Even in ‘Really Amazing’ Victory, Dartmouth Swimming Sees Work Still to Do

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Photo Courtesy: Dartmouth Athletics

Maggie Deppe-Walker had been tipped off that news about Dartmouth swimming’s fate was coming on Friday.

As one of the parties to litigation against the school alleging Title IX violations, the senior captain of the women’s swim team knew Friday could be the day that the robust effort to get the program reinstated had waited for. What she didn’t know, until she opened the email from athletic director Harry Sheehy that morning, was that not just the teams bringing suit – women’s golf and women’s swimming – but the other three sports eliminated in July will return through at least the 2024-25 academic year.

“I was just thinking it would be the women’s teams and we would have to continue to fight to get the men’s teams reinstated as well,” Deppe-Walker told Swimming World Friday. “That did come as a surprise to me. … It was a huge, huge relief. I know the other women’s captain and I, we were talking last night and were kind of really stressed and anxious about if we were going to be reinstated and not the men’s team, how does that all work, how can we mobilize to get them reinstated as well. It was a really, really nice surprise.”

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Maggie Deppe-Walker

The victory by Dartmouth swimming is comprehensive, though not final. In a settlement agreement, Dartmouth admitted its decision to cut five programs (men’s and women’s swimming, men’s and women’s golf, men’s lightweight rowing) would not pass muster in court. A university statement conceded that, “elements of the data Athletics used to confirm continued Title IX compliance may not have been complete.”

Whereas the threat of litigation has led to incomplete victories elsewhere – such as William & Mary’s original reinstatement of women’s, but not men’s, swimming before men’s swimming was later reconstituted – Dartmouth was spared such complications. (Dartmouth’s suit is one of several backed by Champion Women, an organization set up by Olympic swimmer and women’s rights activist Nancy Hogshead-Makar.) It allowed a moment of celebration for a community that has marshalled a nationwide and dynamic effort to state its case for the program.

“I’m still a little bit in shock,” Deppe-Walker said. “It was really, really gratifying, exciting, just all happy emotions. It really relieving to have your hard work pay off. It was just really amazing. Our whole team was going crazy.”

“For us, it just feels like a huge step in the right direction and a huge win, not only for Dartmouth and the students and the current swimmers, but for us as a swimming community as well,” said Priscilla Zee, a team captain in 2002 when the Dartmouth swim team previously fended off an attempt by the school to cut it. “It’s super exciting.”

The swimmers won concessions that the teams will be in place through at least 2024-25. In that time, Dartmouth will conduct three additional reviews: A gender-equity survey of varsity athletics, overseen by the law firm of Holland & Knight; an NCAA compliance review conducted by the Ivy League; and “a process-and-control review … to examine administrative systems to make certain appropriate business practices are being followed and effective governance structures are in place,” performed by PricewaterhouseCoopers. Those policies afford athletes a voice in future changes, something lamentably absent this time.

The reinstatement could be too late for the current athletes: A number of Dartmouth swimmers and the entire coaching staff have looked elsewhere to continue their careers, with the summer cuts taking effect immediately. Deppe-Walker said that the conversation hasn’t yet been broached as to whether athletes on cut teams could redeem the 2020-21 year of eligibility, given that the Ivy League suspended fall and winter sports (importantly, though, that suspended season wasn’t set to involve Dartmouth swimming at the time of cancellation).

But that was never the point, Deppe-Walker said. For her and the other student-athletes on the litigation – Christina Cianciolo, Siera Daly, Alie Hunter, Leah Johnson, Susannah Laster, Mia Leko, Isabella Lichen, Summer Martin, Sarah Minnigh, Bridget Parker, Ashley Post, Kaia Reznicek, Megan Tao, Penelope Tir, Zoe Wortzman, Connie Zhang and Eleanor Zwart, per the Bailey Glasser LLP release – this was future generations.

“I think the whole battle with this has been for future student-athletes at Dartmouth,” Deppe-Walker said. “I knew I wasn’t going to be getting my last season in my senior year, but I still wanted to fight to make sure students’ voices were actually heard, especially on really important things like gender equality and diversity. I want to make sure our voices, the voices of people that are affected by these decisions, are heard.”

That future sets up the bounds of what’s next for Save Dartmouth Swim Dive. Zee took Friday to relish the victory. After leading the successful survival drive in 2002, resolved in a matter of weeks, she marveled at the current group of “courageous female athletes” holding firm for months, during a global pandemic no less. That level of work, within the greater swimming community and in concert with the women’s golf team, is worth commemorating. So is the victory’s larger ramifications beyond one swim team, as it applies to other women’s sports fighting for survival.

But the reprieve isn’t permanent. And the 2024-25 timeline sketches out the group’s next steps.

“It does feel like it’s great that we got this victory, and it feels like this is one step, but we need to come together as alumni of the college and really think through additional solutions,” Zee said. “This was only a guarantee through 2024-25, which obviously doesn’t feel super satisfying. So in order to be a competitive program and be a program where students want to come, we have to have a bit more longer-term view on this than short-term. Of course we were very excited today and we are certainly celebrating, but at the same time, we’re thinking about, how do we set ourselves up where we can come together with the college and really think through how to come up with the best long-term solutions for everybody.”

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