Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Swimmer Michelle Teets: "Oh, by the way, the swim team is cut."

By: Marisha Pareek

Upon first glance, second-year UCI student Michelle Teets is very obviously an athlete. Tall and lean, with the telltale build and gait of a swimmer, she immediately put me at ease with her friendly smile and amusingly cynical demeanor. A biological-sciences major who hails from Austin, Texas, she laughed and joked as she answered my questions, launching into personal stories and rolling her eyes as she gave her opinions. Even through her lightheartedness, however, her frustration at the loss of her friends, her team, her scholarship, and her college experience was both tangible and saddening.

Q: Being from Texas, what made you decide to attend UC Irvine?

A: I actually got mono my senior year, so it was hard to swim and get recruited by schools, and then UC Irvine picked me up. I was actually deciding between UCI and Rice, but I just really liked California better. I’ve been swimming since I was eleven, and in high school I was very oriented toward getting a swimming scholarship for college. Both schools offered me the same amount of money, a pretty good deal. I was just like “Oh, which one should I pick?” but I figured moving out of state to California would be a bigger change, since Rice is in Texas.

Q: So, in retrospect, how do you feel that the budget cuts in the UC system have affected you personally?

A: Well, it’s kind of annoying, because I’m thinking about transferring. My parents want me to transfer, because I don’t have that scholarship anymore. It was really weird, it was like two days before the school year started, this school year, and they just told me, “Oh, by the way, the swim team is cut.” And so there was this whole issue of do I still get my scholarship for this year, because if I don’t, I have to pay these high tuitions because I’m from out of state. It’s triple the amount that a California resident would have to pay, its like $10,000 a quarter or something ridiculous. Then they had this rule, that they would honor all existing scholarships, but for this year only. So next year, if I continue at UCI, I won’t still have a scholarship, which is a problem with my parents. I’m now looking at transferring to other schools in California, since I’ve already been here for a year, and have been trying to establish myself as a California resident.

Q: Which other schools are you considering transferring to? And how is Irvine dealing with your existing scholarship?

A: UCSB, UCLA, and Caltech are the only three in California. I’m also looking at some random ones, like Vanderbilt in Tennessee and West Virginia and Hawaii. Any school that’s contacted me, really. All of these schools are offering me scholarships. The way it works at UCI is that each year the athlete signs a letter that they will continue with the sport for that academic year, and will receive the scholarship money for a year. But I came to UCI with the intent that I would sign that letter for four years, study here for four years, swim for four years, and get scholarship money for four years. When they cut that money, I now have two more years to worry about, and I can’t pay for out of state fees. I did pretty well at the conference meet at the end of last year, which is a good fallback for me because I can use those racing times to appeal to other schools.

Q: How did you feel when you found out about the cuts? Where were you, and who told you the news?

A: I was here, doing summer school. It was the day I got my wisdom teeth taken out. (laughs) It was a great day. I got this call from the coach, and as soon as I hung up I started crying. I called my mom right away, but I couldn’t talk because of my teeth, and she was like “What? What?” because I was so upset but I couldn’t speak. I had to text her the news. She was pretty angry, and so was my dad. That day was horrible. (laughs) My coach just called and said “We have some really bad news. UC Irvine is having some really bad financial issues. The rowing, swimming, and sailing teams are being cut.” I didn’t even know we had a sailing team. I’ve heard they might be thinking about cutting other teams as well. It really sucks, I mean, you expect to be like “Wow, UC Irvine!” You know? Division 1, and all that. But how can you be Division 1 if all your teams are getting cut? (laughs)

Q: Did these cuts come as a surprise to you? Did you see yourself being so affected by them when you heard about them in the news?

