For Michigan State Swimming & Diving Alumni, The Fight to Save the Program is Not Over

shelby-lacy
Shelby Lacy representing Michigan State. Photo Courtesy: Michigan State Athletics

For Michigan State Swimming & Diving Alumni, The Fight to Save the Program is Not Over

When Michigan State University announced it was cutting its men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams after the 2020-21 season, it was a gut punch to the swimming community, not only for past and present Spartans, but for the state of Michigan, the Big Ten Conference and the NCAA swimming and diving family. But nearly two weeks after that fateful day, alums from all over the country have banded together to try to save Michigan State swimming and diving and reverse the decision.

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The fight back is being led in part by 1997 alum Tom Munley, who was an Honorable Mention All-American in the 200 freestyle in 1996.

“We presented at the Board of Trustees meeting last week,” said Munley, who swam for Richard Bader and was a CSCAA Scholar All-American and three-time Academic All-Big Ten selection. “I would say we got a mixed response. Four trustees said they were open to continuing the dialogue. The other half of the board said it was the final decision and that they were deferring to President Stanley. I reached out to him again on Monday of this week and I got a response on Tuesday and he said he considered the decision final and didn’t see a point in meeting at this point in time. So now we are going to continue to sustain the pressure and go back to the board members individually and have conversations with them.”

2020 grad Scott Piper, who was honored with the 2020 Big Ten Postgraduate Scholarship and is currently pursuing his Masters degree in biomedical engineering at Stanford, has also joined the fight to reverse the decision.

“We came at it from a couple different approaches and just trying to distribute information and if the time comes to fundraise or start a petition we have a good base so we have been working on that,” Piper said. “We have started an email campaign to the Trustees, the President and the Athletic Director. One of the other goals was to establish a dialogue because the AD announced they were cutting the program and one of the reasons was they were not able to provide a quality experience that they want to for the swim team. But when you look at all the alumni and how hard everyone is fighting now, I think everyone would say they’ve had a pretty good experience.”

2015 grad Shelby Lacy, winner of the 2015 Kevin Zielinski Heart Award for Spartan swimming and diving, and current video producer in the corporate communications department at ESPN has kept actively involved in the battle for Michigan State swimming and diving.

“There’s so many moving parts that I’m a little overwhelmed at times trying to keep up with everything that’s going on,” Lacy said. “I’m trying to hone in and focus on what I can do personally to help. I’ve connected with a couple of the recent alums and a couple of the current team members to brainstorm some video content ideas that they could potentially push out socially. I’m also using my connections here at ESPN in hopes of gaining that exposure. This isn’t just a Michigan State swimming and diving problem, this is a college swimming problem. It’s a potential non-revenue sports problem. So I’m using those connections to help bring awareness to that.”

Board of Trustees Meeting

Tom Munley led a presentation for the Board of Trustees meeting last week where he and current Michigan State swimmers Emma Inch and Madeline Reilly as well as Michael Balow, father of current Spartan swimmer Sophia Balow presented to the Board an argument to reverse the decision.

“We each took a different approach,” Munley said. “I talked about the history of the program – talked about the support, talked about the fact I have reached out to the AD in August after Iowa cut their program and just told them, ‘if you’re going to cut swimming and diving, let me know and we will raise the money we need to close the gap we need this year.’ We recognized that was a one year gap.

“Michigan State is one of the wealthiest athletic departments between football, basketball, the Big Ten Network contract. They don’t have a lack of revenue, it’s just this year with football not playing with fans in the stadium, we understand that there is a one year hit. We were willing to come to the table and try to close that gap and he basically said thanks for your support and never followed up or asked anything.

“So when he released a press release and said they were cutting the program, he highlighted the fact they had this deficit and said, ‘we looked at it and don’t see a path forward,’ well they didn’t even try. Which is the point of frustration for all of us that care about the program – give us the chance. That’s all we are asking for. It costs nothing for us to go try to raise those funds. I think from an operating standpoint we could easily do that.

“If you look at the financials for the swimming and diving team, and this is one of the things we presented, the team makes money for the university as a whole when you factor in the tuition dollars that are paid for by the non-scholarship athletes. So we presented those numbers to the board as well and the comments President Stanley had made were that academics can’t be bailing out athletics which goes to show he doesn’t know how finances work because all of those swimmers would not be at Michigan State if they wouldn’t have that incremental revenue if it wasn’t for swimming and diving.”

Making the Most Out of Less

One of the reasons cited for cutting the swimming and diving program was the lack of a 50 meter pool on campus and they were “not able to support their dreams for excellence in the pool” due to the lack of a first class facility. Michigan State for a long time has swam in a 25-yard 6-lane pool while also utilizing a 50 meter outdoor pool when weather permits.

Also from the release:

“It’s a situation that limited our coaches’ ability to attract talented student-athletes and hampered our student-athletes ability to maximize their potential. These are not scenarios created by a national pandemic, but rather an understanding that there is not a reasonable expectation of a better situation in the future. Unfortunately, this all led us to our inevitable decision.”

But when asking any former Michigan State swimmer, the lack of a first-class facility compared to other schools in the Big Ten did not diminish their experience,  and that, if anything, their academic achievements should speak for themselves when highlighting any success achieved by the swimmers and divers.

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Jennifer Parks, Shelby Lacy (middle) and Jane Meyers at the MSU 50th anniversary in 2019. Photo Courtesy: Dan D’Addona

“I love Michigan State but I am disappointed. I’m disappointed in the decision,” Shelby Lacy said. “And I’m disappointed in the lack of transparency in the reasonings behind cutting the program. I feel like they listed off we don’t have a 50m pool to train in. Well, we don’t need a 50m pool to train in. We already train in a 25 yard, 6 lane pool that hasn’t been changed in the last 25 years so why is it now an issue? For the athletic department to say that our lack of facilities is affecting our ability to recruit talented swimmers and divers, which is not the case. We’ve had Olympic Trials qualifiers just this last year.

