Eliminated sports teams campaign for reinstatement

by Emily Lu | 7/17/20 3:00am

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by Michael Lin / The Dartmouth Senior Staff

Updated July 17, 2020 at 2:16 p.m.

Following last week’s announcement that five varsity sports — men’s and women’s golf, lightweight rowing and men’s and women’s swimming and diving — are being eliminated, athletes and alumni of these teams have rallied together in hopes of reinstatement. More than 27,000 people have signed an online petition for reinstatement released by the swimming and diving teams, while the lightweight rowing team’s petition has garnered over 9,000 signatures as of July 16. 

Athletics director Harry Sheehy has stated that the decision to eliminate these varsity programs is final. However, Connor Bishop ’23, a member of the men’s swimming and diving team, said the lack of communication and transparency only fueled the need to start a petition and publicize the team’s situation. 

“From the beginning, we were told flat out that no amount of money in protest or emails could change this decision,” Bishop said. “That's simply not representative of an administration that listens to its student body or even to the alumni that it’s asking money from.”

Both the swimming and diving team and the lightweight rowing program released their petitions on July 12 along with public Instagram accounts — @save_dartmouthswimdive and @savedartmouthlights — advocating for reinstatement. Swimmer Summer Martin ’21 said her team has been able to secure support from every other Ivy League swimming and diving program as well as high-profile Olympic swimmers Lilly King and Rebecca Soni. 

Martin added that the alumni network has played a large role in organizing the team’s response — particularly those who oversaw the team’s reinstatement in 2003. In 2002, the College administration announced that it was eliminating the swimming and diving team due to budgetary constraints. In hopes of reversing the decision, the athletes worked with Student Assembly and staged protests in the Parkhurst Administration building with hundreds of students. After raising an initial amount of approximately $200,000 in funds from alumni and parents, the swimming and diving team eventually garnered $2 million to fund the program and was reinstated. 

Priscilla Zee ’04, who was a junior on the team at the time, said that alumni support was critical to the 2003 reinstatement and wants to “pay that forward.”

“If it weren't for the alumni and the parents, we wouldn't have had a swim team for the last 18 years,” Zee said. “I do feel like it is my responsibility to do that same thing for the students and help kind of corral efforts the way that the alumni did back in ’02 and ’03.”

According to Martin, Zee led a Zoom meeting one day after the administration’s announcement with over 200 swimmers and divers, program alumni and their family members in attendance. Zee said that current swimmers and alumni have volunteered to lead subcommittees, such as internal communications, to organize their efforts. 

Kiana Outen ’18, a former coxswain of the lightweight rowing team’s varsity 8, said that the lightweight team’s alumni are “just as hurt” as current athletes by the decision to eliminate the program. 

“We're not going to get to row for the Dartmouth lightweights anymore — whether the team exists or not — but we know how important it was for us,” Outen said. “We know how important it is for future students. Every [alumnus] that I've talked to has said that they don't think they would have gotten their job, made it to their graduate school, [or] be the kind of person that they are now if they hadn't learned something from being a D150.”

While the swimming and diving team’s elimination in 2003 originated from financial concerns, this time the teams face a different uphill battle. College President Phil Hanlon requested that Sheehy decrease the number of varsity athletic recruits by 10 percent, and Sheehy himself noted that “no matter how much money the alums give, it doesn’t solve our admissions problem.”

Zee said the program is currently working to explore “creative solutions” that also address Hanlon’s desire to “achieve the right balance” between athletes and “applicants who excel in other pursuits,” as he wrote in the campus-wide email. Martin said that this statement in particular was “degrading” because it confined athletes to their sports and did not recognize the team’s contributions to campus outside of the pool.

“Our sport is only a layer of who we are as people and how we affect the Dartmouth community,” Martin said. “Academically we have great numbers, but it’s not just about athletics and academics. We have student researchers, trip leaders, tutors and artists on the team.”

Outen said that the fact that more than 70 percent of lightweight rowers are walk-on athletes contradicts Hanlon’s statement, which she said “very clearly makes it seem as if student-athletes are contributing nothing else to the school.”

“We only had four recruiting spots a year … so [walk-ons] are people who, despite the school seeming to think they are only good for athletics, were admitted [for reasons] having nothing to do with athletics,” Outen said. 

The swimming and diving team’s Instagram account features statistics showing that the SAT and ACT score averages for the recruited Class of 2024 swimmers is higher than that of the class average, which Bishop said should have been considered in the decision to eliminate the program. 

“It didn't appear that Sheehy advocated on behalf of all the athletes when the admissions department requested a 10 percent cut,” Bishop said. “Why didn't Sheehy compile the information that we were able to compile in the last week summarizing our contribution and presence on campus? Why are we fighting that fight that he should have fought on our behalf?”

John Cahill ’24, a lightweight rowing recruit, said that he feels like he was sold “snake oil,” as his expectations of rowing for the Big Green were taken away “with no warning at all.” 

While Class of 2024 recruits are able to request enrollment postponements, while retaining the option to cancel their enrollment next year, Cahill said he believes they were not given enough time to make this decision. 

Both Martin and members of the lightweight rowing community also took issue with Sheehy’s statement to The Dartmouth that teams without recruiting slots or athletic support have “no chance of any relative competitive success.” Martin said she wanted to point out that Sophie Smith ’20, one of the captains of the women’s swimming and diving team last season, was a walk-on who now holds program records, including the 50-yard freestyle. 

Sean Ward ’21, a walk-on and current captain of the lightweight rowing team, said that over the past four years, six of the eight captains and commodores were walk-on athletes.

In the next steps toward their goals of reinstatement, Outen said the lightweight rowing community is planning a presentation that addresses the administration’s admissions goals with different solutions. According to Martin, the swimming and diving team will be releasing a website to streamline information and communication to the public. 

Martin said that even for a program that she says has historically not received as much support — in terms of recruiting spots and investment — from the athletic department, the swimming and diving team has been consistently improving and will fight to be in that position again. 

“I think one thing that President Hanlon and Harry Sheehy don't understand is the biggest thing we're taught as swimmers and divers on our team is how to fight and how to keep going in the face of what seems like the impossible,” Martin said. “We're not easily told ‘no,’ and if we have hope, we're going to keep going.”