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University of Maryland swimmers struggle to save their program from elimination

By Liz Clarke

At first, all Megan Lafferty wanted to do was lie on her bed in the dark. Like all of her teammates, she was devastated when Maryland Athletic Director Kevin Anderson informed them last November that the university planned to drop its men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams.

Maryland swimmer Megan Lafferty

COLLEGE PARK, MD February 2 : Maryland junior Megan Lafferty practices the butterfly on February 2, 2012 in College Park, MD (Photo by JonathanNewton/The Washington Post)

Instead, Lafferty tapped into the discipline encoded in the DNA of elite swimmers and threw herself into her junior season for the Terrapins with the same determination she had used to throw herself into the pool for thousands of pre-dawn workouts since she was 7 years old.Her teammates have done the same, refusing to let the specter of their teams’ elimination interfere with their athletic goals. Meanwhile, out of the pool, a booster group spearheaded by parents has been equally vigorous in trying to raise the $11.6 million that university officials say is needed to spare the teams.

With Terrapins athletics hemorrhaging money, Maryland President Wallace D. Loh decided to cut eight of 27 varsity teams to address a deficit that’s projected to balloon from $4 million this year to more than $17 million by 2017 unless spending is dramatically curtailed. Cutting the teams will pare $5 million from the athletic department’s $57.7 million annual budget, according to university projections.

Soon after, Anderson unveiled fundraising targets that each team had to meet by June 30 to win a reprieve. In the case of men’s and women’s swimming and diving, that figure was $11.6 million — 59 percent more than the $7.3 million that Maryland’s chief athletic fundraising group, the Terrapin Club, had raised for the entire athletics department the preceding year.

While the parent-driven booster group Save Maryland Swimming and Diving has made impressive strides in the last two months — raising $1 million in pledges, identifying prospective donors capable of giving $3 million more, crafting a business plan that pares spending and generates $250,000 in new revenue — it’s nowhere near reaching the $11.5 million goal.

‘It can’t be done!’

And with less than five months to go, some are questioning whether the university’s formula for saving the teams (with each team required to raise eight years of annual operating costs, including scholarships) was developed in good faith or is merely a public-relations ruse.

“To raise eight years of operating costs in four months is ludicrous! It can’t be done!” Maryland Del. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Montgomery) said in a recent telephone interview. As a university, “you’re going to pat yourself on the back and say that you gave everybody an opportunity. But it’s absolutely insincere.”

Anderson said eight years of operating costs is reasonable because it reflects two full recruiting cycles, giving coaches and prospective athletes confidence in the teams’ financial stability. According to Anderson, the plan to cut sports initially offered no route for teams to save themselves. He said he lobbied hard to develop the fundraising option — based on a successful campaign waged to save certain athletics programs at the University of California — as an alternative.

In a Feb. 1 letter to Loh, Kramer characterized the university’s fundraising goal as “disingenuous” and argued that a more reasonable standard would be asking teams to raise one year of operating costs by June 30.

“The heavy handed, unrealistic proposal, as it currently exists, is an embarrassment to all of us who serve the citizens of this state in our legislature,” Kramer wrote in the letter, which was co-signed by 50 fellow delegates.

According to university spokesman Brian Ullmann, Loh met with several Maryland delegates in Annapolis on Thursday and plans to continue talks on what he called a “complex and emotional issue.”

“We remain committed to working with the swimming and diving group, as well as the other affected teams,” Ullmann wrote in an e-mail. “The athletic department put a lot of thought into the Save our Sports fundraising campaign, but we are open to other options, provided they are fiscally responsible and address [the athletic department’s] persistent budget deficits.”

While Maryland’s swimmers may be among the first casualties, they may not be the last. The recommendation to cut eight teams (men’s and women’s swimming and diving; men’s tennis; men’s cross-country; men’s indoor and outdoor track; women’s water polo; and acrobatics and tumbling) — made by the President’s Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, approved by Anderson and endorsed by Loh — is predicated on the assumption that Maryland’s football and men’s basketball teams will soon become more profitable.

That in itself is a leap of faith, with football coming off a 2-10 season under first-year Coach Randy Edsall and basketball in rebuilding mode following Gary Williams’s resignation.

“Swimming is just the canary in the coal mine,” says John Tynan, a Save Maryland Swimming and Diving board member whose son, Matthew, swims for the Terrapins. “Today it’s swimming or it’s track or water polo. But you could make the argument: ‘What kind of funding does dance bring in? Or theater? Or philosophy? No one has paid attention to philosophy in 200 years, so let’s whack those!’

“If anyone thinks they’re safe from this, they’ve got their head in the sand.”

‘I still have high hopes’

There are other issues that make supporters question whether the university wants to save its swimming and diving teams, which have helped raise the academic profile of Terrapins athletics. The women’s swimming and diving team graduated 100 percent of its athletes, according to the most recent NCAA data, while the men’s squad graduated 80 percent.

Instead of being regarded as an asset, the teams have been deemed a drain on the budget.

Maryland charges its swimming and diving teams $330,000 per year to use the university’s state-of-the-art pool, an accounting arrangement virtually unheard of among NCAA Division I swim teams, insiders say.

That represents more than 20 percent of the teams’ combined annual budget of $1,544,595.

Anderson said discussions about whether the charge can be waived or reduced are ongoing with Campus Recreation Services, which levies the fee.

