The Waters Recede: The Legacy Of North Dakota Swim & Dive

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This “Shouts from the Stands” submission comes from Mike Stromberg:

A legacy of UND Swimming and Diving came to an abrupt end this spring. To say I am disappointed by the decision is an understatement. There seems to be some who firmly believe the only way to create a successful Division I program is through athletic dollars.  But I pose this question: What is the definition of success?  How do we measure success and whose responsibility is it to raise those dollars?  A program whose success had already been built on drive and gumption isn’t the program that when gone, will save the University’s athletic budget. Over the years, exemplary student athletes charged the UND flag to the national level in swimming, diving, and desire. These swimmers and divers do so because it is as internal to their daily needs as eating or breathing. These athletes swim with their hearts, a passion as real to each student as seeing the sun rise and set each day.  And for emphasis, they do it their own dime! In the words of an old favorite movie, “If you build it, they will come.” And come they did.

It was March of 1997 and the University of North Dakota (UND) Men’s and Women’s Swimming & Diving teams had recently returned from NCAA Division II Nationals with a strong sense of accomplishment.  The women’s team finished third at Nationals and was the thirteenth year in a row finishing top six in the nation and securing their legacy as the most successful athletic program in the history of UND Athletics. The men’s team finished tenth that year, the ninth year that the men’s program had secured a top ten finish at NCAA’s.

It was an exciting spring for UND athletics which also included an individual National Champion title in the Women’s 100 yard butterfly by junior Tania Younkin, a UND Women’s Basketball Team National Championship, and the UND Men’s Hockey team winning an NCAA Division 1 championship title.  After a long winter of snow and cold, it was especially gratifying.

A few short weeks later, the Red River started to rise as the winter of record-breaking snowfall began to thaw.  Thousands of homes were at risk, and Sandbag Central was established as the community jumped in to help.  The men’s and women’s swimming and diving program was no exception.  

I received a call from the University’s administration who asked me to coordinate a quick response team to handle any requests for help that came into the University. The University provided us a few cell phones and we used one of the swimmer’s homes as a staging location.  For the final week prior to the city of Grand Forks evacuation order, the team responded to calls almost 24 hours a day to fill, carry, and put down sandbag after sandbag.  The final mission we conducted involved creating a sandbag wall around eight homes on 47th and Belmont.  At end of the day, the call for the city of Grand Forks evacuation was made by the Mayor and the swimmers looked at me with trepidation and said, “Coach, we have got to leave town.”  We knew we had done all we could do.

After the flood waters receded, I received a phone call from Dr. Wanless, our Athletic Director, requesting that I return for a meeting.  I met with Dr. Wanless and UND Housing Director Terry Webb that day at the Hyslop Sports Center. Terry Webb asked if I would coordinate the effort to house volunteers on the UND campus. Of course, I accepted and immediately knew I could count on my team to help.

It was no small feat.  We housed over 3000 volunteers that summer in the Hyslop Sports Center.  The volunteers arrived and our group located them according to the longevity of their stay.  We ensured each volunteer had a cot and daily meals, we assisted with transportation, and the Hyslop Swimming Pool locker rooms provided a place to shower – and even a place to swim if one so chose.  Days were long, but the reward was great and the experience was unforgettable.

That fall, the UND Swimming and Diving teams were back in the pool for another great season and gearing up to host the 1998 USA Swimming Junior Nationals at the Hyslop pool.  There was a movement to take this event from Grand Forks due to the flood damage and infrastructure that had to be rebuilt, but the community pulled it off. The Junior National swim meet had over 1000 swimmers, coaches, and fans from all over the western United States and Hawaii.  The event lasted five days and the news coverage was fantastic.  The UND Swimming and Diving team ran the meet.  In October of 1998, I secured Grand Forks as the processing center for the United States Pan American team prior to participating in the 1999 Pan American Games in Winnipeg, Manitoba. All USA athletes, coaches, staff and news media went through Grand Forks and many of them stayed on campus and trained in the local schools throughout East Grand Forks, MN and Grand Forks, ND over the five week period.

After only two years since the flood, the community continued to feel the flood’s devastation yet backed each of these efforts as each played a key role in giving our city the re-birth it so desperately needed following the flood.

Those three years flew by, and the UND Swimming & Diving Teams and coaching staff were taxed, but it hardly fazed us.  Giving back was embedded so deeply into our team culture; we always felt we were a part of something larger than ourselves. It was team tradition that each fall we took to the streets and helped our Grand Forks and East Grand Forks neighbors rake leaves, or completed odd jobs for the elderly population at their homes.  That is who we were.

As these stories point out, the success of the men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams over the years wasn’t always in the pool. UND Men’s and Women’s teams were continuously in the top academic rankings both at the school and nationally – and that was expected of our athletes.  And while that is telling – our largest success was the family we created; something that was not created due to athletic scholarships or an overflowing budget.  We raised a third of our budget each year and it was not uncommon for a UND President or Athletic Director tell me, “UND swimming doesn’t need our help, you guys are successful. We have to focus our efforts on the teams that are not successful.”  The spirit of our success came from within – we loved to train, we loved to race, we loved being a part of a wonderful university, and a fantastic community. Kids came to swim at UND because this culture was apparent from the first contact; it certainly wasn’t due to scholarship dollars.

But that culture carried over to our success in the pool. The women’s program had more success than any other women’s program in the history of UND and produced more All-Americans than all the other women teams put together.  It has more NCAA National trophies than all UND Athletic programs put together. In 1984, the team produced the first and only individual Division I National Qualifier in Kimber Edwards, from Minot, ND.  In 1982, the UND Women’s Swimming & Diving program participated in its first NCAA National Championship for any women’s athletic team, and then went on to represent UND at NCAA’s for 24 years, placing in the top six in 22 of those years before becoming Division 1.  This year, the women’s program was beginning to make its mark at the Division I level as they won four of five relay titles at the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) Championships, and crowned numerous individual conference championships.

