‘We Still Have Hope:’ Dartmouth Swimming Fighting to Survive – Again

Dartmouth Team - Goldminds Swimming World August 2019
Dartmouth swimming

‘We Still Have Hope:’ Dartmouth Swimming Fighting to Survive – Again

Even by the standards of a global pandemic, last week was a hectic blur for Maggie Deppe-Walker.

On Wednesday, what could’ve been bad news actually provided hope: The Ivy League cancelled sports during the fall semester, but deferred the decision on winter sports. That allowed winter sports like Dartmouth swimming and diving, for which Deppe-Walker is one of the women’s captains, to practice in the fall. As she looked into off-campus apartments, scheming how to get her team into the pool regularly, Deppe-Walker didn’t have much time to cushion the blow of what Thursday brought.

Around noon on July 9, the members of the Dartmouth swimming and diving teams were notified of an unexpected Zoom call. Within the hour, athletic director Harry Sheehy told them their sports were among five cut with immediate effect. Ten minutes later, the news went live to the world.

“Obviously we were so shocked and hurt because we were just blindsided by this decision,” Deppe-Walker told Swimming World this week. “Immediately, we started mobilizing. We still have hope, and we had hope before, that we could fight this.”

Dartmouth’s effort to save its swimming and diving program has utilized the usual toolkit. A change.org petition is approaching 30,000 signatures (for a college with an enrollment of around 6,500). An Instagram account, @save_dartmouthswimdive, with nearly 5,000 followers has been broadcast by swimmers like Elizabeth Beisel. At just about a moment’s notice, a network of more than 200 alumni have convened for weekly calls.

What differentiates Dartmouth swimming’s effort to save itself is that the Big Green have been here before. And the fight for survival is leaning on a network and a playbook that pulled the program back from the precipice in 2003.

‘Hard to stomach’

“Blindsided” seems to be the operative word for the demise of Dartmouth swimming. Deppe-Walker used the term, as did coach James Holder to Swimming World the day the decision was handed down.

The process of cutting programs began last fall, even if no one gave the affected programs – men’s and women’s swimming and diving, men’s and women’s golf, men’s lightweight rowing – a heads up. Sheehy and college president Phil Hanlon aimed for a 10 percent reduction in athletics admissions slots. Dartmouth is looking to stem a $150 million budget gap once COVID-19-related costs are factored in. The athletic cuts save about $2 million off an annual athletic budget of $25 million. The college’s endowment is $5.73 billion, which generated $250 million for the fiscal year 2019 operating budget.

The changes would reduce Dartmouth’s varsity offerings from 35 programs to 30. It would be the only Ancient Eight institution not to offer varsity swimming.

Instead of a surgical approach to trim the budget across the board, Sheehy traded his scalpel for a chainsaw. And to rub salt in the wound, the administration has offered only the thinnest consolation.

Hanlon explained the decision to reduce the athlete population as an effort “to achieve the right balance between applicants who are accomplished in athletics and applicants who excel in other pursuits.” Many swimmers perceived that as a slight, and the team’s Instagram published a response showing that its SAT and ACT scores were slightly higher than the Dartmouth average.

“I as a walk-on took that as an insult,” sophomore sprinter Connor Bishop said. “I didn’t take anyone’s admission spot. And frankly I feel like they’re trying to put my team and all the teams they cut into this box of, you don’t contribute to the academic environment of the school unless you’re a top athletic achiever. It’s very hard to hear that. I came here because of the link between academics and athletics, because I wouldn’t be in the spot I’m in academically without my athletics.”

Sheehy’s remarks to the student newspaper, The Dartmouth, this week added fuel to the fire. Sheehy said that keeping programs with reduced spots would create conditions where, “Basically, half your program would then be Division III. And then the student-athlete experience goes right down the tubes.” Keeping programs like swimming, by Sheehy’s logic, would’ve required Dartmouth “to create second class citizens in our department that weren’t able to compete on an Ivy League level.” (The Instagram clapback there was the story of Sophie Smith, a walk-on who graduated in 2020 holding the program record in the 50 free and two relays.)