A: My mom was telling me casually before I found out about the team that California was really bad as far as money and education went, but I didn’t realize it would affect ME so personally. It was definitely a surprise when they cancelled the team. My coach didn’t even know about it, he found out the same day that everyone else did. He was actually planning on doing all these things for the team this year: training trips, and stuff like that. We have a pretty good freshman incoming class, we’ve offered a lot of scholarships to this incoming class, and I feel really bad for them because they’re first-years. They don’t even have that conference meet to fall back on for times to appeal to other schools. It’s a hard situation to be in. They’re honoring all scholarships, but only for this year. I actually know a lot of other people being forced to leave UCI. Most of the swimmers are going to other schools offering them scholarships. Anyone who’s an athlete is probably going to transfer. It’s not that they’re having difficulties finding other schools. It’s just hard to start over again, at a new college that you don’t really want to be at. Honestly, I’d still want to stay at UCI. I have my people here, you know? I’m used to the classes, now. I mean, first quarter it was difficult to get used to 400 person lectures, but I got used to it. I know everything. I have a boyfriend here. I have friends, connections here. I know the town, I know Newport. It’s little things like that that are making me want to stay. And then, when you go to a different college, everything’s new. You have to start over. And I’m not going to be a freshman, so it’s not going to be as easy for me to be new to everything and meet new people.

Q: So, in retrospect, despite liking the school, do you regret coming to UC Irvine?

A: I probably would have picked another school, if I could go back now. (laughs) I’m just not a person who likes big changes, and as much as I like it here, I hate the idea of “Ok, I’m done at this college, lets just plop over in the middle of the year to another school!” I probably would have picked Rice, if I’d known this would happen. Actually, some schools want me to transfer as soon as January. I’m considering it. I’d prefer a third year transfer, but if they really want me by January so that I can swim in their conference meet, I can understand that. If they give me an ultimatum like, “We’ll only take you if you transfer now” then that’s an option I’ll have to consider. My parents really want me to transfer, because the only negative part of that is that I have to start over, and for them that’s a small price to pay. But as an athlete, you can only transfer once, so the fact is I have to like it at whatever new school I go to. I’m pretty scared about that. It comes down to the money. All the schools I’m looking at are at pretty much the same academic and athletic level as UCI, so they see it as the most logical option. But for me its like, they’re not the ones going through it. They aren’t the ones who’ll have to readjust, so they don’t understand how difficult its going to be to have to start over at a new school as a third year.

Q: Have you, personally, been involved in any activities to protest or remedy the budget cuts?

A: Well during the campus walkout, I was in class, so I couldn’t participate. But the swim team has actually been doing some stuff to try to raise money, probably for like a club team or something. We’ve been selling shirts. We’ve had this thing called Swim For Life at the beach, and we have a little booth set up there, and at swim meets that are at clubs. People donate money, but we would need something like 2 million dollars to get the UCI swim team back. The school wanted funding for all four years, which is insane, we can’t come up with 2 million. I’m actually now doing a club team called Nova, but that’s just to keep me in shape for when I need to transfer. (A club team is one that is generally recreational and competes against other club teams, but is not part of a collegiate league.)

Q: Why do you think UC Irvine chose the swim team to cut?

A: All UC schools are having to do budget cuts. So far, UCI is the only one that’s had to cut the swim team, but I’ve heard other schools aren’t far behind, so that’s another thing I have to worry about. Water sports definitely get the shaft. I’m not saying that just because I’m a swimmer. I mean, I’ll admit, watching football is a lot more interesting than watching someone go back and forth in the pool. (laughs) But what people have to understand is that going back and forth in that pool is really, really hard. Michael Phelps is one in a million. He’s the only person who’s made the sport more well-known. People are starting to understand how challenging it is, but it’s still not that interesting to them. Our volleyball team is amazing, and our swim team was kind of new. We haven’t had that much time to establish ourselves and create a name for ourselves. Even if we did, I don’t think that many people would be excited for it. You’d have to be a swimmer in high school to really get it. It’s more interesting to watch volleyball and basketball, you know?

Q: How do you feel the school could have handled these financial problems differently?

A: I feel like a lot could have been done differently. There’s this thing called Title 9, where there have to be a certain number of female teams to every male team to have gender equality. So obviously with swim team you have a girls team and a guys team. But because of the cuts, there were too few girl teams in proportion to the guy teams at UCI. So to fix that, they had to add a new form of track, which I thought was kind of ridiculous. Why did you cut the swim team and then add another track team? We already have a track team. I mean, no offense to track people, but I think that a lot could have been handled differently. Even if you kept the women’s swim team, we’d have some form of swim team, and it would give us a better chance of later getting the guys’ team back as well. Also, the way they told us so soon, before school started? I thought that was unfair as well. If they’d told me earlier, I could have been thinking about transfers over the summer. I could have transferred more smoothly and sooner.

