By Phillip Whitten
LOS ANGELES, March 6. IN a stunning, unexpected and unprecedented decision, the NCAA's Championship/ Competition Cabinet reversed an earlier decision by the NCAA Swimming Rules Committee that had disqualified at least three swimmers from the women's NCAA Championships due to procedural irregularities entirely out of the athletes' control.
Apparently, NCAA officials and the meet host had failed to communicate the details of the Last Chance meet format to the meet referee or to participating coaches. When athletes (and coaches) unwittingly violated the procedures of which they were unaware, their results were canceled. Under NCAA rules, previous results that were slower but still met NCAA qualifying standards were also disallowed, resulting in the students' being disqualified from the NCAA national championship meet. (See yesterday's swiminfo story for details.)
The decision clears the way for Erica Shugart and Lyndee Hovsepian of UCLA and Melissa Deary of USC to compete at the women's NCAA Championships next week in New York. It also reinstates UCLA's 200 medley relay and USC's 800 freestyle and 200 medley relay teams.
An additional, unidentified student from another school was also reinstated as a result of the decision, though, according to NCAA officials, her school did not take part in the appeal.
Jean Lenti Ponsetto, Senior Associate Director of Athletics at de Pauw University and Chair of the NCAA Championship/Competition Cabinet told swiminfo: "We will accept the results of the Last Chance meet in Federal Way and not penalize the students."
She explained: "Our decision is in the best interests of the student-athletes. At the same time, we will not penalize the other athletes who have already been notified thy have qualified for the national championship, after the three Pac-10 swimmers were disqualified earlier."
However, Ms Lenti Ponseto cautioned: "This does not mean we condone conducting a meet by any format other than the one the NCAA specifies. After the championship, we'll have to meet with meet officials and the swimming community to make sure this issue doesn't arise again.
Actually, this year's issue was a revisitation of a similar issue last year. In 2000, swimmers from the University of Hawaii's women's and men's teams and from the University of Minnesota's women's team were not allowed to compete at NCAAs due to procedural violations at qualifying meets. Hawaii appealed the decision to the district court, but the court failed to intercede.
Cyndi Gallagher, head coach of the UCLA Bruins was delighted with today's decision. "I'm shocked, we were all shocked," she said, "at the entire turn of events. I think we won our appeal because, here at UCLA, we have people in our Athletic Department who did heroic work."
"Betsy Stevenson (Senior Associate Athletic Director) worked her butt off, pointing out that the Rules Committee's original decision was a travesty. She believed that none of us–not the kids, not the coaching staff–did anything wrong. There were no mistakes on our part, and it would be totally wrong to penalize the athletes.
"The NCAA Meet Committee did the same thing it did last year–penalize athletes who swam in meets that did not precisely follow the official format. But that's not something we have control over and, fortunately, the Championship Committee was convinced by Betsy's arguments.
"I'm relieved," she said. "It would have been absolutely wrong for our kids–and the other school's kids–to miss the meet because of some administrative error. A great opportunity would have been missed.
"I feel empowered," Gallagher said. "I feel the system worked. I've never been more proud to be a Bruin, where we have people willing to fight to do the right thing.
(Now, if only UCLA would do another Right Thing… and reinstate its men's program!!)
USC head coach Mark Schubert was equally delighted by the decision… and so were his swimmers. "We have some very happy girls on our team right now," he said. "Melissa (Deary) and the rest of our 800 freestyle relay."
Beside Melissa Deary, that relay includes Michala Kwasny, Jennifer Parmenter and Kristin MacGregor. These were the four swimmers whose times in the 200 free were added together for USC's 800 free relay submission.
Schubert elaborated: "The rule was enacted to penalize teams that were perceived to be cheating, and I understand that the Rules Committee has to follow the rules."
"But the overall NCAA rules also state that if enforcement of the rules results in unfairness," he said, "then those rules can be overturned."
"I am very impressed and thankful that the Championship Committee saw the unfairness to the athletes and coaches, who had done nothing wrong, and overturned the previous decision. It gives me a real good feeling to see the NCAA make this decision."
Ron Van Pool, the meet referee who, inadvertently, conducted the meet under procedural rules different from those authorized (but not communicated to him) by the NCAA, also expressed his pleasure at the decision:
"I think the decision is the most fair and equitable one and is definitely in the interest of the athletes. I'm very pleased for the athletes: none of this was their fault.
"As I said last night, my concern is that the procedures be clearly communicated. I won't be entirely relieved until there's a process in place that will ensure that something like this doesn't happen again."
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