Friday, November 27, 2020

With emotion, MSU swim and dive athletes discuss the decision to cut their program

October 29, 2020
The Rock, located on Farm Lane, is painted to show support against cutting the MSU Swim & Dive program. The university declared Thursday they would stop funding the program after the 2020-21 school year is over. Shot on Oct. 26, 2020.
The Rock, located on Farm Lane, is painted to show support against cutting the MSU Swim & Dive program. The university declared Thursday they would stop funding the program after the 2020-21 school year is over. Shot on Oct. 26, 2020. —
Photo by Lauren DeMay | The State News

You can take the athletes out of the sport, but you can't take the sport out of the athletes.

You can't give them back those years spent missing out on a "normal childhood" because they were at practice, or lifting, or conditioning, or competing several hours away.

You can't give them back the blood, sweat and tears they poured into their passion, their dream, this sport.

You can cut a varsity athletic program from a Big Ten or Power Five school, but you can't erase its history or its legacy. You can't erase the alumni connections that stem back to a century ago. You can't take the green and white out of their blood.

The Michigan State swim and dive teams were worried from the start of the pandemic. Though, none of them actually expected this to happen. None of them expected to meet in Spartan Stadium on Oct. 22, a place they don't typically congregate, to sit down with athletic director Bill Beekman and have their world crumble at their feet.

"It feels like a death in the family," some said.

"Like we're mourning a loss," others added.

Madeline Reilly grew up in a water-loving family. Her parents met at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, where they swam on the same team. She's been in the pool since she was one, and competing since she was five, having said that as an uncoordinated young woman, swim was the best thing to pursue for her.

"Ironically, more than a couple years — I'm not sure of the exact timeline — after they graduated, their program was also cut," Reilly said. "This situation is all too personal and it goes to show that the cuts made to swim and dive programs isn't a new phenomena."

The junior is now apart of the Spartan women's swim team, partaking in events such as the 200-meter butterfly, the 100-meter butterfly and the 100-meter backstroke. Being from out of state, she really looked forward to her time at MSU; though, like any baby bird about to spread their wings and fly the nest she'd been in her entire left, she was nervous, until she found her team.

"Immediately, I felt at home. These people took me under their arms and made me feel like family," Reilly said. "As soon as I walked on campus and met the team, interacted with them, it felt like I'd know them my entire life — we had an instant connection."

Sports are about more than wins and losses. Sports about are friendship. You work with the same people day in and day out, you push each other, cheer for each other, celebrate and comfort each other. And, while they all can't be included, it's important to note that this is exactly what all twelve individuals who were interviewed told The State News about: The camaraderie at MSU is unmatched.

"Sometimes, as you can imagine, it's difficult for me to go home for holidays, especially because as athletes we have shortened breaks due to training and meets. There's been times that I've gone home with some of my teammates, to their houses, for holidays — it doesn't get more personal than that," Reilly said. "I could call any one of my teammates' parents that live in Michigan in the middle of the night and they'd be here as soon as they could."

"I don't know I would have pursued coming to school here so heavily if it wasn't for the swim and dive program," she added. "Cutting this program means cutting a population ... of star students, both in academics and athletics, that wouldn't have necessarily considered coming to this university."

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Aidan Farley is a senior member of the Spartan men's swim team, partaking in almost all freestyle events. When he was being recruited in high school, he knew he wanted a proper balance of academics and athletics — he didn't want one overshadowing the other because both are of dire importance to him.

"MSU really felt like home to me," Farley said.

Farley started swimming around the age of nine at the local swim team, after watching the 2008 Olympics where Michael Phelps was in his prime. Over the years, he's come to appreciate the sport in unimaginable ways, one being the discipline it's taught him — especially about time management.

Amanda Ling is a senior, redshirt junior, apart of the Spartan women's dive team, partaking in the 1-meter and 3-meter dives.

Being a diver is a lot different than being a swimmer. However, it takes just as much effort and grit and, though their teams are significantly smaller, they are just as much a piece of the bigger picture as everyone else is.

Ling started as a gymnast.

A common history among divers is that they start off with gymnastics — the aerial awareness, positions and techniques are ultimately the same across both sports.

But, when eighth grade rolled around, Ling felt like she no longer fit in and decided to quit gymnastics to try diving, which she immediately fell in love with.

"I actually went to the Spartan diving camp and I met the head coach [Eric Best]. This was before my freshman year of high school, so I'd hardly been diving at all and was really brand new in the sport. But Best told me he noticed a talent in me and if I worked hard enough I could do it at the collegiate level — which became my mission," Ling said.

She picked up high school and club diving and remained in contact with Best until she ended up at MSU. Similar to the others, Ling said the environment here is unlike anything else — it's a family environment that supports their athletes as real people and not just as pawns for medals or rankings.

Jakob Heberling is a junior member of the Spartan men's dive team, partaking in the 1-meter and 3-meter dives. However, this fall semester he decided to sit from the team to complete an internship and rejoin in the spring semester.

Heberling also started as a gymnast. But, when he learned that he wasn't going to be able to compete collegiately, he switched to diving. MSU cut their men's gymnastics program in 2001 and, according to USA Gymnastics, there are only 15 schools that still host the sport under varsity guidelines and eight schools that host the sport as a club today.

He started club diving the summer after his freshman year of high school and found home in MSU after graduation. Heberling had a pretty long recruiting process with Best — he said Best placed emphasis on the student-athletes as real people, echoing Ling's point, and the paths they wanted to travel after college, making it the right fit for him.

Most of the underclassmen are now being left with the choice of transferring to continue their career elsewhere or quitting and remaining at MSU. There is a group effort to get the sport reinstated on Facebook and 1992-96 alumni Tom Munley is going to speak with the Board of Trustees during one of the public three-minute slots at their meeting Friday.

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