Q: How do you feel the budget cuts affect students in other areas of life? Have they affected you in any areas other than as an athlete?

A: In my bio lecture, the professor was talking about having bigger classes and more multiple-choice tests, because they don’t have enough people on hand to grade short answer and essay tests. And everyone knows, short answers are good. (laughs) I mean you can get so many more points out of a subjective short answer than out of “Pick which one is false”, you know? I feel like everyone will be affected. It’s not just the athletic areas of life. I was going to rush for a sorority, but then the swim team got cut. Now I have to drive forever to get to my swim practices because they’re like thirty minutes away. Before, it was just at the pool on campus, totally convenient. We’d have practices 6-8 AM, and 1:30-3:30 PM. I would have had plenty of time to do a sorority or other clubs or something like that while still being a student and athlete. Now, practices are from 5:30 AM onward, and from 3-6:45 PM. So that, factored in with all the driving, plus having to study for my bio major, totally takes away from my free time. In addition, I have to pay to swim now on the club team, whereas before I was getting paid to swim. The UCI team covered a lot of the expenses. I didn’t have to pay out of my pocket. They had goggles and stuff. They had warm-ups, uniform, an equipment bag, etc. I don’t get any of that anymore.

Q: How are you and your teammates dealing with the team being cut?

A: We’ve all been having our mini-breakdowns. It’s pretty stressful to have to think about transferring, my bio major, and swimming. Now I swim for a team that isn’t even on campus. I have to drive thirty minutes to get to practice. It’s pretty hard to balance classes and all this too. And it’s going to suck, I don’t want to have to see my friends go. These are the people I’ve been with for a year, these are the people I’m closest to, and now they’re all leaving. Even if I stayed here, I’d lose a lot of my friends. A lot of people are really angry, several are writing angry letters to the athletic director. I don’t think its going to do much though. (laughs) I have two friends who were on the guys swim team going to community college at home now, in Washington and in Florida. There are a lot of out of state athletes. I couldn’t go here for the past year if I didn’t have this scholarship. And I think the school looks for a variety of athletes and strokes and different people. They try to bring in a variety of people, which is why there are so many out of state athletes. California kids have an advantage, because they don’t have to pay as much for their scholarships.

Q: What are you hoping to achieve in the future with a career in college swimming?

A: My goal is just to make the Olympic trials. It’s pretty difficult to make it to the Olympics, if we’re being realistic. You have to be in the top two at the trials. If you even make trials, that’s amazing. For the next three years my goal is to do that. I just want to make top eight. In that margin you can still get money from companies like Nike if you endorse their products or appear in their magazines. I’m a bio major, and so I’m probably going to be pre-med, hopefully. I don’t think I could do this (swimming) for the rest of my life. You have to pick bio or swimming, and I’m definitely going with bio on that, because it’s more solid, its more secure. If I was swimming for the rest of my life, and I were to get injured, or some little unfortunate thing happened, my entire career would be over. It’s like with the team getting cut at UCI; you never know what’s going to happen.

Q: Describe your experience on the swim team. What do you feel like you have lost?

A: We had kind of like this bond. It was kind of like a sorority in itself. You see people working hard every day. You see people at their worst, and you try to bring them up. I know swimming is an individual sport, but it becomes a team sport during practice. If one person isn’t doing well, then the rest of the team falls in their morale and performance. We all had this bond and connection with each other. You learn how to work hard, wake up early in the morning, how to work with other people. Now that we’re not swimming together, we don’t really have that anymore. It’s kind of sad. Not that many people can say they’ve been on the athletic team at a university for four solid years, or had that bond for such a long time, and I won’t ever be able to say that. By losing the swim team, I’ve lost my teammates, I’ve lost my friends. I feel like I’ve lost a really good experience.

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