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Splashdown: How UW swimming grew and then became history

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Erez Fern

In the final season of the UW swim team's existence, Erez Fern swims the butterfly. On May 1, 2009, Fern and the rest of his teammates learned the swim team would be cut.

Over 11 years since the University of Washington men’s and women’s swim teams were cut, all hopes of the sport returning to Montlake have been dashed with the announcement of a new basketball training facility located on the current site of the Pavilion Pool.

The Washington swim team has had a long history of success, producing seven Olympic athletes, finishing top-five at the NCAA Championships multiple times, and cycling through only five coaches in its nearly eight-decade history. While the team was always able to sustain a bit of success, a crippling athletic budget forced the team to adapt to the circumstances throughout its history, especially as it became clear the team was going to be cut following a winless 2008 football season.

With the Pavilion Pool sitting empty before it is finally torn down later next year, it’s time to take a look back at some of the highs and lows of the UW swim team over the years.

1930s: Foundings/Origins of the swim team

In spite of the Great Depression crippling the country throughout the 1930s, the sport of swimming was on an upward trend on the West Coast of the United States.

One of the main faces who helped swimming to grow in popularity was Washington native — and UW tennis coach — Jack Torney.

In 1932, Torney became the first head coach of the UW men’s swim team. Under Torney, the Washington swim team produced outstanding athletes as early as its third season when Jack Medica won three races at the 1934 NCAA championships. Medica swept three distance races and set new NCAA records in the 220-yard, 440-yard, and 1500-meter freestyle.

Emilie Jennings

Sophomore Emilie Jennings adjusts her goggles during a Jan. 17, 2009 meet against Minnesota.

Medica would defend his title in all three races in 1935 and ‘36, earning him a spot in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where he earned a silver medal in the 1500-meter freestyle and gold in the 400-meter free.

Following the early dominance of Medica, a new facility was constructed, with the Pavilion Pool opening just north of newly-built Husky Stadium in 1938. The facility later hosted the NCAA championships in 1947 and again in 1961.

Although the team’s success in the pool wasn’t great following the departure of Medica, Torney served as the president of the College Swimming Coaches Association of America for the 1949-50 season and later the editor of the Official NCAA Swimming Guide from 1958-61.

Torney retired from coaching in 1962 but his legacy lived on and in 1981, he was inducted to the Husky Hall of Fame.

1960s: Post-Torney era

Swimming across the Pacific Northwest had begun to take off, with the founding of many local swim clubs. One of those local club coaches became the new Washington head coach: John Tallman.

Hired in 1962, Tallman was able to recruit talented high schoolers, including local breaststroke standout Rick Colella.

“Before I started there, they were mostly local,” Colella said. “There hadn’t been too many swimmers from outside the local area. Most of the swimmers in ‘67, ‘68 were Cascade [Swim Club] and Tacoma Swim Club swimmers.

“We had such a great swim program in the northwest at that time. We got kids from Tacoma Swim Club and [Woodrow] Wilson High School, they were always winning the state championship.”

The year before Rick arrived at the UW, the Colella’s already had a presence at the school, as his sister Lynn had joined the school the year prior. While women’s swimming was not an official NCAA sport at the time, using its own governing body, the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, Lynn trained with the men’s team throughout her time at the UW.

During Lynn’s first year at the UW, Tallman brought in local high school swim coach Earl Ellis as an assistant, who would become his successor a year later.

1970s: Ellis and the heyday of Washington swimming

While the early years of Husky swimming were highlighted by Medica’s success, the prime of Husky swimming came in the 1970s under Ellis.

In 1972, both Colella siblings competed in the Munich Olympics where Lynn earned a silver medal in the 200-meter butterfly and Rick finished fourth in the 200-meter breaststroke.

Due to its success on the international stage, the Huskies began to draw the eyes of recruits outside of the Seattle area. Ellis’ early recruiting success came in Sacramento, California, with the Arden Hills Swim Club, home of many of the nation’s best swimmers, including two young Olympic swimmers in Rick DeMont and Doug Northway.

