'Angry and hurt:' Hawkeye athletes make public plea to save their four sports

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Sage Ohlensehlen enjoyed her experience as a swimmer at Iowa so much that she was planning on remaining here to attend law school.

Not anymore.

“I find that I’m a little angry and hurt,” Ohlensehlen told reporters Monday, “and I want to go far away.”

Monday marked one month since Hawkeye athletes in four sports — men’s and women’s swimming and diving, men’s gymnastics and men’s tennis — were informed that this would be their final season. Iowa athletic director Gary Barta said he was eliminating those sports in an effort to save $5 million annually, a step he felt necessary after the Big Ten Conference initially canceled its fall football season. That decision has since been reversed, although the season will be shorter and without fans in attendance.

More:Iowa AD Gary Barta gleeful about return of football, but offers no reprieve for 4 sports he's cutting

Iowa athletes in the four sports marked for extinction are continuing their efforts to get Barta to reconsider, something he has said he will not do. Four of them held a news conference Monday, each expressing dismay at the lack of communication they’ve received from Iowa athletic administrators like Barta.

Iowa swimmer Sage Ohlensehlen said Monday that the university's plan to drop the sport will hurt youngsters in the state who grew up like her just wanting an opportunity to compete collegiately.

“There really hasn’t been much followup at all,” said Jason Kerst, a fifth-year senior who competes in tennis. “It’s been kind of crickets in terms of what student-athletes have been able to hear.”

Ohlensehlen, who grew up in Bettendorf, said Iowa gave her the only opportunity she had to swim collegiately. She couldn’t afford to go to school out of state.

“The day that I was offered a walk-on position at Iowa was the best day of my life,” she said.

Ohlensehlen made the most of it, making the dean’s list and being named team captain. She said swimming against Olympic gold medalist Lilly King remains a career highlight.

Ohlensehlen’s senior year began with news that the opportunity she received may no longer be available for the young swimmers she coaches. She said that’s why she is so hurt by it.

“The youth of Iowa needs these sports. They need all of them. Because it’s going to give these kids the opportunity of a lifetime,” Ohlensehlen said.

“These programs are more than just dollar signs. They’re representing opportunities to kids all over Iowa.”

Jason Kerst put his plans to attend graduate school on hold for one year in order to return to Iowa and play a final season of tennis. Now, that sport is facing elimination at the university and Kerst is working to try to save it.

Kerst was the president of the Iowa Student-Athlete Advisory Committee last year. In that role, he had the chance to speak regularly to Barta, other senior athletic administrators and faculty members who comprise the Presidential Committee on Athletics. Kerst said he felt then that the welfare of Iowa’s athletes was paramount in decision-making.

Now, he wonders. The athletic department’s slogan of “Win. Graduate. Do it right.” suddenly seems hollow to Kerst.

“There has not been adequate mental health and other resources during this time. I just ask that our administration will open up to deeper conversation. That we not be treated like we’re just numbers being tossed aside,” Kerst said.

“When there’s a disparity between action and words, that’s incredibly frustrating. … I hope we’re rerouted so that their actions are back in line with that mission statement. Because student-athletes have been and have to continue to be the focus.”

Kerst, a native of Michigan, put his plans to attend graduate school on hold for a year to try to play one final season of tennis at Iowa. Last spring’s season was wiped out by health concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic. He is on a partial scholarship. He said it was a difficult decision, but similar to what many Hawkeye athletes have faced.

“I’d rather delay my life for a year because I know the University of Iowa is home,” Kerst said.

Many athletes in the sports scheduled to be cut have put their names in the transfer portal. But the four who spoke Monday said those athletes would happily retract their names if the school decided to keep the sports after all. Swimmer Ryan Purdy is one of them.

“It’s my dream to swim here and I want to live that out,” said Purdy, a sophomore from Illinois. “It’s my home. It’s my family.”

The current athletes, and hundreds of Iowa alumni, have set up a web site, saveiowasports.com, where people can go to sign a petition to overturn Barta’s decision and to pledge money for that cause.

“These programs will be saved,” Ohlensehlen vowed. “We will accomplish that.”

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

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