Dropping Swimming was Tough, but Right

UW Swimming (UW Media Relations)

SEATTLE - Finally the hatchet of budget cuts caught up with the Washington athletic department. They decided to cut men's and women's swimming, and this time the cuts appear permanent. Two previous attempts had been made to eliminate the programs but both times the administration backed down due to alumni backlash.

There will be no backing down this time and unfortunately the program will go the same route as did the wrestling program decades ago.

Considering the economy, as well as the actual state of the program itself this should not have been a surprise to anyone.  Face it; swimming costs a $1.2 million per season and brings in little to no revenue in return. Most of the competition also have diving teams, something Washington has been without for years.

Lacking an adequate on-campus facility, the program has been struggling ever since Earl Ellis stepped down as the coach and director.  Although the current staff and coaches, led by Whitney Hite, have worked hard to keep the program competitive, they have still been losing the best in-state talent simply due to a poor facility and the lack of prestige of Husky Swimming on the national scene.

   Living in the Bremerton area, I have watched a number of national level and Olympic medalists leave the area and state to swim elsewhere.  The Kirk sisters going to Stanford and Nathan Adrian choosing California are classic examples of what has plagued the Husky program for years. Of course kids decide all the time to go away for college but in swimming the best ones have never even considered staying home. Of the 34 members of the 2009 men's and women's swimming rosters, only 12 came from the state of Washington.

I know nothing about coaching in swimming but I do know a six-lane pool doesn't cut it for competition, especially when it is only 25 yards long.  When you have to ask your kids to drive 20 miles to Federal Way just to work out at an adequate facility, and then to have to hold competitions there instead of on campus, it is not only inconvenient for the athletes, but also for fans, friends and families.

So to summarize, swimming at Washington is hardly a spectator sport and barely registers a blip when it comes to national prominence. For example, the 16th place finish nationally for the men was the best result they've had in over 30 years.

To not have any means of support to keep it afloat, it is obvious that Barbara Hedges was right when she tried to drop it in 2000. She finally backed down from all the pressure and reinstated it shortly after that.

Reading Steve Kelley's one-sided piece on the decision in the Seattle Times certainly made you feel for the athletes and coaches. It painted Scott Woodward as cold-hearted and insensitive, but how do you tell everyone connected to the program they are being dropped? There is no better way than to be direct.  A decision was made, here it is, thank you and good luck.  It's a hard thing to accept, no doubt, but what else needs to be said?

If there were donors who would have stepped up and funded the $1.25 million swimming budget, then maybe the program would have survived, but in today's economic climate that wasn't going to happen. 

Husky Crew hustles hard to help keep their program above water (no pun intended) and have an active alumni supporting its efforts. Crew is a national powerhouse program and one of the great rowing schools in the country.  That is not the case with swimming.  Whatever success has come through momentary flashes of brilliance, and from days long since past. How many championships have there been in swimming? Most Husky fans have never even been to a swim meet.  Apparently there is not an active alumnus or two or three willing to step forward to keep the program going. Frankly, when talking about non-revenue athletics nowadays it takes the generosity of others to keep dreams alive. It's a stark reality.

Most Washington fans expect the football team to fund everything else, just like it pretty much always has. But of all the sports offered at Washington, swimming was the sixth-most expensive to operate. Considering that it had done little or nothing to support itself made the decision an obvious one.

Scott Woodward didn't have to bring the kids in and tell them in person.  He could have simply released a statement and let it go at that.  He felt he had an obligation to tell them in person.  They were not brought together to debate or question the decision.  They were told their scholarships would be honored and that any wishing to transfer would be supported in their efforts. There is no book on how these things should be handled.  He knew it was a wrenching decision, but history will judge him on the decision itself, and not on the way he did it.

This change reduces Washington to 21 sports, which puts the Huskies fourth in the conference in total number of offerings. By way of comparison, Washington State offers only 15 sports, and are seriously considering dropping baseball - which has an incredible history for the Cougars.

This decision was obviously not an easy one, but the program has been literally and figuratively treading water for years. Unfortunately it might not be the only cut. Everything is being looked at because of the state's failure to release county money. All of these things are connected, and when the state legislature refused to recognize that remodeling Husky Stadium would create 7,000 jobs and bolster a sagging local economy, we will continue to see these kinds of unpopular decisions being made.

With swimming now gone, there is the possibility that the Husky Pool could be converted into either a training facility for other sports or an additional weight facility.  Built in 1937, it is not only antiquated but sits on a prime piece of property right next to Husky Stadium. The IMA has a much newer and better pool already in existence, but it was not built to hold competitions.

I learned to swim in the Husky pool in the early 50's. I thought that while I was at Washington, one of the real fine coaches was the swimming coach, Earl Ellis. At the time I never even considered what it cost to run the swimming programs and who paid for it. Unfortunately, neither did those in the program itself. There are a number of great Husky swimmers in the Hall of Fame and it must really be sad for them. Of course there were national champions in wrestling too and most Husky fans have forgotten about them as well.

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