“Two of the girls on the women’s team are 4.0 students and spoke at the academic gala. So for them to say that our lack of facilities is affecting those two things. One, does the university not care about excellence out of the pool? And it’s also a slap in the face when you say we can’t recruit talented athletes when we have been for years? We’ve proven that we can do more with less. I know people always say, ‘if you have a lane, you have a chance.’ But I say, ‘if you have water, you can swim.’ That’s how I look at it.

“I came from a high school that has a 12-lane 25-yard pool so going from that to a six-lane pool didn’t faze me at all. I did not come to Michigan State to swim in the nicest facilities. I came to compete in the Big Ten. I took recruiting trips to Iowa, which had a brand new facility, and Arkansas. The facility thing didn’t matter to me but apparently it is an issue now which frustrates me.”

Matt Gianiodis put together a call for the alumni to answer questions and on that call, I asked ‘why are we accepting this?'” Tom Munley said. “It seems absurd that Michigan State is cutting swimming and diving to save $2 million for a $30 million deficit. Something didn’t add up. Especially for a program that wasn’t the most successful in the pool but is one of the most successful on campus from an academic standpoint.

“I think the women’s team has been one of the consistently best performing academic teams on campus for the last four years. I think the men’s team is either #1 or #2 with golf so they are right there. I know in 2019 the men’s team had the highest grade point average in the country for a swim team.

“So if you think about what you really expect from a swimming and diving program, the results maybe aren’t there in the pool but they are doing everything else right. Even through this pandemic, the swimming and diving team is the only one that hasn’t had a positive COVID test out of all the teams on campus.”

“A new pool would be nice but that’s not why anyone came to MSU and that’s not what their experience is,” Scott Piper said. “I don’t know how they can make that claim without opening up the discussion to the alumni and to the current team. The thing was financially, there were many offers to help support the team earlier on in the pandemic. People reached out and said, ‘don’t cut the team, just give us an opportunity to fundraise’ and then those offers were completely ignored and we were never given a chance.

“Something else that we are just finding out too that the final decision at Michigan State was up to the President so the Board of Trustees doesn’t necessarily have to vote on it, which seems kind of ridiculous when a decision that affects so many is up to just one person. A lot of other schools, their Board of Trustees would have to sign off on a decision like this.”

Battle For Michigan State Swimming & Diving

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Michigan State’s divers in 2016. Photo Courtesy: Michael Zoltowski

In the weeks since Michigan State made the heartbreaking decision, swim teams all over the Big Ten have shown support in their rivals, including in-state Michigan, as well as Nebraska, out of conference Southern Illinois, and professional team DC Trident.

“It was really cool to see Michigan be one of the first teams to stand up and post something in support of us,” Scott Piper said. “Maybe an Instagram picture doesn’t do much to change the decision but it really helps the current student athletes who are still at Michigan State – I can’t imagine what they are going through still being there. I think it really helps them get through knowing you’re the last season of the sport at Michigan State potentially. That was really special.”

“It goes to show the sport is not just a bunch of teams but it is a community,” Tom Munley said. “I think that support from the community is impactful and we’ve had people reach out to us. Adam Grant, who is a pretty prominent organizational psychologist who has written a couple NYT best sellers, was a diver and went to camp at Michigan State, reached out and posted on social media and he had someone reach out to him who was an alum.

“So it’s amazing to see the network of people that are coming out from the woodwork to say, ‘we support this program’ and we’ve had other prominent alumni to say, ‘what can I do? I’m either in the middle of making a large donation or considering making a large donation’ so our message to them is, ‘put this on pause and tell them how important this is that they need to reconsider it.’

“Social media is not necessarily going to push anyone over the line but it extends the reach and makes sure we can crowd those resources and get the buy in from people that we probably wouldn’t have in our personal networks that are willing to support swimming at Michigan State and at other universities.”

For the Michigan State alums, the fight to save the program will not stop.

“The most important thing is that Michigan State swimming has been around a long time,” Munley said. “Next year is going to be the 100th season and for them to cut it short because of a short-sighted issue because of funding in the middle of a pandemic shows a lack of leadership and that’s sad that they are in that state but it is even sadder that they won’t even let us try. Michigan State’s mantra is “Spartans will.” That’s what they advertise but for some reason they are not even going to try. It doesn’t make sense.”

“What our main goal is at this point is to open up a dialogue, be included in the conversation and try to propose solutions,” Piper said. “We want to work together with the athletic department, with the president, with the board of trustees to find solutions. Not only do the lack of facilities affect us, it affects the university as a whole. It affects the surrounding communities that would like to host sporting events. And we just want to be a part of the solution and fight for our own team and for everyone else that uses the facilities and we also like to defend the fact that we are having a good experience.

“People go to Michigan State and already know what the pool is going to be like before they get there and that’s not why they commit. They commit because they see the atmosphere of the team. They see the success the team has. How they become well-rounded individuals and are still able to compete in the Big Ten and that’s a really special experience that I don’t think is highlighted enough in the eyes of the decision makers.”

“I don’t know if it took this unfortunate news, but it fueled that passion for the university and for the program,” Lacy said. “I’m not going to go down without a fight. I want to put forth and do anything I can to help save this program.”

2 comments

  1. avatar
    Lisa

    Thank you!! Great article. Go Green

  2. avatar
    Linda Walling

    Thank you. My son was on the GVSU team and it added so much to his college career. The swim community is such a great one and it saddens me to see programs anywhere being cut. Our local YMCA team has just been permanently shut down as well.