Swimmers also hit back at intimations that they don’t add to the college community. As highlighted by the College Swimming & Diving Coaches Association of America, Dartmouth swimming has hosted clinics teaching nearly 1,000 kids to swim. Another oddity is that a 50-yard swim is a graduation requirement at Dartmouth, a relic of a more genteel age lingering at only a handful of blue-blood institutions (including fellow Ivies Cornell and Columbia). The college, then, will retain swimming facilities even if varsity is cut, and the varsity team has contributed to many fellow collegians learning that life skill.

In so many words, Sheehy also encouraged athletes in cut sports to transfer: “Frankly, I know what I would have done as a student-athlete. I would have looked for another opportunity, but not all of them will.”

It’s creating a dynamic where swimmers are fighting hard to save a program they think of as family at a place that no longer feels like home.

“One of the only things keeping us at the college now is the community that we’ve built with our team and with professors and with students on campus,” Bishop said. “It’s really hard to get up and just leave, but it’s also very hard to take the administration’s wording of cutting our team as a, ‘we don’t want you here, we don’t want you on campus.’ So we’re torn in two directions. It’s hard to just get up and leave our team, and I don’t think a lot of us are willing to do this yet. … Knowing that I’m going to be coming back to campus without the opportunities that I committed my time and money to is hard to stomach.”

A Dartmouth déjà vu

When Priscilla Zee heard the news, she thought, “not again.”

Eighteen years ago, when Dartmouth announced it would cut swimming, Zee was a junior. She emerged as a leader of the save swimming movement and ascended to the team captaincy as a senior.

This time around, once she got over the lament that 18 years of gains were threatened, Zee’s first act was to be there for student-athletes, knowing what it feels like to be in their shoes.

“The big message that I’ve been telling these guys is, I don’t want you to transfer,” Zee said. “I want our bond and Dartmouth swimming and diving to be strong, and what you do is valuable and this experience is valuable and you do matter, and know that we do support you.”

The methods now are different. In 2002, cutting swimming was presented as a budgetary issue. The effort to save it garnered flashy headlines when one swimmer’s boyfriend listed Dartmouth swimming on a then-new website called eBay with an asking price of $212,000.

Most of the real organization, though, was about fliers and shoe leather. Swimmers went door-to-door and dorm-to-dorm. They stood on tables in the dining hall to address classmates. Ultimately, it took $2 million to fund the program for at least 10 years and a swell of student support in on-campus support to stage demonstrations outside the president’s home to bring the program back.

The tools now are different, and Zee shudders to think how swimmers are getting through without being physically present for each another. But when 220 alumni, swimmers and parents can join a Zoom call at a day’s notice, Zee is able to harness a power the first effort lacked.

Among Sheehy’s glibness with The Dartmouth was the assertion that it’s not about money, but it would take an endowment north of $2 million to reinstate swimming. The tone of it not being about money unless it’s about a lot of money rankled.

But Zee takes that posturing in stride.

“This is where I think history works to our advantage in having been there before,” she said. “We were also told in 02-03 that no amount of money would bring the program back and no amount of conversation would reinstate the program. … I think that’s what we’re all desiring from Dartmouth, is an inclusive, collaborative conversation with the administration that is faced with this decision and the opportunity to perhaps come to a different solution than cutting five sports teams.”

Zee, born in Brazil to Chinese parents and raised in Minnesota, has a powerful story to tell about her Dartmouth experience. Now a marketing executive in California, she points to the effort to save Dartmouth swimming, the creative solutions and organization that it took to accomplish that, as one of the most rewarding experiences of her life.

She wants the next generation of Dartmouth swimming to have the same thing, and she’s ready to work with them toward those ends.

“It’s inspiring to see the community that’s been created for years and years before us, and we were hoping it would continue for years and years after us,” Bishop said. “I’m optimistic because I’m extremely impressed with the amount of alumni and the achievements of the alumni who are coming together to fight this.”

“I think that we’re definitely all hopeful because we’ve done it before, although we do recognize it’s a different situation,” Deppe-Walker said. “I feel like that alumni have our backs all the way. We’re all willing to go all the way.”

5 comments

    • avatar
      John M Razi

      Absolutely ! “Swimming-Dartmouth” vital !… engages-touches invaluably !

  1. Mary Dalton

    Interesting. The University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth cut their swim & five teams recently too (among several other sports)

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