Six Athletes File Suit Against University of Iowa for Cutting Women’s Swim Team

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Photo Courtesy: Brian Ray/Iowa Athletics

Six female athletes have filed suit against the University of Iowa, citing gender discrimination in the school’s decision to cut women’s sports teams.

The lawsuit, a copy of which was obtained by Swimming World, was filed in the Southern District of Iowa. It seeks a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against the cuts.

The six plaintiffs are swimmers Kelsey Drake, Sage Ohlensehlen, Christina Kaufman and Alexa Puccini; Abbie Lyman, who wrestled in high school; and club rugby player Miranda Vermeer. The four swimmers filed a Title IX complaint against the school in September.

Thursday’s filing seeks to maintain the status quo (i.e. an injunction against cutting women’s swimming and diving), citing the University of Iowa cutting the program “at a time during which the University is already out of compliance with Title IX.” The suit also claims the urgency of the move, with 15 of the 35 women on the swimming and diving roster having put their names into the NCAA Transfer Portal, including several of the plaintiffs (Among the swimmers, Drake and Ohlensehlen are seniors, Kaufman a sophomore, Puccini a freshman.) The ability to recruit is also among the needs for immediate action lest the program incur irreparable damage.

All six plaintiffs filed declarations Thursday. Ohlensehlen, who went from a walk-on to captain, is reconsidering her decision to study law at the University of Iowa after she graduates in the spring. Drake, also a senior, grew up in Cedar Rapids as a lifelong fan of the Hawkeyes.

The University of Iowa in August announced it would cut the men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams at the end of the 2020-21 academic year. Though the university attributed the reason to “financial exigency” caused by the COVID-19 pandemic generally and the postponement of fall competitions specifically, it did not reverse course when the Big Ten reinstated the fall season, including a limited, conference-only football slate.

From Thursday’s filing:

“The University of Iowa’s athletics program fails to meet Title IX’s accommodation of interests and abilities requirement insofar as it: (1) fails to offer women opportunities to participate in intercollegiate athletics substantially proportionate to the number of undergraduate women enrolled full-time; and (b) has failed continually to expand athletic participation opportunities for women in response to their interests and abilities, as evidenced by the elimination of a viable women’s  team, and its failure to add a women’s intercollegiate team to its list of sponsored programs for more than 20 years; and (c) fails fully and effectively to accommodate the interests and abilities of women currently enrolled, including the swimmers and divers if the team is eliminated.”

The presence of Lyman and Vermeer on the suit attest to the unmet need of Iowa’s athletic offerings, with each undergrad interested in participating in sports the school doesn’t sponsor. Per the filing, the University of Iowa hasn’t added a women’s varsity team since 1997-98. Its full-time undergraduate student body in the fall of 2020 was 55 percent female, but before the cuts, IU’s athletics department only apportioned 47.1 percent of its varsity roster spots to women.

Thursday’s filing includes supportive declarations by Olympic swimmer and women’s rights advocate Nancy Hogshead-Makar, also an Iowa City native; and reports by Dr. Donna Lopiano, the former CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation, and economist Dr. Andrew Zimbalist.

The Complete Lawsuit

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