“They were all distance swimmers, especially DeMont and Northway,” Rick said. “When they saw the program at Washington they were excited by that because of Earl’s program of running that kind of distance and high-intensity training was something that the top swimmers were into back then.”

At the Munich Olympics, DeMont had finished first in the 400-meter freestyle, but his gold medal was stripped after testing positive for a banned substance following the race. The following summer, he staked his claim as the world’s best distance freestyler, becoming the first person to finish the 400 free in under four minutes.

At the Munich Games, Northway won bronze in the 1500-meter freestyle, and the Huskies’ third Olympic recruit, Robin Backhaus, finished third in the 200-meter butterfly.

“I can remember getting the phone call at my parents’ house that all three of them were coming to Washington,” Rick said. “I was graduating and I wasn’t going to be there the next year but it was just so exciting to think we had successfully recruited all those people.”

With five Olympians within its swimming program in just a three-year span, the Huskies were suddenly a contender on the collegiate level.

“We were starting to come on at that time and challenge them,” Rick said. “That was kind of fun to have those kinds of meets where we were challenging those schools like Stanford and USC, always kind of being the underdog. It’s kind of fun when you’re the underdog and coming up.”

The Huskies met high expectations head-on, finishing fifth at the NCAA championships in 1974 and fourth the following season, the highest finish in program history.

Then things fell apart for the Huskies, although it wasn’t entirely their fault.

Without a football bowl appearance in over a decade, the Washington Athletic Department was experiencing some budgetary constraints. To save money, one of the first sports to be stripped of its scholarships was the swim team, and swimmers like Backhaus, DeMont, and Northway transferred away from the UW to other programs.

In spite of the loss of its star swimmers and a shortage in scholarships, Washington was able to sustain its presence on the collegiate level, sending swimmers to the NCAA championships for each of the four years following.

1980s: An era of glamour

Despite never returning to the level of success it reached in the 70s, Washington swimming remained appealing to those all around the country.

“I was 8-years-old when I decided to go to University,” former UW swimmer Cat Clark said. “I watched from Yakima the 1972 summer Olympics and all of the best swimmers from the United States were swimming at Washington.”

Beginning in 1982, the NCAA added women’s swimming as a sanctioned sport, opening the door for female athletes to compete at a bigger stage than in the past.

Washington would send women swimmers to the NCAA championships five times before Ellis retired following the 1998 season, with its highest finish coming in 1985 when they finished 22nd.

The men’s team also sent swimmers to the NCAA championships five more times following its run in the 70s, but could not recapture the top-five finishes from ‘74 and ‘75. The highest finish for the men before Ellis retired was a 26th place finish in 1991.

Although its success wasn’t close to what Clark witnessed during her childhood, the Washington swim team under Ellis was more than just the results in the water.

“I think I would call the decision to go to the University of Washington and be a student-athlete at the UW as ‘the root decision of my life,’” Clark said. “From that choice has flowed so many great blessings and wonderful adventures and people. When I reflect on my life at 56 and ‘what was one of those determining things that I did?’ singularly the root choice was to go to the University of Washington.”

2000s: Revival and disbandment

Following the 1998 season, Ellis retired after 30 years of coaching at the UW.

An aging aquatics facility and the loss of its legendary coach put the future of Husky swimming in a bind. Without any major upgrades in six decades, the Pavilion Pool was no longer just vintage, it was actually putting the Huskies at a competitive disadvantage.

Jessica Buchanan

Jessica Buchanan swims the breastroke in the 2008 season against WSU. Buchanan was a member of the UW swim team under coach Whitney Hite.

Unlike most collegiate aquatic facilities that have a diving tank and different sized pools for national and international competition, the Pavilion Pool was an outdated 25-yard, six-lane pool. The Huskies had no dive team, had fewer lanes than regulation, and were forced to host their meets down at King County Aquatics Center, in Federal Way.

