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Originally published May 3, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 3, 2009 at 12:04 AM

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Steve Kelley

UW's heartless decision leaves swimmers out in cold

Washington's swimmers deserved better than being told in a short, emotionless speech that their sport would be dropped.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Nervously, the members of the Washington swimming team walked across campus early Friday morning, past Drumheller Fountain and under the flowering cherry trees.

As they made their way to the lower campus, they looked across the deep blue waters of Lake Washington and eastward to the snow-flecked Cascade Mountains.

On a sunny spring day, surely there isn't a more beautiful college campus in the country than the University of Washington's. But on this morning, everything looked hazy and gray to the Huskies swim team.

"It almost felt like it was raining," junior women's captain Jen Gong said.

They came to a conference room in the athletic department and waited for athletic director Scott Woodward's entrance. All they knew for sure was that something was terribly wrong.

"As far as I'm concerned, any meeting held at 8 in the morning is not for something good," said senior men's captain Jon Banker.

Quickly and without passion, Woodward came into the room and told the swimmers that because of the deep cuts in Washington's athletic department budget, their sport was being dropped.

There was no debate.

"I don't want to say anything bad about the athletic department here, because I've really enjoyed my time here," Gong said, "but he [Woodward] was in the room for maybe 30 seconds. He was very cold. There was no emotion. I didn't feel any sorrow from him. There were no words of grief."

These athletes deserved better. Coach Whitney Hite was building something good at Washington. The women's team finished 15th this season at the NCAAs, and the men finished 16th. Washington's was a program on the rise.

"I really felt betrayed by the athletic department and the school," Banker said. "There was such a cold-heartedness to the way it was delivered. I know it came down to politics and money, but it's just sad to see something like that happen to something that meant so much, to so many people."

As Woodward left the room, the swimmers hugged each other and cried.

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"It was an extremely surreal feeling," Banker said.

There is more to dropping a program than issuing a news release. There is more to it than a short goodbye from the athletic director. More than merely cutting about $1.2 million from the budget.

Swimming isn't just a program. It's people. Washington didn't just drop a sport, it broke up a family. It shattered athletes' dreams. It eliminated something that Hite and his assistants were meticulously building.

"I kind of feel like we're going through a divorce," Gong said. "I feel so lost right now. I feel like a part of me has just been torn apart. We're all in a state of shock."

This wasn't just a program, it was a group of athletes with promises to keep, to themselves, to their families, to their school. Athletes who had worked and played, laughed and cried, won and lost together.

"We break our backs every day," Banker said, "multiple times per day, 20 hours a week of hard, intense training and being there for each other to get us through those practices and meets and victories and defeat.

"You put so much value into that closeness you have with your teammates, and to have that taken away, it almost makes all of the sacrifices feel as if they were for nothing. I feel betrayed by this institution. It feels like our legacy here is lost. I think by cutting our program, the [athletic] department was taking the easy way out."

For Banker, the campus looked different Friday afternoon. He couldn't see the flowers, or the mountains, or the lake. To him, it was an ugly day and an ugly thing his university had done to his team.

"I've been walking around our campus today and I can't help feeling that it looks a little less beautiful today to me," he said. "It's such a beautiful spring day, but it just feels totally different.

"I walked into the Conibear Shellhouse for athletes and I almost felt like I didn't belong there. I feel like we're not a part of the school anymore. Our team gave so much to the university, and we feel like we've had the rug pulled out from under us."

Gong could transfer and swim one last season at some other university, but she wants to be at Washington. She said her heart is here.

"We're all so confused right now," Gong said, "and part of the reason is because we've been doing so well. We don't understand how an improving program like ours can just be dropped like this. I mean, it just seems like, if we were costing the university $1.2 million, I'm sure we could have made some cutbacks. Maybe traveled less.

"Now, we don't know what to do. All of us love it here. We love the academic part of it. We love the location. It's going to be hard to leave. We all have to do a lot of thinking."

They deserved better.

"Our sport does not bring in the most revenue," Banker said, "but we're an integral part of this athletic department and we've brought a lot of success to the department. You give your all for this institution, so when you just get totally let go and in such a nonchalant manner as Scott Woodward delivered it, you just feel a huge, huge sense of abandonment."

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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