Former Hawkeye swimmer Sage Ohlensehlen had a weight lifted off her shoulders Thursday morning as she publicly settled a Title IX lawsuit that she and her teammates brought against the University of Iowa in September 2020.
Ohlensehlen and three fellow women’s swimmers — Kelsey Drake, Christina Kaufman, and Alexa Puccini — brought a Title IX noncompliance lawsuit against the UI after it cut its men’s and women’s swimming and diving, men’s tennis, and men’s gymnastics programs.
The lawsuit alleged the UI did not create enough athletic opportunities for women. Although women make up 53.56 percent of the student body, the lawsuit said, only 50.77 percent of athletic opportunities were for women in the 2018-19 academic year.
“This lawsuit has been the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Ohlensehlen told The Daily Iowan Thursday afternoon. “And it’s very hard for me to talk about, because when Iowa cut the swim and dive team, that was the worst moment of my life. And I have really been through it this year.”
After a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction in the lawsuit on Dec. 22, 2020 — temporarily blocking the UI’s decision to cut women’s swimming and diving — the UI permanently reinstated the women’s program in February 2021.
The men’s swimming and diving, tennis, and gymnastics programs, however, were permanently discontinued at the end of the 2020-21 academic year.
Ohlensehlen’s lawsuit went on until both the UI and the women’s swimmers reached an agreement last month. According to settlement documents filed Aug. 20, both parties agreed to material terms of a settlement, and it will take time to finalize an agreement.
Part of the settlement included adding a new women’s sport to comply with Title IX — Iowa Athletics announced Thursday morning that it is adding women’s wrestling as a Division I varsity sport in the 2023-24 academic year.
“This is a huge victory,” Ohlensehlen said. “So, I think the thing that’s very important to remember is that Iowa is adding this wrestling program because of the lawsuit. The lawsuit is the catalyst for this program being added. I’m so happy that Iowa is taking these steps for equality, and I’m hoping that this case will set a precedent for all other schools. I think it’s about time that every school out there, every Division I-qualified school, should really take a look at their rosters and make sure that they are offering equal amounts of opportunities to both men and women.”
Ohlensehlen added that, after Iowa becomes the first Power Five school in the nation to sponsor women’s wrestling, she hopes other schools will take initiative to add the sport as well.
When Ohlensehlen originally brought the lawsuit against the UI, she was met with criticism from her peers and the community — enough to change the trajectory of her future.
The former Hawkeye from Bettendorf, Iowa, originally planned to attend law school at Iowa after graduation. After the lawsuit, however, she didn’t even consider attending law school at the UI.
“It was very difficult, and I was treated differently in the community,” Ohlensehlen said. “I had a lot of support, but there were also a lot of people who did not support me and made it very clear. My family lost a lot of friends. I, personally, lost a lot of friends. I had relatives who said very rude things to me about this because, for some reason, people tend to think that female athletes aren’t as deserving as male athletes because their sports don’t bring in as much money.”
Ohlensehlen currently attends Southern Methodist University Law School in Dallas, Texas.
“It’s really sad that people treated me the way that they did,” Ohlensehlen. “And, like I said, it literally led to me moving 14 hours away because I wanted to be someplace where I wasn’t known as the girl who sued Iowa.”
Now, Ohlensehlen has closure from the UI cutting and reinstating her program and a lawsuit against her former school, all in the course of a year.
“The fact that I’m able to close this chapter of my life, knowing that I did something that’s going to make a difference in 70 young women’s lives a year, that’s amazing,” Ohlensehlen said. Because they have 35 wrestlers and 35 swimmers and divers that are going to be able to compete as D1 athletes every single year.”
“That is the coolest thing. And I consider that to be my greatest achievement in my whole life.”