Sunday, October 18, 2009

UCI Rowers ask: "How can you have a school that is located near the bay without any water sports?"

By Laura Donaldson.

Elizabeth Nguyen is Women’s Varsity Captain of the UCI Rowing Club. The rowing team, one of the original seven sports when UCI was first founded in 1965, was one of the casualties of the recent budget crisis that is affecting all UC schools. Earlier this year, the rowing 'club' experienced a total cut from ‘team’ status in a bid by UCI to save on expenses. Nguyen met with me to discuss the impact that the budget crisis has affected her, the club and what the future holds for rowing as a sport at UCI.

Q. How did the rowing team find out about the cut?

A. All of a sudden in July, we received an e-mail completely out of the blue saying that UCI has decided to cut men’s and women’s rowing, men’s and women’s swimming and diving and sailing. We were like, “Ok, now what do we do?” and the only chance we had to save the club was to get money; fundraise and sponsors.

We were set a crazy amount of money to raise, originally UCI told us $1.2 million, and we had three months between July and September to do it in before school started. Then they turned around and said that a short-term fix would not be enough, if we could find $5 million through, say, a sponsor, then that would be enough to see the programme through long term and thus save the programme indefinitely. They would take an endowment from that and thus keep it going.

Q: Where did UCI get the $5 million figure from?

A. It’s weird because the programme itself was like a ‘bare-bones’ programme before it got cut. Our boathouse is in really bad condition, our coaches were paid very little when compared to say the basketball coaches who get paid a ridiculous amount. Last year the rowing team won Gold in Philadelphia at the largest intercollegiate rowing regatta races in North America. The regatta was huge, such a big deal and we won and got so much recognition for it…not enough apparently for UCI to consider saving us, which is ridiculous!

Q. How did the rowing team try to raise the money?

A. We tried out best to save the programme. By ourselves, as in the whole rowing team, we managed to raise around $20,000 to $30,000 in a month. That’s through pure grassroots campaigning. We had rallies, protests…we were just very vocal. One of the rallies was kind of on the corner of the Balboa,/Newport area, people would drive by and give us money for the cause or roll down their windows and take flyers from us. We just wanted the word out! News cameras came and recorded us, they spoke to us and our coaches, it was just our biggest attempt to make ourselves known. People wrote news articles about us and the team was quoted in multiple magazines across the board saying “rowing has been cut, help save us”. We had a budget campaign with donations from a whole bunch of people.

Q. Who donated to the budget campaign?

A. Some came from previous rowers. I personally had a lot of help from my friends who donated money, team members families donated, I donated, the team donated. We also attempted to get a lot more recognition in Newport because we row in Newport bay, and a lot of our support comes from there. We had a rally there one Saturday and the guys there are all excited and were like ‘Yeah! Save UCI Rowing!’. One said “How can you have a school that is located near the bay without any water sports?”. Newport is a wealthy area and a lot of our support comes from people there who want to donate to UCI because we are so close, in particular to rowing and sailing because we use the bay. Yet UCI have cut all their ties to the bay within one stroke, they’ve cut everything.

Q. Who exactly is ‘they’ in terms of who‘s decision it was to cut the team?

I’d like to think that it’s not the athletics department, but it obviously includes them in parts. It was a member from the athletics board that sent us the e-mail back in July that said “I regret to inform you that these sports have been cut” and that was it. We weren't given any notice prior to the decision being made. Originally what happened before July was that sailing was decided to be cut, followed by swimming and diving because of the scholarships, which would save UCI a lot of money. Then, as a last resort, they cut rowing too. At the beginning we weren’t originally going to be cut, it just happened as things rolled on at UC.

Q. Have they since given you a reason?

Their reasoning now is because we don’t generate enough money. Rowing is a little different as you don’t pay to watch it, unlike say a basketball or volleyball game where you have to pay for a ticket. It’s hard to get revenue through spectators.

The other reason is that UCI wanted to turn rowing into a recruitment sport, it’s a big team with places for 27 people in each category (3 boats of 9 people), so the school’s argument was that it would encourage people to come to UCI and to take up rowing, as it would be more accessible. However, their process is just weird. They cut us in such a way that they want us to fix ourselves and find a way to get more people to join, and yet we got cut completely - it just doesn’t make sense!

