Trying week for Hawkeye swimming: Athletes try to cope, alumni try to fight decision to cut sport
IOWA CITY, Ia. — There were two markedly different story lines surrounding the Iowa swimming and diving team this week.
Inside the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center, the athletes tried to find comfort in familiar waters, preparing for a season that, if it happens at all, will be the last for a 103-year-old Hawkeye program.
“This has really been like a six-day funeral,” Iowa coach Marc Long said of the trying days since he was informed that his alma mater was planning to drop men’s and women’s swimming and diving at the end of this academic year.
“They’re confused. They’re sad. This is a family.”
Dozens of the 70 athletes in his program are exploring options to transfer, he said. Several swimmers already have, including one who left on the afternoon of Aug. 21, hours after Iowa athletic director Gary Barta made the announcement that he was cutting men’s gymnastics, men’s tennis and the two programs housed at the CRWC.
The 10-year-old facility, built at a cost of $69 million, was set to host this spring’s NCAA swimming and diving championships. Long has been told that will no longer happen, one more dose of bad news in a year that has delivered plenty of them.
But away from the current crop of Hawkeye swimmers and divers, there is a groundswell of indignation among alumni that they are hoping leads to a reversal of Barta’s decision. Parents of the athletes even set up a 1 p.m. Saturday meeting at a Coralville hotel to plot a course of action, with others joining via Zoom.
“You can’t put that many miles into a pool every day with the same people without having a huge bond with them. Swimming’s bond is just unique and strong and amazing,” said Kimberly Stevens, an all-American swimmer at Iowa in the 1980s who now lives in Florida.
“We’re fighting for our memories, but we’re also fighting for the future of our kids and their friends. We want our experience to be shared by so many.”
Anton Hoherz, a senior diver at Iowa, is watching all of this play out from the inside, hoping the outside noise is enough to make a difference but fearful that it is too late. Barta said Monday when asked about the fate of the four sports he’s shedding with the goal of saving $5 million annually: “I don’t want to create any false hope. The decision to cut these sports is final.”
“I’m really frustrated with UI athletics as a whole,” Hoherz said. “I think this shows they don’t really care about the smaller sports.”
Former Hawkeye swimmers and divers mobilize: 'I'm ready to fight for it'
Barta has said Iowa’s athletic department is poised to lose $100 million in revenue after the March cancellation of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and the Big Ten Conference’s decision to cancel its fall football schedule. Both moves are tied to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Athletic directors across America are cutting budgets as a result, although Iowa was the first Big Ten school to announce it is dropping entire sports.
Iowa’s swim teams had nearly $3 million in operational expenses in the 2019 fiscal year. And that total has many former Hawkeye swimmers and divers wondering how that adds up to enough savings to justify jettisoning 70 athletes and a century of tradition.
Vickie Nauman is among them. The graduate of Des Moines Hoover swam for Iowa in the 1980s and said Hawkeye athletes back then were a close-knit bunch, with those in revenue-generating sports such as football and basketball mingling with their counterparts in non-revenue sports, all of them realizing the value of having diverse sports offerings on campus. She is afraid Barta’s decision to cut sports is a sign that that framework has changed, with football and its massive TV contracts forcing all other sports to the side.
“It seems that there’s really been some transition from football being part of an intercollegiate athletics program with 23 other sports, and now this is a football-financed athletic department and everything else comes along for the ride,” Nauman said.
“They just built and opened this world-class (swimming) facility. Why would you spend that money to do this and then cut the program short?”
Nauman is part of an active Facebook group of former Hawkeye swimmers and divers that is trying to halt the elimination of the sport. Many of them reconnected just three years ago, when hundreds descended on Iowa City for a 100th anniversary celebration of the Hawkeye swimming program, which was once so influential that the butterfly stroke was invented in its old pool in the Fieldhouse.
Ryan Evans left his home in Nevada to walk on as an Iowa swimmer, and he counts being named team captain in 2009 as one of his proudest accomplishments. When he heard the news from Iowa on Aug. 21, he said: “It did bring me to tears. I don’t want to be dramatic, because there’s so many problems in the world right now, but it was almost equivalent to losing a friend, losing a teammate.
"That’s how personal it felt.”
Evans was so distraught that he has stopped wearing his Iowa gear around his hometown of Reno, where he is head coach of the local aquatic club. He took down the Hawkeye flag from in front of his house. One of his top swimmers was being recruited by Iowa and had the school at the top of her list.
