By Nicole Leffer
ELLENSBURG, Wash., May 28. THE swimmers and swimming alumni at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington aren’t happy.
Both the men’s and women’s swim teams, along with the school’s wrestling team, comprise the latest group in a rash of various university-level sports team eliminations. All three teams are being told that there is nothing they can do to save their sport. Sixty-three student-athletes, not including this year's seniors, will be affected by the decision.
In a letter addressed to the entire university community on March 29, 2004, university President Jerilyn McIntyre broke the news that all three teams were done competing for CWU.
The letter focused heavily on the athletic budget situation, stating that "to maintain competitive programs in swimming and wrestling would require a new infusion of money – and it's money CWU simply doesn't have."
McIntyre’s letter went on to state that "as a public university, CWU takes its obligation to be fiscally responsible very seriously," and that the decision to cut the teams "will ultimately enhance (sic) both the competitiveness and the fiscal accountability of CWU athletics."
The teams, taking note of the budgetary rationale emphasized in the administration’s reasoning, stepped up and took action to preserve the existence of their varsity sports on campus.
In a student election held on May 20, the student body at CWU voted on a $5/quarter athletic fee increase, to be used specifically to save the swimming and wrestling programs. The innititive passed by a landslide margin of 71.5% – 28.5%, giving the athletic department the funding to increase the annual budget by approximately $120,000.
Understandably, the swim team and wrestlers celebrated the dramatic rescue of their programs. After all, the administration had stated specifically hat their programs were being cut because of a deficit of $102,000 in the budget.
But apparently the celebration was premature, for now the administration is saying “not so fast” to reinstating the programs.
Now that the budget is no longer an issue, the administration of CWU is citing several other program-related reasons to axe the teams.
The original letter to the student body did briefly mention other issues, but in that letter they were clearly issues only in relation to the budget.
“We selected swimming and wrestling as programs that will no longer be funded next fall because competition in these sports is limited or non-existent in Washington state… To maintain competitive programs in swimming and wrestling would require a new infusion of money – and it's money CWU simply doesn't have,” the letter stated. It went on to say that "It would be difficult to justify increasing our investment in these programs, as none is a conference sport within the Great Northwest Athletic Conference."
With the new money available for use in these programs, the university seems to have changed its tune. Apparently, back-pedaling university officials have now relegated the budget issue to backburner status and replaced it with the two smaller issues of location of competition and conference standing.
Paul Baker, the Vice President of University Relations, told SwimInfo that “the administration did not say 'budget'; the students and athletes did," directly contradicting the president's letter of March 29.
In an e-mail to swim team alumnus Kevin Daniel, Baker said that “the passing of the $5 fee really has no effect on the reinstatement of the two sports. The problem with these sports is not just a budget one, but it also involves a serious programmatic element.”
He did not, however, go on to explain what exactly the programmatic element might be and, questioned by SwimInfo, was unable to cite any such element.
Senior swimmer Emily Von Jentzen, who has been leading the charge for the athletes, commented: “We were notified so late in the year that we were blindsided and don’t have any options. Still Von Jentzen isn’t ready to be forced to stop swimming before finishing out her four years.
Von Jentzen and her teammates have been holding weekly meetings, and presented an argument to the Board of Trustees prior to Thursday's student vote, when the students said they are willing to pay a few dollars extra to keep the teams intact.
“It’s really frustrating for the team because we worked so hard and it is so great to see all of the student support. The fee increase passed by so much, but then we turn around and the administration writes it off and makes up new reasoning,” says VonJentzen.
When Baker was asked by SwimInfo what conditions would need to be present in order to reverse the decision, he said that he didn’t know and suggested we speak with Jack Bishop, the school’s athletic director.
A conversation with Bishop produced no new information but did elicit a bizarre response: "There is too much information going around and I would be glad look at an email or have someone else handle that, but I’m not going to sit here on the phone and talk to somebody I don’t know.”
Accordingly, Swiminfo sent Athletic Director Bishop an email. Thus far there has been no response.
President McIntyre has also failed to return several phone messages.
“The emphasis that was put on the budget was in her [President McIntyre’s] message,” said Chris Breske, a CWU alumnus active in the fight to reinstate the teams. “It's interesting that once the budget ceased to be an issue, they thought of another excuse–whatever that happens to be this week.”
As of right now, the athletes and alumni are not quite clear on what exactly the argument the administration is using is. Apparently, neither is the administration. With the emphasis that is now being placed on conference participation and the location of competition, Von Jentzen is wondering if President McIntyre needs to be educated on how the sport of swimming works.
“She doesn’t seem to understand that swimming is not like basketball or other team-oriented sports,” explained Von Jentzen. “We don’t need to have conference competition to make our season successful.”
Von Jentzen also pointed out that only one meet during the 2003-2004 swim season was outside of driving distance. That meet was the conference championships, held in southern California.
The teams are not ready to give up yet, and both current athletes and alumni will continue to fight as long as necessary. The swim team is currently looking into legal options. It is possible that the school is breaking some Washington state laws by not considering the voice of the students in a budget that the students fund.
Please visit www.cwuswimming.org to see what you can do to help the swim team be reinstated.