Though ‘Blindsided’ by Cuts, La Salle Men’s Swimming Fighting Hard to Survive

La Salle's University's Kirk Natatorium; Photo Courtesy: Instagram/@saveLSU_swimanddive

Though ‘Blindsided’ by Cuts, La Salle Men’s Swimming Fighting Hard to Survive

Daniel Johnson had a job interview scheduled for the afternoon of Sept. 29. So the La Salle men’s swimming captain handed off the duty of hosting the informal squad Zoom meeting to a teammate, a way they’ve been keeping together and accountable while taking classes remotely.

When interim head coach Sasha Malanina emailed that morning to say that all team meetings were off until further notice, it raised an eyebrow, but Johnson didn’t think much of it. That is, until an email from the La Salle athletic department summoned them to a collective meeting.

That’s when alarm bells went off and the swimmers’ group chat lit up. Fellow senior Isaiah Gregory started comparing notes with other Explorers athletes, for hints on who else was being hauled into the meeting and hints as to the subject, as a sense of dread set in.

It didn’t take long, after a few platitudes about the difficulty of the decision, for the La Salle men’s swimming and diving team to be informed that it was among seven varsity programs to be discontinued after the 2020-21 season.

Shocking as it was, it’s a decision the Explorers aren’t gently acquiescing to.

“We were completely blindsided by this decision,” Johnson told Swimming World last week.

“A lot of people started crying and getting upset,” Gregory said. “It was an emotional day. I was angry. I went for a run, I came back and immediately we started figure out what we could do.”

In less than two weeks, the La Salle men’s swimming community has rallied a robust effort to save itself. The program has started an Instagram account, @savelsu_swimanddive, with nearly 1,000 followers and a website. The group is in talks about launching a non-profit to raise more than just personal donations. Amid the uncertainty already wrought by COVID-19, it’s another obstacle swimmers must deal with.

One of the possibilities for the original call, Johnson had hoped, was that it would’ve allowed swimmers to return to campus to train, like the men’s basketball team is doing. That wasn’t to be, and for Johnson, it gives the lie to the “25 sports, one team” motto of equality in the athletic department, where a middling basketball program is elevated above all other varsity offerings.

The Explorers’ success in the pool – winning dual-meet records each of the last four seasons, a top-half finish in the eight-program Atlantic 10 for most of the last decade, including runner-up in 2017 – is among their prime arguments. The buy-in of alumni is another. Johnson has connected with alums in the financial and legal sectors as well as former university employees, trying to bolster the case not just for the program’s viability but for how its termination won’t help the university’s larger financial issues.

“We always have support of our alumni, and our professors too,” Gregory said. “It’s one big family, one big bloodline. Once you graduate as a La Salle University swimmer, on the men’s or the women’s side, it’s a bloodline. If you look back and say, oh he graduated, he’s a swimmer, you know something about them, that he’s a good person and a good student.”

Where La Salle’s program deletion differs from many is that it’s gender specific: Where schools like Iowa, Dartmouth and William & Mary have this summer cut both men’s and women’s teams simultaneously, La Salle’s women’s program was spared.

The programs are very close, often living near each other in North Philadelphia and regularly training together, even planning meals together on campus. When the news came down about the La Salle men’s swimming team, the women provided a shoulder to cry on and an aide in the campaign that Johnson described as “instrumental.” Much of the online content they’ve put out has had the #familyfirst hashtag, a statement of the programs’ solidarity.

“It’s huge to have their support,” Johnson said. “… We are such a tight family, and our concern is that the women on the team, they signed up for a co-ed team. That was a factor for a lot of them. It brings a certain level of competitiveness in practice having a men’s team. I think we’re pretty humorous and bring a lot of humor to the team, too. It brings a family dynamic that is really unmatched by a lot of programs, so to have that support, they were 100 percent were on board when we reached out.”

One important aspect to Gregory is the diversity of La Salle men’s swimming. The freestyler/breaststroker hails from Pittsburgh, one of, by the NCAA’s Demographics Database, only 72 Black swimmers in Division I in 2019. But the senior has never been the only Black man on La Salle’s roster. Knowing that was an important factor in his college choice, especially in a sport – men’s swimming in 2019 was 71 percent white in Division I and 74 percent in all divisions, per the NCAA – that is overwhelmingly white.

“This is a fight that’s bigger than just us at La Salle University,” Gregory said. “This is a fight to say that saving teams in sports that lack diversity is important, and that protecting those teams that do have diversity is huge because we have facilities and opportunities that many don’t get. You don’t hear about many African American swimmers being at the college level, and having a team that was 20 percent or so minorities, it made me proud to walk on the deck at Atlantic 10s.”

Johnson and Gregory have one more season with La Salle men’s swimming. They have to balance the challenge of wanting to make that season memorable and with understanding that underclassmen have to do what’s best for them.

It’s one of many lines they are walking. But the campaign to preserve the program has exposed the nuance of its predicament, something the swimmers don’t think the university considered and that drives them forward in what Johnson calls an “all-consuming” effort.

“There’s an immense effort to bring it back, but should that not happen, I hope for the best for our underclassmen,” Johnson said. “They were put in an extremely tough position being told that the school is cutting the team after the year has started. Especially for the freshman class, at that point, all the recruiting is finished.”

“It strengthens us and lights the fire under us to push for the change that needs to be done,” Gregory said, “to fight the right fight and keep going.”