“I want to do whatever I can to help reinstate this program. I’m ready to fight for it,” Evans said. “If it wasn’t for football, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity to swim at Iowa, so I’m not bashing football. I understand the priority needs to be football. But at the same time, that doesn’t make a well-rounded university to just have a football team.”
Ira Stein said the opportunity to earn a diving scholarship at Iowa in 1982 was the only way his family could have afforded for him to attend college. The lessons he learned from his sport gave him the drive to go on to medical school, he said. He has been a physician back in his home state of Tennessee for 25 years.
Those are the stories that may be hidden from the public, Stein said, as fans focus on the athletes in high-profile sports.
“It’s another one of those Olympics sports that is getting squeezed out in colleges,” he said. “It just makes me sad. I don’t necessarily fault the school itself. I fault the athletic department. This seems like a major mistake, and I’m not sure if it was completely thought through.”
That’s a question being raised by many Hawkeye swimming and diving alumni. Barta’s decision seemed to happen abruptly, just 10 days after the Big Ten revealed its plan to hold off on a football season until 2021. They are frustrated that no one from the university reached out to ask about fundraising efforts, or some other way to save the program.
“It seems like the athletic department is much more dominated by what happens to football than maybe I was willing to accept,” said Michelle Ross of Des Moines, who swam at Iowa in the 1980s along with her future husband, Dave. “To think that we’re now cutting these programs to look at maybe a 10-year cost savings to make it more viable to do what for all of Iowa athletics? There’s a change of direction without any contact to any of the alums.
“I just don’t know what the agenda is.”
Mike Curley, another Hawkeye swimmer from the 1980s who was later an assistant coach at Ohio State, agreed with the sentiment that more could have been done if Barta and his staff had been forthcoming about the financial decisions they were contemplating.
“If the so-called leaders of the university truly cared about saving the programs ultimately cut, they would have taken the time to communicate,” Curley wrote in an email to the Register. “I believe one of the true tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes an emergency.”
Inside the program: 'I keep telling them to take the high road on this'
Long, and his coaching staff, are trying to stay out of that debate. He said his focus will be solely on his athletes in his 17th and likely final season at the helm. He is a former Hawkeye swimmer himself, and is in the university’s athletic hall of fame, earning an annual salary of $105,000.
Long got the news that his teams were being eliminated the morning of Aug. 21. Forty-five minutes later, he was in the school’s basketball practice gym when Barta informed the stunned athletes, who were set to begin fall classes three days later.
Long said he was surprised to learn his time at Iowa was nearing its end, but “as an Olympic sport, I think it’s always in the conversation when cuts are made.”
After Barta and other athletic department leaders left the room, it was up to Long to try to console his athletes.
“It was just sobbing and silence,” Long said.
“I just went around saying, ‘I’m sorry.’ I was really sorry these kids put their trust in us, and as a coach, that’s everything.”
In the week since, Long’s swimmers and divers have had voluntary practices. They had a team meeting Monday to let everyone speak their mind. It’s still not known if the winter swimming and diving season will go on as planned after the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of last year’s NCAA championships.
Long is proud of his athletes who have remained. He is confident that he’ll be able to piece together a team if it comes to that.
“They really just want to be in that water and do great in school and be proud of who they represent,” Long said.
“They don’t want to be anywhere else, but they’ve been told they have no choice. … I keep telling them to take the high road on this. This decision does not define you, but what happens after this will. And they’ve really taken that to heart.”
Hoherz, who is training to compete in the 2021 U.S. Olympic diving trials if they are held, is among those committed to seeing the season through. Either way, he said, it will be his last. He is going to stay at Iowa and get his master's degree in music composition.
Hoherz grew up in Texas, but he has grandparents in Iowa City who have been able to attend all of his meets. He’s on a full-ride scholarship, which is a bit of a rarity in swimming and diving. The men’s team has only 9.9 to divide up; the women offer 14. Hoherz said he’ll always feel honored to have represented the Hawkeyes, even though the way events have unfolded in the past week have let him frustrated.
“We’ve been pretty shut out of the process,” Hoherz said, speaking of all the athletes affected. “If I could ask Gary Barta one question, I would ask him what the real reason for the cut was. Because I don’t think it’s about money.
“They could definitely keep it afloat. They just chose not to.”
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at email@example.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.
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