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STEVE DeSHAZO: At William & Mary, O'Hara is swimming against a financial tide

STEVE DeSHAZO: At William & Mary, O'Hara is swimming against a financial tide

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O'Hara

O’Hara

Most of the lessons in John O’Hara’s business classes at William & Mary involve hypothetical companies and situations. Recently, though, the Stafford High School graduate raised his hand and posed an all-too-real question.

“I asked my professor if we could do a real-life example, about how you cut a team,” O’Hara said.

O’Hara and many of his fellow Tribe athletes are learning some hard lessons after the school announced last week that it will cut seven of its 23 teams after the 2020-21 academic year: men’s and women’s swimming and gymnastics, men’s indoor and outdoor track and women’s volleyball.

Budgetary shortfalls linked to a lack of income due to the coronavirus pandemic was the deciding factor, as school officials calculated $3.66 million in annual savings with the cuts. That’s roughly 12 percent of its annual athletics budget.

Belts are being tightened across the country, especially in athletic departments after the lucrative NCAA basketball tournaments and all spring sports were canceled. The University of Iowa, with a far larger budget, also cut its men’s swimming program last month.

Athletic directors are faced with tough choices, but this one was “a total blindside,” according to O’Hara, who began his sophomore year last week.

Another Stafford grad, Lauren Winkler, is a senior on the Tribe’s gymnastics team. Unlike O’Hara, she will complete her eligibility before the cuts go into effect.

Through a school spokesman, Tribe athletic director Samantha Huge declined an interview request. But last week, she told The Richmond Times-Dispatch that “We turned over every single rock and made sure this was absolutely the necessary decision, and while it’s a very difficult one, I am confident, and we are confident as an institution, that this truly sets the course for success in the future, and sustained success in the future.”

If the announcement was stunning, it didn’t prevent the William & Mary swimming community from reacting quickly. Within hours, alumni and supporters created a website (savetribeswimming.com) in a long shot effort to raise money to reinstate the program and to publicize its accomplishments.

They include six straight Colonial Athletic Association team titles for the men, 13 U.S. Olympic Trials qualifiers and cumulative team grade-point averages of better than 3.3 for both the men and women in the fall of 2019. If the 2020 NCAA championships hadn’t been canceled, senior Colin Wright might have become the Tribe’s first-ever NCAA champion in the 50-yard freestyle.

The program reportedly has a $3 million endowment, and alumni are aiming to raise $4.5 million more to fund annual coaches’ salaries, travel expenses and facility usage. Unless the program’s advocates can make their school reconsider, though, the 94th season of swimming at William & Mary will be the final one (if it’s held at all).

Besides losing his team, O’Hara found fault in several aspects of the decision. He said the squad had been assured as recently as last year that it wasn’t in danger.

Then there was the announcement itself, on a hastily called brief Zoom conference.

“[Huge] was reading off the teleprompter, with no emotion,” O’Hara said. “She didn’t let anyone ask any questions. ... She probably said three or four words, and I just froze. Before the meeting was over, I looked at my phone, and I had notifications from countless people. I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, what just happened?’ I was in disbelief.”

Finally, the cuts come on the heels of the rollout of a $57 million campaign to fund needed upgrades to Kaplan Arena, the school’s 49-year-old basketball arena, and the construction of a performance arena to serve all the Tribe’s teams. It looks as if swimmers won’t get to utilize it, though. And in contrast to the swim team’s record of success, the Tribe has never participated in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

Basketball and football are most school’s top revenue producers, but O’Hara wonders if the decision may not backfire at a school that prides itself on academics.

“The teams they cut are all the teams that have the most success in the classroom,” he said, “and a big part of it is that the alumni from those programs are some of the biggest donors to the athletic programI don’t think they realize how much they will lose in donations. They’re alienating a lot of donors by getting rid of their teams.”

College swim seasons usually start in early October, but after a promising freshman season, O’Hara said he hasn’t trained much since the pandemic hit in March. He said he’s trying not to dwell on the fact that the upcoming season could be the program’s last--or whether he might explore swimming elsewhere next year.

“I really don’t want to think about it until six months from now,” he said. “I chose William & Mary because of the fact that on my official visit, I instantly felt like I belonged here.”

Steve DeShazo: 374-5443

sdeshazo@freelancestar.com

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