By: Marisha Pareek
Pacing the length of her apartment kitchen, second-year student Briana Wing explains her frustrations regarding the cut of the UCI swim teams, pausing every so often to take a bite of a hurried dinner from a plastic container. She is freshly returned from a workout at the ARC pool, hair still damp and sporting a “Mission San Jose Aquatics” t-shirt, every bit the dedicated swimmer even in the wake of what seems a hopeless cause. Briana is among dozens of athletes who have watched their college careers crumble before their eyes as they were informed that five water sports teams would be cut from the university this year. Men’s/Women’s Swimming, Diving, and Sailing teams have all been eliminated as a result of the current budget deficit, the repercussions of which are sweeping universities throughout California. Rather than taking this devastating news lying down, however, UCI swimmers have been extremely outspoken about their anger and disappointment.
Briana, who was looking forward to her first season of formally competing on the swim team this year, was previously hindered by a shoulder injury that arose her senior year of high school and prevented her from reaching her full athletic potential last year. She was given special permission from former Assistant Coach Solomon to join the team on a trial basis while rehabilitating her shoulder during her first year at UCI. “I’m so grateful that I was given the opportunity to join the team,” states Briana, “but it was so frustrating to sit on the sidelines and watch your entire team do something that you are physically unable to do.”
Briana attended practices last year despite her injuries, adjusting her workouts and spending hours in the weight room each week, as well as training in her hometown over the summer, rebuilding her strength and preparing to compete this season. Additionally, she underwent shoulder surgery and intense physical therapy. Briana collaborated with the head trainer, Jim Pluemor, to formulate a five-year plan, involving distributing her classes and credits to span an extra year so that she could compete at the collegiate level for four years as most athletes do. Unlike many athletes, who chose to swim at UCI for the benefits of a scholarship, she pursued simply her love of the sport, as well as the prestige of a collegiate athletic career. “My parents were willing to pay the money for the extra year, and I was willing to invest the time, all so that I could be a part of this sport,” details Brianna. “I’ve been swimming competitively since I was seven years old, and so it’s so disappointing to lose my only chance to compete at the collegiate level. I’m healthy now, but I don’t have a team.
Dismayed by the cuts, Briana is among the swimmers actively protesting for the university to reinstate their team. Briana and some of her fellow teammates attend UCI Masters practices in the evenings, while other swimmers practice with local club teams such as Aquazots and Nova in order to keep in shape. Many of the swimmers wake up as early as 5 A.M in order to fit workouts in before classes, while still managing to supplement these workouts with more training later in the day as well. “We pretty much just made a plan for ourselves for the rest of the quarter to stay in shape,” says Briana. “but its harder to stay motivated without a coach or formal practices.”
The swimmers are not only keeping up efforts to remain in top athletic shape, however. They are also taking action in order to raise enough money to reinstate the team. UC Irvine gave the teams the herculean option of raising $2.3 million dollars in order to reinstate the programs, and that too only for the next five years, with no absolute guarantee. Since then, they have tried valiantly to raise the money through efforts such as selling shirts and sponsoring club nights, but fall much too short of the necessary amount to make enough of a difference. “It’s a ridiculous amount of money,” complains Briana. “I mean, we all want to get the team back, but it’s really hard to try to achieve these goals, even though we’re all asking friends and family for money. It’s hard to continually ask people for this money when you don’t think the goal can ever be reached.”
Freshman swimmer Kevin Miller is an actively driving force in the fundraising efforts. “I live locally, so from the moment the team was cut, I was on the front lines of this battle,” he explains. “Since that has happened, I have completely thrown myself into this cause.” He is a key member on the board of the Anteater Swimming and Diving Foundation, a newly formed non-profit organization whose goal is to solicit donations from local businesses and wealthy donors to save the cut programs, as well as to travel to many local swim events and attempt to raise money and awareness in the surrounding swimming community as well. “Not too bad for a freshman, right?” he jokes congenially.