In the summer of 2000, then-athletic director Barbara Hedges told head coach Mickey Wender that the sport would be cut following the 2001 season, a shock to Wender, whose team had been improving since his arrival.

As it prepared for its last season, public backlash from UW alumni and the swimming community forced university officials to reassess, allowing the program to continue.

“I felt like swimming, in particular, was part of such a solid network and community,” Wender said. “I just remember a lot of support, a lot of people that really cared about the program. Great kids that we got to coach and be around. I feel really fortunate to have spent eight wonderful years in Seattle.”

Wender went on to guide the Huskies squad to a 154-58 dual meet record during his eight-year tenure, despite starting every meet 32 points behind due to the lack of a diving team. In 2003, the women’s team placed 19th at nationals, its highest finish in 25 years of NCAA competition.

After the 2006 season, Wender accepted a job at Colorado Mesa and Washington was left looking for yet another coach.

With Wender gone and the football team once again struggling, the swim team’s future was hanging in the balance. The athletic department yet again had to sell its tight budget and lack of an adequate facility to a new coach, settling on Whitney Hite, an assistant coach from California.

“I believe the reason I was hired is that ‘we’ve got some young guy, he’s gonna fail, and we’ve got an out,’” Hite said. “And then all of a sudden I didn’t fail and the team was better than they had ever been.”

Instead, the women had their best performance at the NCAA championships in school history in 2008, finishing 12th behind future Olympian Ariana Kukors. At the meet she had three top-four finishes, including her silver medal in the 200-yard individual medley.

Following the 2008 season, which was their best in over 30 years, the swim team was gearing up to do it again the following year, but the winless football team the year prior put a huge strain on the athletic budget.

Although the swim team was improving, and the team-GPA was one of the best at the school, the need for a new facility made cutting swimming an obvious choice to help clean up the mess from the football team’s struggles.

Newly-hired athletic director Scott Woodward began talking with Hite about the budget, telling him that so long as the team keeps up its performance in the pool and in the classroom, it should be fine. But the concern of the team being cut loomed in the head of the coaches and spilled over to university officials.

“One of my assistants asked him [Woodward], ‘Are you going to cut the program?’ Hite said. “And I was like, ‘Why would you ask that? Like c’mon, why put that in his head?’ 

“[Woodward] said, ‘Absolutely not, you guys are one of the best programs on campus, I don’t have any plans to cut the swim program.’ And less than four months later he did just that.”

Two months after wrapping up one of its finest seasons in school history, Woodward set up yet another meeting with Hite, this time to tell him that the team would be no more.

“I said, ‘This is a decision that is forever. You make this decision and there’s no turning back,’” Hite said. “I said, ‘the football team will be better, the basketball team will be better,’ but it was a done deal.”

Woodward brought the team into the Conibear Shellhouse for a meeting. While Hite knew what he was about to say, members of the team had no idea what was going on behind the scenes.

“May 1, it was a Friday, and Scott Woodward walked in,” Hite said. “He said something about the financial hardships and because the football team isn’t doing well and the economy, that they were going to discontinue the swim team. And then he left. He was literally in the room for maybe two minutes. And that was that.”

The athletic department said that they would need $40 million to keep the swim team afloat and build a new aquatics facility.

Now, the Pavilion Pool is used for recreational activities by the UW IMA, but due to the current pandemic and without the hopes of a swim team returning, the Pavilion Pool sits empty, waiting to be replaced by a shiny new facility.

It just won’t be a pool.

Eleven years after announcing its swim team would be no longer due to budgetary constraints, the UW has approved a new $60 million basketball training facility, sitting right where the Pavilion Pool is currently located. Construction on the new basketball facility is expected to begin next year, but first, the Pavilion Pool must go down.

And when it does, all hopes of swimming returning to the University of Washington will go down with it.

Reach reporter Anthony Edwards at Twitter: @edwardsanthonyb

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