EXCLUSIVE: “Last Chance” Meet Mix-up by Officials May Keep UCLA, USC Swimmers Out of NCAA Championships

By Phillip Whitten

FEDERAL WAY, Wash. March 5. A LAPSE in communication among officials at the Federal Way Invitational meet on February 25–the "last chance" meet held the day after the women's Pac-10s–has led to the disqualification of several swimmers from next week's women's NCAA Championships in New York.

According to reliable sources, at least two swimmers from UCLA and one from USC have been penalized by the NCAA's Swimming Committee through no fault of their own. Reportedley the swimmers are Lyndee Hovsepian and Erica Shugart of UCLA and Melissa Deary of USC.

The effects of the elimination of these athletes from the NCAAs, however, are much more far-reaching. UCLA loses its top-rated relay, the 200 medley. USC loses both its top-rated relay, the 800 free, and its 200 medley. Both the UCLA medley and USC free relays were expected to score heavily at NCAAs.

The two schools have appealed to the NCAA Championship Committee and a ruling is expected by 12 noon Eastern time tomorrow.

It is unclear what action either school may take if its appeal is rejected, but at least one university reportedly is considering legal action.

Apparently, a confusion regarding procedural rules led to the disqualification. The head referee at the meet was veteran USA Swimming official, Ron Van Pool, a man whose professionalism and integrity are beyond reproach. Van Pool says: "I made sure the same officials were used throughout the meet, all the rules were stringently observed and the timing equipment was up to snuff. We even had three (hand-timing) buttons per lane." In fact, the meet even used the Omega relay-takeoff system.

What disqualified some of the athletes, however, was a lack of clarity over meet rules regarding prelims, finals and time-trials. The meet was structured so the same sequence of events was swum three times through. NCAA officials apparently wanted these three sequences to correspond to prelims, finals and time-trials, with a swimmer needing to swim in prelims to get into finals, and in finals to do a time trial.

Unfortunately, this expectation was not communicated to Van Pool or other meet officials until last Thursday–days after the meet was over. Their expectation was that, as in past last-chance meets, a swimmer could choose to swim the same event once, twice or three times, and that each sequence of the events was independent of the others.

The result of this lack of communication was that swimmers who swam in the "finals" or "time trials," and did their best times without swimming their event in the previous sequence(s), were disqualified. If a swimmer's best time is not allowed by the NCAA, she is not permitted to enter a previous time, even if that time meets the NCAA cut. The result: the swimmer is axed from her event.

Complicating matters even further, swimmers who competed against others who had been disqualified in an earlier sequence were, themselves, disqualified. Reportedly, in one case, an ASU swimmer who had been disqualified in the "prelims" of the 200 IM was swimming in the second sequence–the "finals"–to try and meet the NCAA qualifying standard. Not only was her swim not allowed, but the swims of all the women who swam against her in the "finals" were also not allowed.

This makes the second year in a row that student-athletes have been punished not for any wrong-doing on their part but because of disputes among officials and coaches regarding rules or because of the rigid enforcement of rules that, however well-intended, do not make sense in the current cases.

Last year swimmers from the University of Hawaii and the University of Minnesota were not allowed to compete at NCAAs, despite the fact that they had legitimately met the NCAA cuts. Hawaii appealed the decision to district court, but the court refused to intervene.

At the time, we wrote a strong editorial imploring NCAA officials to think first of the student-athletes who were entirely innocent of any transgression. We begged them to do what was just, rather than to enforce a rigid interpretation of rules designed for a different purpose. We expressed our hope that no student-athletes would ever be so victimized again.

Now, just one year later, a similar situation has arisen. Again, the student-athletes have been chosen to be the scape-goats.

Van Pool says simply: "The NCAA should allow these kids to compete. They didn't do anything wrong, they swam legally, they did what they were supposed to do."

He's absolutely right. The NCAA needs to allow these legitimately-qualified athletes to compete at the championship meet. After that, the NCAA Swimming Committee needs to sit down– with several representative coaches–to clarify and rewrite the rules so that this miscarriage of justice never recurs.

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