Despite his positive attitude, however, Kevin details many of the frustrations that accompany taking on such a large endeavor. Raising the enormous amount of money the school has asked of the team in the current economy is one such challenge. The ASDF website, which provides links to events, news and testimonials supporting the Swimming/Diving programs, as well as peppered with pictures of happy swimmers participating in once frequent events, details the goals of their fundraising efforts: “Funds raised by the Anteater Swimming and Diving Foundation will be used to meet the financial goals set by the UCI Athletic Department for the reinstatement of the sport, and ultimately utilized for the purpose of funding athletic scholarships, coaches' salaries, equipment needs, and team travel, and other costs reasonably associated with the activities of the swimming diving programs.” (Additional information can be found at http://www.anteaterswimminganddivingfoundation.org/index.php)
In addition, Kevin explains that the team is receiving little to no support from the university or any administrators. A few of the swimmers calculated a new budget, eliminating such expenses as traveling swim meets to trim the estimated figure down to a much more manageable $40,000. Despite their efforts, however, the university refused to accept the offer. The administration is also preventing the swimmers from training with their coaches, or to use the pool time that is normally set aside for them at the beginning of the year, even though the pool remains currently unused during these hours. “Our coach even offered to not draw a salary at all,” explains Kevin heatedly. “He offered to work with us for free just to keep us in shape, but he’s not even allowed on the pool deck. Unbelievable, right?”
Kevin explains that the teams had hoped that the department would choose to cut small amounts from all sports during the year to make up for the deficit rather than unfairly choose entire programs to cut. He admits that he is surprised that UCI chose such successful sports to cut. He lists several of the teams accomplishments: the women’s team won the Big West title in 2005, and the men followed suit in 2007 with their own title. The teams have also had success on both national and international levels. The Anteater Swimming and Diving Foundation details a list of these accomplishments on their website:
“UC Irvine Swimming and Diving had been a very successful program in the last 4 years. The women's team won their first ever Big West title in 2005 , while the men's team followed them by also winning their first ever Big West title in 2007. Besides the conference acomplishments, the 'Eaters have also had success on the national and international level. In 2007, Eddie Erazo finished 12th in the 200 butterfly and 15th in the 100 backstroke and Randall Tom finished 9th in the 100 butterfly in the NCAA Division I Championships. Eddie Erazo also represented the USA in the Pan-American games that summer and won a silver medal in the 200 butterfly. On the women's side, Chelsea Nagata earned All-American honors by finishing 8th in the 100 butterfly. At the 2008 NCAA Championships, Lyndsay DePaul finished 13th in the 400 IM, Chelsea Nagata finished 17th in the 100 butterfly and Eddie Erazo earned All-American honors by finishing 8th in the 200 butterfly. Randall Tom competed in the Short Course World Championships that summer too, winning a silver medal as a member of the 4x100 medley relay. He also finished 11th in the 100 butterfly and 14th in the 200 butterfly. Lastly, in 2009 Randall Tom finished 9th in the 100 butterfly at the NCAA Championships.”
Kevin echoes the sentiments expressed on the website. “Why a program with such an obviously worthy resume was cut is beyond our understanding,” he complains. Sophomore Michelle Teets is similarly frustrated with the school’s decision. “Water sports definitely get the shaft,” she states. “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, But what people have to understand is that going back and forth in that pool is really, really hard.”
The swimmers are also frustrated at the lack of sympathy shown for cut athletes, Kevin continues. “It leaves us to wonder sometimes if the department realizes what their decision brought about.” Swimmers like Michelle, who is from out of state and was on a swimming scholarship at UCI, are being forced to consider other schools and transfer as late as their third year because they can no longer afford the ridiculously high tuition rates. Despite building themselves a life at UCI, finding friends, bonding with teammates, and succeeding academically, they are being forced to uproot their entire careers and begin somewhere new, with no prior suspicion or notice. “They just told me, “Oh, by the way, the swim team is cut’, like two days before school started,” says Michelle. “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.”
Kevin goes on to argue that although the cut athletes are the individuals feeling the most pain from the situation right now, within a few weeks the majority of the student body will be hit with tuition hikes that will cause them the same frustrations.
In light of such challenges that they face in trying to get their team back, both Kevin and Briana understand why numbers are dwindling among the swimmers willing to continue working for the cause. “First there were like twenty of us, and then ten, and then eight, and then four, and now everyone is pretty much doing their own thing,” says a cynical Briana. “It’s an increasingly smaller proportion of a large team that is trying to find support. It’s kind of sad to see how few of the people from last year are trying to help anymore.” Kevin is more forgiving in his assessment. As far as workouts and fundraising go, he maintains that the team is trying their best. “Most of the swimmers are cooperative, but a non-existant team can't take priority over other things a lot of the time,” he admits.
Kevin ends his interview, like many of the other swimmers, frustrated at the opportunities he has lost. “I think UCI is a top-notch school, and I don’t regret coming here at all. However, I gave up scholarships to many other schools to attend UCI, where I had none, largely in part because of the good swim program. I am no longer the college athlete I dreamed of being, and I really feel the cuts took away the end of my swimming career, which after a fantastic season last year, felt as though it were unfinished.”