For the Love and Joy of Sport: Can Dartmouth Swimming Be Saved?

By P.H. Mullen

(P.H. Mullen has been contributing to Swimming World since he was in college at Dartmouth. Last week, Dartmouth eliminated its men’s and women’s teams.)

I’ve spent the weekend thinking about two people you’ve never heard of, Louis Fidel and Yale Fillingham.

They’re hurting, and if you are a collegiate swimmer or a coach, you need to know their story. What happened to them could happen to you.

Fidel and Fillingham are members of the Dartmouth College men’s swimming team. Too bad for them. Last week their Division I team was abruptly—and without warning—smitten by an athletic department needing to reduce its budget. Refreshingly, this wasn’t another Title IX debacle; with equal calamity, the women’s swimming team was dropped too.

Too bad for me, too. I swam for Dartmouth between 1987 and 1991.

“Smitten” is Old Testament-speak. It means cancelled, killed, eliminated. And it’s a fitting word, because this announcement had the feel of a Biblical rub-out: See the cloudless blue New England sky. See a devastating thunderbolt. See the charred ground where a 70-year-old tradition had stood.

Louis Fidel is a senior and Dartmouth’s co-captain. Before this happened, I would have waged significant money he would make his Olympic Trial cut this year in the 50-meter freestyle. Yale Fillingham is a freshman, and I randomly selected him because his name is surely the funkiest in Division I swimming. Fillingham finished tenth at Illinois state last year in the 200-yard freestyle (1:43:89) and he’s already swimming nearly as fast this fall (1:45.00 in November).

These two individuals represent the 53 men and women swimmers affected by the decision. More important, until last week they were the epitome of what I consider the most vital element of every college campus: the student-athlete.

Fidel is near fluent in a second language. He takes a full class load during the season and maintains a GPA over 3.0. Fillingham was the city of Bloomington, Illinois’ 2002 High School Student of the Year. He was class valedictorian and an Illinois state scholar. Their careful balance between academics and athletics is not unique to them; it is the norm for Ivy League athletics and it is a beautiful thing.

Neither Fidel nor Fillingham will ever make a national team. Neither will earn a dime in their sport (the Ivy League offers no athletic scholarships). By choosing Dartmouth, they—and their teammates—willingly accepted the likelihood they would never experience a winning collegiate season. You want to talk dedication? In the winter, New Hampshire is so cold that wet hair freezes into icicles strands walking to dinner between Karl Michael Pool and Thayer Dining Hall.

Just like me and my teammates in the early 1990s, these athletes are motivated to swim for two clear, simple reasons: the love of self-improvement and the joy of sport. Those are precious reasons.

Dartmouth swimming is a place where you develop character, learn to win and lose, and emerge as a champion. It’s a place to develop discipline and explore limits. Do you want to see the essence of sports distilled to its purest and most noble form? Attend an Ivy League sports competition between two middling teams. Sports doesn’t get any better.

Dartmouth killed swimming to save a $212,000 per year. That’s about .0004 percent of its entire annual budget. But we have to be clear-eyed about this: the athletic department was under tremendous pressure to reduce expenses and something had to give.

I know the Dartmouth people who made this decision, from President Jim Wright to the various deans and athletic administrators. They’re good people. I like them. I trust them.

Believe me, they do not have an anti-swimming agenda.

And that’s want makes this precedent so frightening.

The last time Dartmouth trimmed the budget it made horizontal cuts across the entire athletic department. Bad move. Nearly every team suffered for years. This time, the school took a much more difficult road. To protect other programs, it sacrificed one of its own. Swimming, it decided, would have to go.

On the ledger, there’s an argument for this. Look at college sports programs. Which ones would be missed the least? Which ones contribute the least revenue? Which ones have the highest participation and therefore high travel expenses? Swimming basically has a big red bull’s eye on its back.

So make no mistake. If venerable Dartmouth—a place where sportsmanship and love of competition are intentionally prized more than final scores—can eliminate its swimming program, then your college could eliminate your organization as well.

That chilling thought sparked more than 300 Dartmouth students to march in protest on the college president’s house at midnight last week. It caused another 150 activists to stage a protest rally during the day.

Can the Dartmouth program be saved? Last week the answer was no. But this week something is happening. Letters of support are clogging email accounts. Alumni are promising to build an endowment. Could it be that Dartmouth has inadvertently sparked a fund-raising campaign?

Maybe, just maybe, if team supporters can convince the administration to give it time to develop an endowment, there is hope.

Meantime, the men and women swimmers desperately need your help. Send letters of support to Dartmouth’s key decision makers at the addresses below. Visit http://www.b-k-ind.com/dartmouth for more details.

Can you make a difference? Very possibly you can. Regardless, you owe it to the future of your sport to try. Write the letter today.

President: James.E.Wright@Dartmouth.edu

Dean: James.A.Larimore@Dartmouth.edu

Athletic Director: Joann.Harper@Dartmouth.edu

Email List: savedartmouth@goldinthewater.com

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P.H. Mullen is author of Gold in the Water, a book about the 2000 Olympics. The basis for the book’s themes came from his years swimming at Dartmouth.

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