The Men’s program represented UND nationally for twenty-one consecutive appearances at the NCAA’s, finishing in the top 10 eighteen years in a row.  The men’s team had multiple NCAA National Individual Champions, along with NCAA National Championship Relays.  Over all those years it produced more All-Americans than all the other men’s sports put together.  After the University moved to Division I athletics, the men’s swimming and diving programs continued their success in the WAC.  Swimmers have been tenths of seconds from qualifying for the NCAA Championship meet, which is the fastest and most difficult meet to qualify for in the world – even faster than the Olympics.

During my years as coach, 90% of the student-athletes on the women’s team were paying their own tuition. On men’s team, 95% paid their own tuition. At present 60% of women and 70% of men pay their own tuition while representing UND in swimming and diving.  Both programs are near the bottom of all teams on a cost-per-athlete basis. 70% of the other athletic teams were costing the university more dollars to maintain. When tuition revenue is included, the program actually saves the University $180,000 per annum. For many years the UND Swim Lesson program, run by the UND Swimming and Diving programs, made more money for the Athletic Department than the football program. The UND Swimming and Diving programs brought approximately $23 million in economic dollars to the city of Grand Forks during my tenure.

It seems a bit too easy to simply close a door to one of the most successful athletic programs in the history of UND. There were NCAA Championship trophies, more than 202 All-Americans, and 30 Individual and Relay NCAA National Champions along the way.  A legacy was created and celebrated – so much so that many in the region grew up dreaming of one day attending UND and joining the team – and many did.

The University could have chosen a handful of options that would have achieved the same or perhaps a better financial goal.  Had they considered a reduction in scholarships? I feel certain that swimmers would have chosen to continue to swim. The pride in the UND program is reward enough for the long hours spent in the pool. UND has three primary forces at work that have driven athletes to the program year over year: a superior education, a culture of family and commitment, and a nationally acclaimed swimming and diving program. When UND swimmers and divers reflect on their years at UND, the love and passion spent in the pool are just as important, if not more so, than the degree hanging on the wall.  

In Grand Forks, the Red River Flood of 1997 was devastating. Today, in 2017, a similar feeling has overtaken me as our team, our legacy has been willfully drowned by a flood of poor decisions. The UND Swimming and Diving Alumni are fighters. Together with swimmers from all over the state of North Dakota and the five state region, we will work tirelessly to bring this celebrated program back to UND and help create a new era of UND Athletics.



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4 years ago

Since UND went to D1, have any swimmers qualified for NCAA champs? Not to be snarky, but do you think those making the administrative decisions are putting a higher priority on more recent records?

Reply to  SuperShark!
4 years ago

Did you read the article? So if I’m reading your comment correctly, what you are essentially saying, is that any DI swimming program that doesn’t regularly send swimmers or divers to NCAA’s, the program should be dropped during financial troubles? And in this case it’s because all the other programs at UND are regular visitors to the national championships in their sport? So about 40 programs in DI swimming and diving would be your solution?

Reply to  Richard
4 years ago

Does it matter? The university is in a worse financial position as a result of cutting the program all while depriving student athletes of the opportunity to compete. As of a few years ago the Men + Women’s teams only had a combined 9 full scholarship equivalents (5.5 Women’s and 3.5 Men’s) out of a team of 50 to 60 people. All while bringing home serious academic and athletic accomplishments and pride to UND. The administration should be ashamed of themselves for the lack of cost cutting and belt tightening that is fundamental to the fiscal conservativism expected by the residents of North Dakota.

Reply to  SuperShark!
4 years ago

The team has Olympic Trial qualifiers last summer!

jim Odonnell
Reply to  SuperShark!
4 years ago

Its a sad story,

Victoria Soli
4 years ago

Excellent article! It’s unfortunate that UND cut such a well established program. They should have found a way to keep swimming and diving instead of dropping it.

4 years ago

Thanks for telling our story coach. More and more, every day, I’m reminded if how important our team was to my personal growth and the I individual I’ve become. It’s indescribably disappointing to know the same opportunities won’t be afforded at UND to future swimmers and divers from around the region.

I am and always will be a proud member of the ’97 to 2000 UND Swimming and Diving family.

4 years ago

I’ve always found it ironic that athletics teams are the casualties of failed administration. I believe the any athletics director who fails to allow spending to get that far out of hand needs to be fired. It’s disgusting to see what these gutless leaders allow some sports to get away with. I have absolute disgust for the UND athletics director all the way to the president for allowing it. I urge university presidents to put a moratorium on cutting any athletics program. Put it back in the athletics director. Your options are raise more money or stop spending.

4 years ago

Well written Mike. Many swim and dive alumni have lost their connection to UND. As you stated, many of us attended UND only because of the excellent swim program that you developed, and many of us paid out of state tuition to do so. Thank you for your guidance and support.

Josh Davis
4 years ago

Maybe the clinic, hosted by RRV Wahoos, with 3x Olympian and 50m Rio Gold Medalist Anthony Ervin on Sat May 20th at the UND Pool will wake up the administration to the benefits of having swimming! Whether your 20 years old or 35, swimming is good for you and good for the school!

4 years ago

Would love to see SwimSwam do an article predicting the state of college swimming in 25 years. It would be difficult to put a positive spin on it. I would be glad to write either the positive hope or negative reality side of the story.

4 years ago

Well said, Coach. It is so sad. Thank you for being the heart of the program and the leader of our “family” for so many years. I will be forever thankful for everything you have done for me.