Iowa women’s swimming and diving continues season while fighting the school’s decision to cut the program

The team continues COVID-19 shortened season, while the swimmers fight to keep the program that was originally cut after the 2020-21 season.


Shivansh Ahuja

Iowa’s Alyssa Graves competes in the women’s 1000m freestyle during a swim meet at the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center on Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021. The women’s team hosted Nebraska while the men’s team had an intrasquad scrimmage. (Shivansh Ahuja/The Daily Iowan)

Evan Bruner, Sports Reporter

The University of Iowa announced in August it would discontinue its women’s swimming and diving program after the 2020-21 academic year because of anticipated financial losses from the pandemic.

Women’s swimming and diving was one of four programs the university opted to cut, along with men’s swimming and diving, men’s gymnastics, and men’s tennis. But the fight to save the women’s program continues as the team prepares for the Big Ten Championships later this month.

The program scored a key legal victory in December when U.S. District Court Judge Stephanie Rose issued a preliminary injunction blocking the school from cutting the program. The court case was brought by current members of the team, including Sage Ohlensehlen, Alexa Puccini, Christina Kaufman, and Kelsey Drake.

The complaint filed alleged the university’s decision to eliminate the women’s swimming and diving program caused irreparable harm to the plaintiffs’ academic and athletic careers. It also alleged that the decision to cut the program would make the UI noncompliant with Title IX, the 1972 law that bars sex-based discrimination in federally funded education programs.

“I think it was a huge victory, not just for Iowa swimmers, but for female athletes everywhere,” Ohlensehlen said.

Ohlensehlen had no plans on taking legal action against the school until she was contacted by civil-rights attorney Nancy Hogshead-Makar, who told her about the potential violation. Hogshead-Makar is also the CEO of Champion Women, a nonprofit providing legal advocacy for females in sports.

“I just can’t believe a school in this day and age would knowingly offer fewer opportunities to women,” Ohlensehlen said. “When I found that out, it was absolutely heartbreaking to me, and I knew I had to do something about it.”

Ohlensehlen, who grew up in Iowa, said the events over the past several months have changed her view of the university.

“The reason that I picked Iowa was that I felt that they were a school that valued their athletes as people and not just as point scorers, and I was clearly wrong,” Ohlensehlen said. “I love my school for my professors and teammates, but it’s difficult to overlook the pain I’m feeling from the administration.”

Despite the preliminary injunction that temporarily halts the university from proceeding with its original plans, the team is still facing obstacles from the UI’s attempt to terminate the program. Ohlensehlen said the uncertainty of the program’s future has caused many coaches and athletes to leave the team.

“I’m a sprint breaststroker, and going into the year, I had three coaches who specialized in breaststroke and now I have none,” Ohlensehlen said. “I’ve lost a lot of the coaches I’ve worked closely with over the years.”

A total of seven swimmers and four coaches have already left the program, with many others planning to depart after this season.

The shorthanded team kicked off the season strong with a 170-128 victory over Nebraska on Jan. 16 and went 0-2 in a tri-meet on Jan. 22-23, falling to Penn State and Northwestern.

Iowa will close out the regular season next weekend in Minneapolis for a tri-meet versus Minnesota and Nebraska.

The Big Ten Championships are Feb. 24-27, with the swimming championships in Minneapolis and the diving championships in West Lafayette, Indiana. The NCAA Championships are March 17-20 in Greensboro, North Carolina.

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