Another reason is that this year we competed in one of our biggest races, the Collins cup, against our rivals in Newport, OCC (Orange Coast College). This year the race was so close, but we lost by the width of a credit card. The athletics department doesn’t understand that this kind of close finish almost never happens in rowing, they just saw it as a loss. Effectively, in their eyes, it’s an excuse that shows we’re not good enough.

Q. What has the response been from the alumni?

A. The alumni have been hugely supportive. They’ve made donations to the budget campaign, talked to people on our behalf to negotiate sponsors, helped co-ordinate the campaign in general. It was the alumni who did most of the negotiations with Mike Izzi. The men’s team this year is being coached by an old alumni coach who was a previous Olympian to help us out - they’re going to have a lot of success this year.

As of right now the alumni are helping us out so we don’t pay as much dues. One of the transitions of going from a team to a club is that the athletics department no longer pay our dues, we pay for them ourselves at a huge cost. The exact figure hasn’t been worked out yet but we will still have to pay around $100 to $200 per quarter.

Q. Has the club appealed against the final decision since it was announced a few weeks before the fall quarter began?

A. We kind of can’t at all. The first round of appeal was more alumni led than by the team itself, so we waited and waited for a final answer from UCI to be given to us before we could proceed further. It was so last minute, just at the beginning of September, that we just scrambled to get it back to a club and salvage what was left before school started again. As of right now I don’t think we can go back to the athletics department, perhaps in a few years, but for now we have to settle for a club status.

Q. What are the differences between a ‘club’ status and a ‘team’ status for rowing?

A. The ARC is for more ‘fun’ and is more of a student run thing, which the rowing club is now part of. The athletics department is part of NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) Division I that competes nationally. The ARC department cares more about liability, insurance and keeping everybody safe. So, at present they are fixing the boathouse so that nobody will get hurt. The athletics department cared more about the athletes. They wanted us to win. So the ARC are caring more about the facilities and we are trying to get our say into how the money is being directed. At present they are keeping us off the water for health and safety reasons, which is of course of a hindrance to us.

Superficially we had perks by having a team status; we had priority registration so we could plan our practices in the morning and figure out our life around that. We don’t have that anymore so its hard to find people to join us. We had one free tutoring per quarter, we had access to the athletics trailer that had computers and printing. One of the biggest things though were the weight room and the sports medical centre, its like a doctor’s office but tailored more towards athletes. Rowing is a really intensive sport that comes with a lot of injuries like back problems, hips get out of line…its really bad as now we don’t have that level of support. If we get injured now, we have no-one to go to.

Some of the team members have since transferred to different schools. One has gone to UCLA, another has gone to San Francisco, a lot of the team has had to drop completely because in all honesty, it takes up too much time if rowing is just recognised as a club. One Australian girl came to UCI to row and she has had to leave altogether, she can’t stay anymore without scholarship funding.

I’d say that another big difference is respect. Before when you said “I am a Division 1 Collegiate rowing athlete,” people would be “Oh wow you row for Irvine?!” As opposed to now, “I am a club sport” people are like oh well you know, you just do it for fun. Other than that, we’re still the same sport. Instead of the school paying for everything now we fund it ourselves, and because we can’t pay for coaches we have alumni coaching us voluntarily. The ARC have given us some money, but very little, and the alumni can’t fund us forever.

Q. Did you come to UCI to row?

A. I did. I applied here and I knew that I wanted to row, I heard it was a walk-on sport which meant I could in retrospect join when I got here. I heard about rowing through middle-school and people just seemed to give you so much respect when you said you were a rower. It was definitely something I wanted to do. So I got all the physicals done, all the paper work filled out and went to all the meetings before I came to UCI from San Jose. When welcome week rolled around I was ready, handed everything in, that mindset for me meant that I was going to stay for all four years here. I still will, even if it is a club. I chose this school over Loyola Marymount University because of its rowing.

You know, its been through it’s ups and downs, gone back and forth, but I am positive its going to be saved. Maybe in 5 years, maybe 10, but I’m positive it’ll come back. By then I’ll be an ancient rower and I’ll come back to UCI and be like “Oh, I remember when this team was cut…”

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