Petition to save W&M swim team raises more than $1 million just weeks after the program was cut

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A W&M swimmer competes in 2009 when the Tribe hosted the Towson University Tigers. (WYDaily file/Courtesy of W&M News)
A W&M swimmer competes in 2009 when the Tribe hosted the Towson University Tigers. (WYDaily file/Courtesy of W&M News)

After the William & Mary announced the decision to cut seven varsity sports because of budgeting concerns during the coronavirus pandemic, at least one sports team is raising money to save their program: The men’s and women’s swim team.

The Save Tribe Swimming group created by current students and parents of the swimming community set up social media accounts, including a Facebook page and a website, where people are pledging funds to save the swim team. Others are sharing their memories on the university’s swim team.

One swim team member rapped about the university’s decision to shut the program down effective for the 2021-2022 school year.

What happened

The swim community and the other six sports: Men’s and women’s gymnastics, men’s indoor and outdoor track and field, and volleyball were informed in a six-minute Zoom meeting that each athletic program would end after the 2020-2021 season.

“So many of us who work in intercollegiate athletics do so with a singular purpose: to impact the lives of our student-athletes,” Samantha Huge, W&M’s athletics director, said in a statement Sept. 3. “On most every other day, we are working tirelessly to enhance their experience at William & Mary, and that is why today is so difficult to know that our decision — while necessary — is devastating for our students.

“As a department, we simply can no longer continue on an unsustainable financial trajectory. We will do everything that we can for the impacted student-athletes and coaches, and I sincerely hope they are able to participate in one final season of competition. Today is a sad day for all of us who love William & Mary.”

Jeff Crisci, W&M alum and vice president for Diligent, said there were already rumors about the sports teams being cut the day before.

His wife, Kelley Crisci, also an alum of the university and an alum of the college’s swim team, is the assistant swim coach for the men’s team and the couples’ son, Flynn, is currently a sophomore and member of the swim team.

“The way that it was handled was really poor and lacked any compassion and empathy,” Jeff Crisci said.

At the Zoom meeting, Huge read a written statement about the cuts and the athletic teams were “given no opportunity to express their emotions,” he said.

Jeff Crisci said the university opened Zable Stadium and the athletes were told to “go be there as a team and mourn your loss.”

“For the AD to come on and give them six minutes and pull the rug out of from under them…with no compassion and empathy is just beyond reproach,” he added.

The swim community’s response

“There was Zoom call the day after it happened, Friday of that week,” Jeff Crisci said, adding it was around 9 p.m. “We had 400 participants on the Zoom call.”

The attendees were alumni, parents, friends, who wanted to rally together to create a plan to do “what they can to overturn the decision,” Jeff Crisci added.

He said the swim program’s total operating expenses range from $450,000 to $500,000 per year.

With $118,000 from a $3 million swim endowment and the swim team raising $100,000, Jeff Crisci said he believes the community could raise the remaining out of pocket expenses, roughly $200,000.

“What the alumni community and the parents are saying it would be relatively easy to get additional commitments from the broad swimming community,” he said.

The swim team uses a 25-meter pool at the university’s recreation center and has had 13 Olympic trial qualifiers, according to the Save Tribe Swimming website.

“Our facilities can, and do, provide everything we need to be a nationally-competitive program,” according to The Situation tab on the Save Tribe Swimming website. “Our lack of a 50-meter pool is not a reason to cut the program.”

“We’ve shown time and time again that we can make the most of what we have and still be competitive on a national level.”

Most of the swim team is white, according to the university’s 2020-2021 roster.

There are few scholarship students so they are paying full tuition, many choosing W&M because of “elite academics and the swim program,” Jeff Crisci said.

While Jeff Crisci has not spoken with Huge or other administration staff such as W&M President Katherine Rowe, he said other people had reached out to the administration as well as the Board of Visitors about the cutting of the sports programs.

So how does the Tribe Swim team being cut affect the greater Williamsburg community?

The local swim league on the Peninsula is affected.

Jeff Crisci said the W&M swimmers are head and assistant swim coaches for the Virginia Peninsula Swim Union, one of the oldest swim leagues in the country.

In addition, getting rid of a collegiate swim program means prospective college students looking to join a swim team must look outside the state, possibly going to private schools.

“From a broader perspective, swimming at the collegiate level everywhere is under siege,” Jeff Crisci said. “In the state of Virginia specifically, it’s one of the best states in the country for swimming.”

“One Tribe, One Family’

Another frustrating issue for current students, alumni and the college community is the way the decision was handled by Huge and the athletics department’s lack of transparency about the move, Jeff Crisci said.

He said he feels the “One Tribe, One Family” is being cast aside to invest in other other sports like basketball and football.

Besides having the swim program reinstated, Jeff Crisci and other swim team supporters want “an active dialogue and “real transparency” as well as way they can help.

“There was no active dialogue of what we need to do to maintain these sports at William & Mary,” he added.

Jeff Crisci said it’s not the first time the swim team has been cut. In the 1980s the men’s swim team was cut and the decision overturned. In 1991, the men and women’s swim teams were cut then reinstated as well.

So how can people help?

Jeff Crisci said people can pledge and reach out to senior level administration and the athletics departments.

“Let them know why W&M swimming is currently important to you,” he said.

W&M response

W&M Tribe Athletics spokesman Pete Clawson wrote in an email he had heard the Save Tribe Swimming group and as of Sept. 15, the athletics department has not met with the group.

When asked if the department planned to reevaluate the decision to the cut Tribe Swim team, Clawson wrote “the decision that was reached by the university is final.”

“The costs associated with operating a department that sponsors 23 varsity teams and supporting them at the Division I level of competition have become unsustainable,” he wrote. “The pandemic has severely intensified these deficits. We will continue to do everything we can to support our student-athletes during this transition.”

He sent WYDaily links to Huge’s open letter to the college community, “general thoughts” from the W&M community include statements from Huge, Rowe and John Littel, rector for the college’s Board of Visitors, as well as frequently asked questions about the decision to cut seven varsity sports.

As of Monday, Save Tribe Swimming has raised/pledged $1,034,944.13.

Their goal is $4.5 million.

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