Hawkeye swimmers focus on positives during what may be final home meet in school history

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Kelsey Drake is in a unique position in Iowa athletics history.

Her name is on the “records board” at the university’s swimming pool, a testament to her mastery of the butterfly stroke, which was invented in 1935 on this campus.

Her name is also on a lawsuit filed against the university in September alleging it is in violation of Title IX with its plan to cut its women’s swimming program after this season.

On Saturday, Drake kept her focus on the pool deck, thrilled to be competing with her teammates for the first time in 10 months.

“The days leading up to it, I was calling my mom (Jennifer) and definitely had some emotional breakdowns,” said Drake, a native of Marion. “But I tried to make it more positive and realized that this was a great team and we want to end on a positive note.”

Iowa’s women’s swimming team defeated Nebraska 170-128 at the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center. It was the only home meet on Iowa’s schedule this season, and possibly the last ever, if the university leadership has its way.

Iowa's Alexa Puccini competes in the 200 yard individual medley during a NCAA Big Ten Conference swimming and diving meet, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021, at the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City, Iowa.

The Iowa men’s team was scheduled to face Wisconsin on Saturday, but the Badgers had to back out over COVID-19 issues. The Hawkeye men swam against each other instead, in what amounted to time trials.

Anze Fers Erzen, a junior from Slovenia, won three events. Like Drake, he also pushed aside thoughts about the finality of Saturday’s meet. He will swim for Texas A&M next year, but isn't ready for his days as a Hawkeye to be over.

More:Court grants injunction in Title IX case, blocks University of Iowa from dropping women's swim team

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“It’s almost like bittersweet, but it definitely wasn’t sad,” Erzen said. “The energy was there. If this was the last meet, then I think we went out in a really good way here at home.

The team honored its 13 seniors before the meet began, although three of them weren’t present because of COVID-19 contact tracing. There were 250 Hawkeye family members allowed inside the 10-year-old facility, and they were spirited, trying to inject a sense of normalcy to what could have been a somber day. Many of them carried in large cardboard cutouts of the faces of the Iowa swimmers and lingered to talk long after the meet ended.

The parents of the seniors weren’t allowed onto the pool deck to embrace their children. But Heather Ohlensehlen made sure to position herself in the front row of the grandstands above the pool, where her daughter, Sage, could see and hear her. Sage Ohlensehlen, who is from Bettendorf, is also a plaintiff in the Title IX lawsuit against the university.

“It brought tears to my eyes,” Heather Ohlensehlen said of watching her daughter walk through a gauntlet of teammates and hug her coaches. “One, because she’s a senior and she’s graduating and it seems like the time went so fast. But two, this last year has been so challenging for everybody on the team to stay focused, to stay motivated, to help each other.”

Iowa's Kelsey Drake competes in the 200 yard butterfly during a NCAA Big Ten Conference swimming and diving meet, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021, at the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City, Iowa.

In March, the swimmers learned that their postseason meets were scrapped because of the coronavirus pandemic just starting to take hold in America. On Aug. 21, just as many arrived back on campus, they received a bigger jolt — word that their sport, along with men’s gymnastics and men’s tennis, was being dropped by the university. Iowa athletic director Gary Barta cited the financial loss brought on by the pandemic as the reason, estimating a $100 million shortfall in his budget and claiming that excising four of the school’s 24 varsity sports would save $5 million per year.

“This is the first time I’ve put on Iowa stuff since August,” said Matt Purdy, pointing to his black shirt, which bore a Tigerhawk logo and the words “Swim & Dive."

Purdy is a Cedar Falls native who played football at Iowa for Hayden Fry and whose son, Ryan, is a sophomore on the swim team. He is actively involved in a group trying to raise money and prepare a new business model that would save the four sports from being cut.

“I struggled to do it. In support of these kids, I thought it was appropriate,” Purdy said of donning Hawkeye gear for the first time in five months.

“Is it a little petty of me? Maybe a little bit. But I know the feeling that my son had when he chose here. And I know the feeling I had when he told me he was coming here.”

Iowa head coach Marc Long huddles up with athletes during a NCAA Big Ten Conference swimming and diving meet, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021, at the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City, Iowa.

Ryan Purdy has announced he will transfer to Arizona for next season. 

Marc Long is also preparing for his 17th season as Iowa’s swimming coach to be his last. He would be interested in remaining as coach of a women’s-only team if the Title IX lawsuit is successful, but is unsure of what his future holds. A judge issued an injunction last month forbidding the university from cutting women’s swimming for now, but Iowa’s legal team is fighting that. There’s no timeline for when a final decision will be rendered. Michigan State is facing a similar lawsuit from some of its women’s swimmers.

In the meantime, Long has watched his team disassemble. About a third of the women have already transferred. Others have scholarship offers in hand, but want to wait to see what happens with Iowa’s program first. He is down four members of his coaching staff.

Long, who swam at Iowa and is a member of the university’s athletic hall of fame, struggled to hold his tongue after Saturday’s meet, wanting to “take the high road.” But he admitted that when he’s away from the pool, he wonders whether he’s going to need to sell his house and inform his two teenage children that they may be switching high schools.

“I’m trying to blank that out and just focus on the job at hand. I’m just going to be in the moment here with the team,” Long said. “When you’ve got your entire department trying to make sure you stay out of the department, and you’ve got the entire university trying to make sure you stay out of it in court, it’s not a good feeling.”

As for his swimmers?

“They’re proud of the school. They came here for a reason. They trusted us. And we want them to celebrate that,” Long said.

People stand as the national anthem is played before a NCAA Big Ten Conference swimming and diving meet, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021, at the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City, Iowa.

Drake became enthralled by the Iowa swimming program as a child who attended summer camps on campus. She said it’s an honor to have her name on the wall of Iowa’s $70 million swimming facility. The pool was going to host the NCAA championships in March, but those were moved to Greensboro, N.C., after the announcement that Iowa was dropping the sport after 103 years of competition.

Drake remained at Iowa for her senior year because she wanted to finish her degree in industrial engineering and compete one final season with her teammates. She said she has felt betrayal and anger over the school’s decision that a varsity swimming team was cost-prohibitive.

“It’s going to be hard to kind of separate that from the season. But hopefully that will be a little bit easier in the coming weeks because of the competition,” Drake said.

“Today shows what we can do, and I just know we can do so much more.”

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.