The skeletons of the Michigan State Swimming and Diving program sit in plain sight for marketing junior Sophia Balow while she works as a lifeguard at IM West.
Balow spent her first two years on campus competing as a swimmer on the Michigan State Swim and Dive team and is constantly reminded at work that the team she came to MSU to be a part of no longer exists.
“I spend a lot of time in the pool still,” Balow said. “But it's just so surreal because our record board is still up on the wall. The big Michigan State Swimming and Diving sign is still up on the wall and our coach is still up in his office ... But it feels like it’s a waste.”
It has been just over a year since ex-Athletic Director Bill Beekman announced the MSU men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams would be cut following the completion of the 2020-21 season. Beekman stated that financial losses in the department due to COVID-19, coupled with the program’s inability to be competitive in the Big Ten, were the main reasons behind cutting the program.
The team competed on campus in the spring, but the farewell tour was more of a burden for the swimmers and divers rather than a celebration of the program.
“The question throughout this whole experience has been, ‘Why?’” Balow said.
Members of the team opted out of the season and each event “felt like a pity party” with other Big Ten schools honoring the program as its last competition against Michigan State. Kinesiology senior Madeline Reilly said the decision left the members of the team heartbroken.
“I feel silly giving you this analogy, but I would almost say it's like a boyfriend that I've broken up with that I keep getting back together with, if that makes sense,” Reilly, who competed as a swimmer for three years, said. “I just have this foundational love of this school that's never gonna go away because it's brought me to my family; like these people are my family.”
The fractured relationship drove seven members of the team to transfer to other Power Five schools like Duke and Texas to use the remainder of their eligibility. However, 39 members are still students at Michigan State, sticking it out in East Lansing because of the connection with teammates and love for MSU as an institution.
“We definitely leaned on each other a lot,” management senior and diver Jakob Heberling said. “We're always going to be a team and to have each other's backs is really important. But like (Balow) said, it's weird to not have people come in and do all the stuff that we usually do like go over team rules, get to know each other; it gets hard to not have that.”
The adjustment to life as a student rather than a student-athlete has been difficult for the team members that remain at MSU. MSU’s return to normal student life on campus, in addition to not having the structure of the team as an everyday constant, has made them confront any lingering emotions about the team being cut.
The return of students to campus also meant the return of using Michigan State’s recreational facilities, including the pool at IM West. IM West was the home of Michigan State Swim and Dive since the 1950s, and its return this year has led to mixed emotions for the swimmers still on campus.
Balow said that going back to the pool as a lifeguard is frustrating because it serves as a reminder of the what-ifs.
For communications senior and swimmer Kasey Venn, the return to IM West was heartbreaking. Venn joined MSU’s club swimming team to continue to compete and stay active this year. She said the first meet back in IM West was especially tough for her.
“It was mostly sad for me, rather than frustrating, just because I am swimming with a bunch of people who aren't on the actual team,” Venn said. “And my name is on the record board, and I'm looking at it and I'm like, I'm literally swimming for a club organization in the same pool that I competed in as a real athlete. It's not humiliating, but it's really come to this.”
Heberling said that his first realization that he was back at MSU just to be a student this year was biking past IM West after the first day of classes. When he saw the building, it kicked in that his career competing as an athlete was over.
“I came by on the trail here and it was the first time that I'm not going to practice and that hit me,” Heberling said. “I was like, 'Wow, this is the first time in like 21 years of my life that I haven't had scheduled practice or anything like that kind of commitment.’ My whole life, I've always been going out doing sports and practice and stuff. So, that's been hard. It's been a big transition to go from something that you dedicate your life to, to not having it anymore.”
The return to campus has also left members of the team in an “awkward” position with other student-athletes and the athletics department in general. The members of the team are still invited to attend other MSU sporting events as student-athletes and have been honored at the Athletics Department’s varsity jacket ceremony.
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The interactions with other MSU athletes at these events have served as a reminder for the former swimmers of the gap that now stands between them and the rest of the athletics department.
Reilly said they feel like outsiders in places like the Clara Bell Smith Student-Athlete Center and 1855 Place, two of the student-athlete hubs on campus. She said going in those buildings this year is not the same as in years past when the team existed and she feels like the swimmers are disconnected from the rest of the department now.
Reilly was the swimming team’s representative to MSU’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, or SAAC, and used that as a way to bolster her leadership skills to prepare for after college. She said not having SAAC, coupled with not having the team, has cut into her personal goals that she set out for herself coming into MSU.
“The opportunities that I was gifted here at Michigan State and my first three years of my collegiate athletic experience have completely shaped me into the person I am today and have completely driven my goals forward,” Reilly said. “And to think that I can't be a part of making this athletic department a better place for athletes to thrive in the future just breaks my heart.”
Despite the unexpected and unwanted reminders that presented themselves since returning to campus, Balow said that the team is ready to move forward past the last year of heartbreak since the team was cut. She said that the team wants to work with the athletic department to reinstate the program.
Michigan State’s new Athletic Director Alan Haller has not publicly commented on the program’s future since he was hired two months ago. However, Michigan State President Samuel L. Stanley said in a press conference with reporters after Haller's hiring that the issue was "closed" and that he had not had any discussions with Haller on bringing the team back.
The swimmers and divers, along with a group of parents and alumni, Battle for Spartan Swim & Dive, have vehemently pushed for MSU administration to reverse its decision over the past year and want to work with Haller to come up with solutions to bring the team back. Also, members of the women's team have filed a Title IX lawsuit against MSU for cutting the program.
Michigan State Swimming and Diving was one of 112 college sports programs that were cut due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to businessofcollegesports.com, and Michigan State was one of 35 institutions to cut a program. Of the 112, 37 programs have been reinstated and 77 — MSU swimming and diving included — remain cut.
Battle for MSU Swim & Dive, along with the swimmers and divers on campus, are looking to be like Iowa or East Carolina, who reinstated their swimming and diving programs this year, and are willing to go to extreme lengths to do so.
There has been no communication between the athletics department and the swim and dive team this year about reinstatement, according to the swimmers. Venn said that they are letting the battle group handle any conversations with administrators right now.
“Our alumni are not gonna back off,” Venn said. "And that's what I think the main thing is, they're not going to stop. This is the most dedicated group of people ever. They're not gonna back down at all until this is fixed.”
For now, the swimmers are waiting to hear from the MSU administration and waiting to see what happens in the courtroom in the Title IX case. Balow said that even a year later, they are still left wondering “Why us?” after the lack of effort from MSU’s end to reinstate the team.
This story is part of our Nov. 2 print edition. View the full issue here.
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