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PICKING UP THE PIECES

Ex-Dodgers Hartley, Fierke still processing Iowa’s decision to cut swimming and diving

Photo by Stephen Mally/University of Iowa athletics: Former Fort Dodge all-stater and current University of Iowa swimmer Taylor Hartley competes for the Hawkeyes last season. Hartley and Fierke are both juniors this year for Iowa, which will be in its final season as a program.

The words still ring loudly in the ears of Taylor Hartley and Andrew Fierke, nearly three weeks after a stunning announcement made it official.

And the emotions remain raw. Anger. Frustration. Confusion. Disbelief. Whatever adversity swimmers at the University of Iowa faced both before and during the coronavirus global pandemic, up until Aug. 21, no one had ever imagined it would come to this.

The COVID-19 fallout expected to saddle the UI athletic department with $100 million in lost revenue and a $60-75 million deficit for the current fiscal campaign. As a result, school president Bruce Harreld and athletic director Gary Barta announced four programs — men’s and women’s swimming and diving, men’s tennis and men’s gymnastics — would be eliminated at the conclusion of the the 2020-21 academic year.

Hartley and Fierke, both former Fort Dodge Senior High all-staters in the pool, are preparing for their respective junior seasons as Hawkeyes. They’re rising contributors in the pool, active citizens away from it, and model students in the classroom. Yet both now face uncertain futures, mulling over a life without swimming and forced to be much more cynical than they were just one month ago.

“I’ll be honest, my feelings shift every day,” said Hartley, an academic all-Big Ten and Dean’s List honoree. “Ever since finding out about the team being cut, I’ve had days where I am angry about the decision, days where I feel sadness for my team, and days where I am just overwhelmed with the uncertainty and stress that COVID has added to participating in my sport and the way it has affected my academic situation with classes being online.

Iowa’s Andrew Fierke swims the men’s 200 yard freestyle event during their meet at the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center in Iowa City on Friday, February 7, 2020. (Stephen Mally/hawkeyesports.com)

“While I do wish there was a way to undo this decision, I really need to focus on being a good teammate and continue improving myself in swimming and in school during this time. I realize that there are loyal alumni and parents working very hard to spread awareness, and I am so thankful for their support of the current Iowa swimmers and divers.”

Fierke, who was a part of the school’s record-breaking 800 freestyle relay as an underclassman, is still trying to process the news, the fallout and the aftermath — much like Hartley.

“I guess my biggest emotion is still anger,” Fierke said. “This is a 100-plus year old program. It’s done so much for the university. We’re frustrated. We feel betrayed. And we still don’t really have a direct answer to the question, ‘why?'”

The Big Ten Conference is currently not participating in a fall athletic season due to the pandemic. Without football revenue to support the athletic department’s respective budgets, institutions across the midwest are facing difficult choices and painful cuts in an attempt to weather the storm and balance the books.

Schools are scrambling to manage the crisis in their own respective ways. Iowa’s decree to abolish four sports came two months after it had announced $15 million in budget reductions within the athletic department.

Hartley and Fierke were told to attend a meeting organized by UI officials, and although neither were anticipating good news, total program elimination seemed unfathomable — until it wasn’t.

“When my teammates and I walked down the stairs at Carver to see the administrators standing at the entrance of the gym where the mandatory meeting for men’s tennis, men’s gymnastics, and men’s and women’s swimming and diving was to be held, I think most of us knew it wasn’t good,” said Hartley, a human physiology major. “We were told that we would get to participate in our sports for one more season, if COVID allowed, and then our sports would be discontinued at Iowa. The whole situation seemed a bit bizarre: a room of nearly 100 athletes, all wearing masks, all sitting in folding chairs spaced six feet apart, hearing this horrible news. It was devastating.

“This was the first time I had seen my coaches and most of my teammates since March, and I was now being forced to realize that this was the last season they would actually be my coaches and teammates. When the athletes from the two other sports and the administration left the room, the coaches addressed us and expressed their anger, frustration, and sadness. I think the general feelings in the room were confusion and devastation; no one understood why it had to be us. The thought that swimming and diving at Iowa would cease to exist was unbelievable at first.”

