Members of Iowa swimming and diving programs reflect on ‘heartbreaking’ sports cuts

The athletes criticized Gary Barta and the athletic department’s approach to cutting four sports.


Emily Wangen

Swimmers warm up before competition begins during the Thursday preliminary round of competition of the 2020 Women’s Women Big Ten Swim & Dive Championships on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020 at the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center. Swimmers competed in the 500 Yard Freestyle, the 200 Yard Individual Medley, and the 50 Yard Freestyle.

Robert Read and Austin Hanson

Sage Ohlensehlen was 9 years old when she attended a swimming and diving camp hosted by head coach Marc Long and the Iowa program. That was when she knew she wanted to be part of the program. Now, as a senior swimmer and team captain for the Hawkeyes, Ohlensehlen had to hear that the program was being cut.

Ohlensehlen woke up to a message on her phone saying there was an urgent meeting being held the morning of Aug. 21. At that point, the Bettendorf, Iowa, native knew bad news was coming.

University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld and Athletic Director Gary Barta announced in an open letter that day that four sports programs — men’s gymnastics, men’s and women’s swimming and diving, and men’s tennis — will be discontinued at the end of the 2020-21 academic year.

After the Big Ten announced Aug. 11 that all fall sports in the conference were postponed, Barta said the athletic department is anticipating $100 million in lost revenue and a $60-75 million deficit.

Cutting these sports will save Iowa “north of $5 million a year,” according to Barta, who also said the department is in the process of securing a $75 million loan.

“You can start to go down all these different roads,” Barta said in a Monday video conference. “In the end, whatever I came up with, whatever we came up with, you could make the case that we shouldn’t have cut this one, or we should have cut that one instead. We ended up cutting the sports we felt were going to best position us to come out of this pandemic once it’s all over.”

The cuts to these four sports are final. Barta said Monday he does not anticipate having to cut any other sports at the moment.

Barta said he spoke with the head coaches of the impacted programs before the announcement.

RELATED: Iowa to discontinue four sports programs at end of 2020-21 academic year

The meeting that morning featured athletes and coaches from all four programs. It took place at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, with athletes seated in metal folding chairs placed six feet apart.

“Gary Barta got up and said, ‘I’m sure you all know right now that this is not good news,’” Ohlensehlen said. “‘The good news is you’ll be allowed to compete this year. After that, your sports will be discontinued at Iowa.’

“I found the delivery of the message extremely cold. I felt like we were almost treated like we’re not important. The message was very fast, it was very get-to-the-point. It was an awful day for all of us.”

Ohlensehlen said Barta addressed the four programs for roughly two minutes before walking out of the room and allowing others to answer questions.

“I felt like we as athletes were not important to them,” Ohlensehlen said. “As people we weren’t important to them. We put so much blood, sweat, and tears into the program. And for [the programs] to be cut is heartbreaking.”

Barta said he made the decision to address the teams about sports being cut and why it was happening. He then let others answer questions on topics such as compliance, financial aid, and eligibility.

“I did want to make that announcement to them in-person,” Barta said. “But then I asked the experts in those areas to answer the specific questions for student athletes individually.”

Following Barta’s announcement to the entire group and the ensuing questions, the teams split up to discuss what had just happened.

“Our coach, Marc Long, got up,” Ohlensehlen said. “First of all, he just walked around the room for a minute and the room was dead silent, except for like a few sobs, was all that you could hear. Everybody has their masks on — it’s really hard to cry in a mask.

“It was the saddest moment for my life personally.”

RELATED: Four Iowa sports being cut each have history that dates back decades

Athletes impacted by this decision will still have their scholarships honored through graduation and the coaches of those sports will also have their contracts honored. These programs will still compete in 2020-21, should the circumstances surrounding COVID-19 permit it, before they are discontinued at the varsity level.

As of Monday, over 40 athletes from these four programs have entered the NCAA transfer portal. Barta said Iowa will assist these athletes in transferring, but if they decide to withdraw their names from the portal, they will be welcomed back.

One of the student athletes that will pursue opportunities elsewhere is Iowa swim and dive’s Preston Planells.

“I made the decision to look elsewhere,” Planells said. “I’m also going to take my redshirt this year. I would like to have more than two years at a new program. It was probably the hardest decision I had to make. You choose to be at this school, you choose to represent this school, you choose to be a Hawkeye. When that’s taken away, it hurts.”

Despite the news delivered by Iowa’s administration, Ohlensehlen and the other Hawkeye swimmers are preparing for one final season — even if it doesn’t happen.

“Our goal right now is to make the administration know what they did was wrong and that they shouldn’t have cut us,” Ohlensehlen said. “We’re going to have the best seasons of our lives. We have this one last season, and if that is taken away from us that would make everything that’s happened so much worse — to not have that last swim.”