By Shoshanna Rutemiller
TEMPE, Arizona, November 9. THE Arizona State swimming and dive teams hosted their fifth annual Gala last Friday, November 2, as a benefit for the men's swim team. Now a yearly tradition for the Sun Devils, the first Gala was hosted in 2008, half a year after the men's team was cut from the athletic budget in May of 2008. Now, with help from the local community, an active alumni base, and recognition from Arizona State's athletic department, the men's team is finally on stable ground.
In the past decade, the number of Division I men's swim teams have continued to shrink, due primarily to University budget crises and Title IX athlete restrictions. Even programs with a long legacy and Olympic history have faced the chopping block. The hard truth is that men's swimming is a small, non-revenue generating sport. Many athletes in sports falling under this classification have faced the tough realization that unless their sport is endowed, their team may eventually run into trouble.
Fortunately for the Sun Devil men, their story is a positive one. The Arizona State athletic department recently recognized the efforts of the Sun Devil Swimming Association (SDSA), a fundraising board created with the primary goal of endowing the men's swimming and diving team. Additionally, in a show of good faith, the athletic department invested $1.2 million into a facelift for the team's facility. Under head coach Dorsey Tierney-Walker, three new coaches were added to the roster this season. This marks the first time since the men's team was cut that the Sun Devils have operated with a full coaching staff.
“We are heading in the right direction in terms of support,” said Tierney-Walker, now into her fourth year with the Sun Devils. “Not just from the local community, but now from the athletic department.”
Everyone invested in the team recognizes that the Sun Devils are moving in the right direction.
“The direction of Dorsey has been amazing,” said Assistant coach Dan Kesler, one of the recent additions to the Sun Devil coaching staff. “Her vision for both teams has been awesome [...] there's a new attitude with everyone wanting to be the best.”
This “new attitude” is causing people to take notice. Before the Gala, local news outlets attended a media meet-and -reet with both the men's and women's teams, along with guest speakers Nathan Adrian and Kaitlin Sandeno. Prior to winning Olympic gold medals, Adrian and Sandeno were both collegiate swimmers. They expressed the need to maintain excellence in men's swimming at the collegiate level.
“Anything you can do to keep men's swimming alive and well in division I swimming is really important,” said Adrian, a recent graduate from the University of California, Berkeley (Cal). Adrian was a five-time individual NCAA Champion with the Golden Bears.
The Sun Devil swim team is considered a combined program, with the men and women training and competing alongside each other. Sandeno had the same experience swimming collegiately at the University of Southern California (USC). In her speech at the Gala, in front of a crowd of nearly 200 guests, she discussed growing as both a teammate and an athlete by swimming in a combined team setting.
“Instead of a team of 20 guys and a team of 20 girls, you have a team of 40,” Sandeno said. “From the camaraderie and the competitive side of it, it's a win-win in both situations.”
The Sun Devils continually fundraising to ensure that the women's team doesn't lose its other half. In conjunction with the SDSA, Arizona State arranges three main fundraisers throughout the year: the Gala in the fall, a charity golf tournament in the spring and a 100×100 swim-a-thon.
Without having to continually worry about financial security, the Sun Devils can instead transition that energy into the pool. This includes putting more effort into the recruiting process and eventually re-emerging as a top NCAA contender.
“Our goal is to be top-20 this year,” said Tierney-Walker. “We have great expectations. We have a lot of high-returning athletes both on the men's and women's side. We are already way ahead of where we were the last couple of years.”
“If we are focused on the process, we will reach our goals.”
I caught up with the Sun Devil Swim Association chairman, Rob Richardson, to discuss the board's goals for the future of Arizona State swimming. He kindly answered my questions, and gave insight into the direction of both the men's and women's programs, and his personal ties to Arizona State.
How has the SDSA evolved from when it was first created immediately after the men's team was cut, in the summer of 2008, to the present?
We have the same core group of board members from when we originally formed our non-profit 501c3 organization in June 2008, so having that consistency is good. Our original charter remains the same – to ensure the financial viability of ASU Men's Swimming and re-establish ASU as an NCAA Top 10 contender. However, we recognize that the overall success of the Aquatics program is dependent on all of the teams being financially healthy. So while our prime focus is on the Men's team we continue to expand our efforts to also support the Women's program and both diving teams, and we hear a lot of positive comments from the parents that they appreciate what we are doing. We hope we are creating a model that other programs can use to sustain College swimming across the nation.
Have fundraising/media efforts shifted in certain directions, or have they shifted at all?
We have a great working relationship with the ASU Athletic department, and as you can tell by the Olympic medalists who attended this year, we also get great support from USA Swimming. This year we shifted our focus to communicate more via social media (as an example Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin). We are much better coordinated with ASU Athletics media department, and the Sun Devil Club (the fundraising arm for athletics), for websites and Facebook pages and it has really helped to target our communication and be consistent in our message. And we are working closer with the Alumni Association. We have 3 main fundraising events — the Dinner Gala, Golf Tournament, and a 100×100's swimming event. We are working with the University to create more revenue streams from the ASU pool and recurring (i.e. monthly) donations to supplement the operating budget. This will allow our efforts to focus more on endowments to ensure a permanent funding source for the team.
What is the board's biggest concern about the men's program?
The biggest concern is the ability to recruit and retain top swimming talent for the team. We support the recent efforts of hiring a top caliber Men's coach (Stefan Ghergal) and believe that will enable the coaches to bring even more top ranked swimmers into the program. We want to ensure that everyone in the swimming community knows that we have built a solid foundation for funding and are in it for the long haul. So our main goal is to continue to raise awareness so that swimmers coming out of high school know that the program will always be there for them.
How do you feel personally connected to the ASU men's program, as a men's team alumni?
Everyone on the Board can tell you a thousand stories about the time we spent at ASU, in the pool and on campus, and what it has meant to us both personally and professionally. During the recent Dinner Gala weekend we re-connected with many former swimmers from the 70's and 80's and it was awesome. Swimmers spend so much time together training, travelling, living together, and going to classes that there is a special bond between us. Even though many years have gone by the conversations picked up right where they left off! We also try to share those stories and traditions with the current team and find out that while a lot of things are different, many things are still the same — which is good.
So this is our chance to give back to the program that has meant so much to us, and provide the same opportunity to others. ASU still provides an excellent opportunity for these kids to get a quality education and an environment to excel at the highest level in their sport. And to create memories they will never forget.
Contact the author on Twitter @SJRutemiller or e-mail ShoshannaR@swimmingworld.com