Fierke added an announcement along these lines would’ve been “absolutely crazy” six months ago. Now, it’s reality.

“We got a notification (about the meeting) about an hour before it was happening, and the coaches didn’t even know (about the program elimination) until that day,” said Fierke, a mechanical engineering major. “It caught everyone off guard. And we really didn’t receive any information or explanation, beyond the fact that there just wasn’t enough money.”

Barta said in a recent press conference that the school will save “north of $5 million annually” with the four programs off the books. Iowa became the fifth Div. I institution this offseason to cut swimming and diving, joining non-Power Five schools East Carolina, Connecticut, Boise State and Dartmouth.

Thirty Hawkeye swimmers all-time have qualified for the Olympics. The university’s natatorium — a crown jewel for Iowa’s $69 million Campus Recreation and Wellness Center — is less than 10 years old, and just last June, a $5-6 million project was announced to focus on replacements and upgrades. The school is still scheduled — as of now — to host the 2021 NCAA Div. I men’s swimming and diving championships. Those plans will likely change, which will cost the Iowa City community an estimated $1.5 million in direct economic impact according to Greg Earhart, executive director of the College Swimming and Diving Coaches Association.

“Most people are confused about the swim and dive team being cut, and I think a huge reason for this confusion is that we have a beautiful facility, which is set to hold the 2021 Men’s NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships,” said Hartley, the daughter of Fort Dodge’s Bruce and Tracy Hartley. “It’s so strange to me to think about our locker rooms and newly-furnished team room — a favorite study and hangout spot for athletes — sitting empty and unused.”

Fierke called the idea of potentially competing in his home pool at the NCAA Championships “a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

“That could be taken away (between now and March),” Fierke conceded. “We were all really excited about that possibility, obviously. When you combine the history and tradition of the program with our current facility and reputation throughout both the Big Ten and the entire country…

“This just doesn’t make sense.”

Hartley isn’t planning on transferring to use her final season of eligibility, but understands why others would.

“Ever since hearing the news, my coaches have made it clear that they would be supportive of every athlete on the team and help with our journeys moving forward, whether we decide to transfer or stay at Iowa,” Hartley said. “They have emphasized that we are going to make the most of our last season together as Iowa swimmers.

“I will not be transferring to compete elsewhere. On top of my experience with the swim team, I have become involved in other activities in the Iowa City area that I truly enjoy, such as volunteering at a food pantry and working a part-time job as a waitress. Although it was not the ideal way for my swim career to end, I am going to enjoy my last season as an Iowa swimmer and carry all the memories and lessons forward into my life.”

Fierke is focusing on the here and now rather than addressing the transfer portal.

“I’ve given it some thought, but not full attention,” said Fierke, the son of Fort Dodge’s David and Melanie Fierke. “I’m concentrating on my current schoolwork and doing whatever I can to both make the most of this season and try to save the program.

“We don’t want to give up hope. (Hawkeye swimming) is a family, and we’re in this together. So many people have been contacted, and alumni have been actively involved. We’re going to keep fighting.”

A “Save Hawkeye Sports” Facebook page has been established to support the four affected programs.

Hartley added that “even if I completely understood all the numbers and reasoning behind this decision, a part of me would always take it personally.”

“My teammates and I, as well as the athletes from the other sports cut, have spent most, if not all, of our young lives dedicated to our sport, just to get to the place we are now,” Hartley said. “And now participating in the sport we love at the school we love is no longer a possibility, which is always going to hurt, no matter the reason behind the decision.

“I would say my biggest takeaway from this situation is to always be thankful for what you have. I am extremely honored to have had the opportunity to wear the tiger hawk and represent the University of Iowa in the pool. I would not trade the friendships I’ve made or the experiences I’ve had on this team for anything, and I’m just so grateful to have been a part of a program so rich in history and Hawkeye pride.”

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