Former swimmers at the University of Toledo were collectively shocked and dismayed over the announcement on Monday that the men's program was being eliminated. But rather than let it sink, many former Rockets say they intend to do everything possible to save UT swimming.
“The Toledo alumni are absolutely up in arms about this,” said Matthew Zimmer, a three-time Mid-American Conference champion during his days on the UT swim team (1990-94). “It is not true that every avenue has been exhausted in an effort to keep these programs. We were never given the chance to fund-raise and save them. All we are asking is to give the program another year and see if we can put together the money to keep it going.”
Toledo is dropping men's swimming and men's indoor and outdoor track and field, effective with the end of the current academic year. University president Dr. Daniel Johnson and athletic director Mike O'Brien said the three programs were victims of both a severe budget crisis and the implications of Title IX, a 1972 federal law that dictates that schools receiving federal money must offer scholarship opportunities roughly equal to the school's overall male and female populations.
The UT swim team alums said they have been bombarding Johnson, O'Brien and the university board of trustees with letters, e-mails, faxes and phone calls to express their displeasure with the move, and to inquire about possible means of saving the men's swimming program. They hope to stave off the end of the program before it is formally presented to the board at its April 30 meeting.
“There are more than 100 swim team alumni from the last 30 years who are pulling together on this,” Zimmer said. “In the competitive swimming community, this has taken on a life of its own. We raised over $10,000 in one day with just a few phone calls.”
O'Brien said he appreciates the interest of the swim team alumni and understands their passion for the issue, but added that the decision to eliminate the three sports was made by the administration and will not be reversed.
“It will be brought before the board to involve them,” O'Brien said. “But as painstaking as this decision has been, the decision has been made and it is final.”
Zimmer, a native of Chicago who came to UT on a partial scholarship and set school records in several events, accused the university of purposely timing the announcement to coincide with the end of the academic year in an effort to thwart any organized opposition.
“The timing of this is unique and by no means coincidental. I've seen this happen all across the country,” Zimmer said. “You do it at the end of the school year so that no one stays around to get organized to resist it. If no one is around to fight the war, then the war is over.”
O'Brien said there is never a good time to make such a move, and reiterated that the decision was reached as a last resort in an effort to stabilize the athletic department's financial future without jeopardizing the competitive ability of the remaining programs.
“I knew there would be tremendous disappointment, and that reaction just shows that these individuals care a lot about this university and its athletic programs,” O'Brien said. “No one wanted to do this, but the times are such that there is no alternative.”
Jessie Smith, a member of the Toledo women's team from 1993-97 and a co-captain in her senior season, said she feels there are excesses elsewhere in the department's budget that could be trimmed in order to save the men's swimming team.
“Is it really necessary for the football team to stay in a hotel the night before a game? It is a ridiculous expense,” Smith said. “Asking the football team to not go to a hotel for even three or four games would cover the men's swimming team's operating budget. I'm angry because I do not feel the administration has offered valid reasons for cutting the program.”
Ben Wainwright, a former Rocket swimmer who is an ensign with the Navy stationed in Beaufort, S.C., also asked the UT administration to reconsider its move and grant the program a one-year stay.
“The majority of my work ethic, discipline, and leadership traits were instilled in me during my experiences on the UT men's swimming and diving team,” Wainwright said. “Those experiences have made me what I am today.”
Dr. Reyna L. (Smith) Lajiness, who swam for UT from 1993-97 and was inducted into the Rocket Hall of Fame this year, said she expects the resistance to the elimination of the program to grow.
“The president and the board of trustees must be forgetting that they are dealing with some of the most competitive people in the MAC,” Lajiness said. “We will spread the word, raise money, and make our point be heard.”
Zimmer said the UT swim team alums just want the time to put together a means of saving the program.
“Swimming is an easy scapegoat. When the ax comes down, why does it have to be swimming?” Zimmer asked. “The bottom line is that this is a horrible way to treat your own people. We wore the colors and represented the university well. Now all we are asking for is the chance to preserve that for others.”