Nonetheless, Coach Sean Schimmel said he’s optimistic about the swim teams’ future, even though he has lost next season’s recruiting class because he is precluded from extending scholarships. “I’m hoping the university takes a good look at what we’ve done in the last 10, 12 weeks and sits back and says: ‘This is viable. Let’s step forward and work together,’ ” Schimmel said.

Maryland’s swimmers are preparing for their final home meet of the season, Saturday against Georgetown. Without a reversal, it will be the last home swim meet in Maryland history.

COLLEGE PARK, MD February 2 : Maryland junior Megan Lafferty gets ready for practice on February 2, 2012 in College Park, MD (Photo by JonathanNewton/The Washington Post)

It will also be the last college meet for Lafferty. Although she has one year of eligibility remaining, she has decided against transferring to a school that offers swimming. She’d lose too many credits, she said, and would face two more years of school in order to swim competitively for one more season.

So the college swim career she has loved so much will likely end prematurely. “Everyone says their senior year is the pinnacle of their success,” Lafferty says, the disappointment evident in her voice.

“I still have high hopes. And I have a lot of trust in all these people that we’ll be able to save our program.”

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8 Responses to “University of Maryland swimmers struggle to save their program from elimination”

  1. concernedswimfan says:

    My heart breaks for these athletes who have worked so hard for so many years. Hugely disappointed in UofMd. The financial trends must have been there for years. They should have seen the writing on the wall and put actions in place earlier. To ask a team to fundraising 8 years of operating expenses in a few months…??!!!

    As someone that has a swimmer starting to look at colleges, how does one find out if something like this could be on the horizon for a college team? Of course, you ask the coaches, but are they really going to answer “yep, we have a feeling the team might be cut”. Of course not!
    Are there telltale signs that should set off warning bells?

  2. MDSwimMom says:

    UMD is paying Ralph Friedgen 2 million this year NOT to coach. Too bad that money couldn’t have gone to the Maryland swim, dive and water polo teams instead to operate one more year and give alumni and boosters more time to raise money to save the program, a program not only with an impressive win record but a stellar graduation rate. And, the accounting practice of charging resident teams pool rental is ridiculous. Do other teams pay rent to use athletic facilities and fields at UMD? NO?! Then how about crediting back to the swim, dive and water polo teams all of those rental charges for the past ten years? Kevin Anderson should be fired for his misguided decisions and UMD President Loh should reverse the plan to cut swimming, diving and water polo. Bravo to Del. Kramer and other Maryland lawmakers for calling Loh out for supporting the dismantling of UMD swimming.

  3. MCSL fan says:

    Would be great for these student-athletes to have a great turnout at their last home meet, which will also pay tribute to seniors Andrew Relihan (Georgetown Prep/Hallowell), Erin Stout (Sherwood/Tanterra), and Sean Stewart (Wootton/Woodley Gardens). Meet is 1pm against Georgetown which features Will Lawler (Georgetown Prep/Merrimack Park). Support the Turtle!

  4. Nash says:

    Several things come to mind. (2 Kids at currently at UMD & 2 alumni – bleed UMD Red)

    Kudos to the parents who are working hard and have raised what the have.

    Where is the university going to find the $330,000 to replace the amount they are gouging the swim team? As it sits now, the student population at UMD has one nice facility for recreational swimming and zero revenue coming in.

    Can the team explore finding a local facility to practice and compete that is more cost effective – if they are treating the team as a tenant the team can certainly act like one and move – have their meets at UMBC or the PG Sportsplex. The cost of busing the kids to another practice facility plus the pool time would be no where near $330K. This would reduce their 8 year cost significantly.

    Sticking it to the kids for poor adult management is a shame. How ironic that the UMD recruiters come our schools, pitch extra-curricular activities as a differentiators to get accepted yet in the end they do not value them.

    Thanks for the forum to vent.

    Good luck to the team in their final meet. Way to set an example.

  5. There are many more inequities that the University has placed upon the swim team to “pad their books” to the point of it being criminal. Kevin Anderson inherited this mess and while the Athletic Department is still hemoraging money, we truly feel he is trying to help our cause. The President on the other hand, needs to get off his high horse and stop being such a hipocrite.

  6. CB9678 says:

    Nash that is a great idea. They should try using a cheaper facility maybe even a Fairland would gladly say use our pool for free. Then stick the University with the pool costs!

  7. Pawprintmon says:

    Nash, after having a swimmer at Clemson where their pool was broken and out of use for a year, I have seen that the additional time commitment for swimmers to travel to another home pool is exhausting and really messes with their class schedule. They also do not get optimum practice times and two a days become all but impossible. I think the points about who will now be paying for the University’s pool with the team rent disappearing are questions that need to be answered.

    Clemson had their last ever home meet last weekend and they had about 100 alumni return. McHugh natatorium was packed with supporters; even the Emory team wore purple and orange ribbons intheir hair and on their backpacks to honor the Tigers. I hope the Terps show up in force as well to support these fine athletes.

  8. Jacob says:

    Maryland is getting what they deserved. Memories go a long way back. I rememer back in the early 70′s Clemson and Maryland was supposed to leave the ACC with USC. Well guess what they backed out and changed their mind. I hope the athletic department at Maryland and Clemson go bankrupt. Just remember what goes around comes around. Only $7million dollar raised by their athletic booster club is laughable. Most SEC schools booster clubs double or triple that amount. Don’t worry football and basketball will be next in line to cut.

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