chances of his program being endangered.

An additional resource lies in a strong alumni base. Swimming produces numerous influential people who are able to contribute to universities’ fundraising efforts, said Whitten. Alumni can make up a large portion of the funding necessary to keep a swimming program running.

Programs like those at the University of Virginia and the University of North Carolina, both very successful, have fully endowed scholarships and funding, making it nearly impossible for the administrative department to propose a cut. According to Sanocki, a coach’s first task should be to rally all alumni and create a backup source of funding to be used if the program should ever encounter problems.

Organizations and alumni can seamlessly work together to protect the sport of swimming at the collegiate level and to give future students the chance to reap the benefits of being involved in a sport. “I think if people believe that sports develop character and the process of being involved makes you a better person, then those sports have value,” said Groseth, “and when they are taken out of the system, no one can benefit from that.”

While the frequency of college swimming program cuts has begun to slow down since a decade ago, the severity of these program cuts and the level of athletics they affect remains the same. According to Wender, “We’ve got to fight for it, we’ve got to stick together. We have to find ways to ensure that my children and my children’s children have an opportunity to get into this sport and compete.”

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48 Comments on "In Deep Water: The recent struggles of collegiate swimming programs"

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It’s scary as a current highschool and club swimmer to think you may be going to a college that won’t have a swimming program around in a few years. It’s deflating having that feeling in the back of your mind; knowing you might have to give up your sport or give up people you become close to on that team to move away. It’s not fair to the swimmers whatsoever.

On a side note, why is Tyler Clary allowed to swim with his former college team? I know he is not the only one in the country who trains with his college team or even with a different collegiate program but I did think there were rules against this. Has the NCAA changed its rules on professionals training with collegiate athletes?

This is from an article written by Bill Powell in 2002 for Swimming world. A lot has changed in regards to the cost of running a program and tuition since 2002 but I still find this a very interesting way to look at the numbers. Swimming is often referred to as a “non-revenue sport.” Is this statement really true? The following facts about the men’s swimming program at Western Kentucky University would seem to dispute the term, “non-revenue.” Indeed, after checking out the numbers, you’ll see that WKU’s men’s swimming program is a revenue-producing sport—an encouraging fact for coaches across the country who may fear that their schools are considering cutting men’s swimming. It’s likely that WKU is typical in… Read more »

I think that is fuzzy “revenue” at best. I appreciate the spirit of it. That revenue didn’t flow to the athletic department. In some universities – if those swimmers weren’t on campus other students, non-athletes, would take their place. At Texas, where each freshman class is full the 75 or so male and female swimmers and divers are just noise to the enrollment of the school.

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