University of Iowa cuts swimming and diving programs, men’s gymnastics and tennis, citing COVID-19 losses

UI swimmer Erin Lang competes in the women’s 200-yard backstroke preliminary event during the 2020 Women’s Big Ten Swimming and Diving Championships at the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center in Iowa City on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020. — Stephen Mally/UI Athletics

On Friday afternoon, University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld and Director of Athletics Gary Barta released a statement containing “some extremely difficult news.”

Harreld and Barta said that due to COVID-19 financial losses in the Athletics Department, four of the university’s 24 intercollegiate varsity sports programs will be cut: men’s and women’s swimming and diving, men’s gymnastics and men’s tennis.

“Each of these teams will have the opportunity to compete in their upcoming 2020-21 seasons, should the circumstances surrounding COVID-19 permit, before they are discontinued at the varsity level,” they wrote.

Students in these sports with athletics scholarships will not lose this financial support. “All existing scholarships will be honored through graduation for those student-athletes who choose to remain at Iowa,” the statement continued. “If a student-athlete wishes to transfer to another institution, we will assist them in every way possible.” Coach contracts will also be honored, they said.

The decision comes 10 days after the Big 10 Conference announced the cancellation of the fall football season, with university presidents voting 12 to two against holding the season due to COVID-19. (Harreld was one of the two dissenting votes; University of Nebraska President Walter Carter, Jr. was the other.)

UI Athletics was reportedly already facing an eight-figure budget loss in fiscal year 2021, before the loss of revenue from the cancellation of the football season, which is the department’s biggest financial boon.

“With the Big Ten Conference’s postponement of fall competition on August 11, UI Athletics now projects lost revenue of approximately $100M and an overall deficit between $60-75M this fiscal year,” Harreld and Barta wrote, explaining their decision to discontinue the four programs. “A loss of this magnitude will take years to overcome.”

A total of 76 student-athletes are on the rosters for the four UI teams being discontinued, 48 of them were in swimming and diving.

UI is the first school in the “power five” Division 1 conferences to cut a swimming and diving team since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

The UI men’s swim team finished sixth out of 10 teams at the Big 10 championships in 2020, while the women placed ninth out of 13. According to Swimming World Magazine, the women’s swimming and diving team is the first in the Big 10 to ever be cut. The UI men’s team is the first since 1993, when Illinois eliminated their men’s swimming program.

Marc Long has coached both the men’s and women’s swim programs since 2005.

Though UI’s swimming and diving teams haven’t been Big 10 or national powerhouses in recent decades, swimming has a storied history at Iowa. UI swimming coach David Armbruster and UI swimmer Jack Sieg are credited with developing and naming the butterfly stroke in the 1930s. Nineteen men’s swimmers have won individual national championships since the team’s formation in 1917, with UI swimmer Artur Wojdat going on to earn a bronze medal in the 1988 Seoul Olympics and Conor Dwyer a gold medal in the 2012 London Olympics.

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Iowa Swim Coach David Armbruster in the 1940s. — photo from the Frederick W. Kent Collection of Photographs in the University of Iowa Special Collections

The university completed construction of the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center in 2010, and one of its most celebrated features is its natatorium. The space contains an Olympic-sized swimming pool; state-of-the-art diving well, springboards and diving platforms; and a spectator area. Both Big 10 and national swimming and diving championships have been hosted in the CRWC over the past decade.

The UI men’s varsity tennis team, currently coached by Ross Wilson, was founded in 1939 and has won one Big 10 championship, in 1958. Stand-out players include Tyler Cleveland and Stuart Waters, both two-time Big Ten Player of the Year recipients (Cleveland in 2000 and ’01, Waters in 2002 and ’03).

Men’s gymnastics at UI won the NCAA championship in 1969 and seven Big 10 titles. Twelve individual gymnasts have won national championships, the most recent being Michael Reavis on vault in 2005.

COVID-19-related financial troubles have affected more than UI Athletics. The university has so far withdrawn funding from Hancher Auditorium, UI Hospitals and Clinics, the General Education Fund and cut faculty and staff hiring budgets.