Former Olympic swimmers lobby Michigan State trustees to reinstate swim, dive team

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Former Olympic swimmers who were part of Michigan State University's swim team pleaded with university trustees Friday to reinstate the university's swim and dive team. 

The pleas during public comment at the virtual Board of Trustees meeting come months after the university, in October 2020, announced the end of the program for financial and infrastructure reasons and a lack of success in competition.

The decision has been met with opposition from a group called "Battle for Michigan State Swimming and Diving" as well as legal action in federal court seeking to keep the program in place. 

Trustees thanked the athletes for their testimony, but MSU President Samuel Stanley declined to say too much about the program because of the ongoing litigation. 

"The program is closed," he told media after the meeting. "They’re not recruiting new students. They’re not swimming next year.”

Michigan State plans to eliminate men's and women's swimming and diving at season's end.

Marilyn Corson Whitney, a student at MSU in the early 1970s, participated in the Mexico City and Munich Olympics representing Canada and practiced in MSU's pool before the university even had a women's swim team. In 1971 and 1972, Whitney said she practiced with the MSU men's team in the morning and the women's club in the afternoon in order to get enough time in the pool.

Her commitment to swimming yielded more than Olympic meets or honors, she said. It also taught her independence, persistence and perseverance. 

"Swimming four hours a day made me structure my life at MSU," Whitney said. "This has allowed me to flourish in the complexities of owning my own business, teaching part-time and volunteering for my profession. Swimming at MSU taught me that.”

Sidney Appelboom, a Belgian swimmer and 1989 captain of the MSU swim and dive team, participated in the 1988 Seoul Olympics and plans to be present in Tokyo as an athlete, coach and commentator. 

MSU's swim program produced more than just Olympic hopefuls, he said. His former swim team went on to become doctors, professionals and "captains in industry."

"There are many successful people around the swimming program. Please consider reaching out to the alumni, see what’s wrong," he said, noting there had to be a solution to financial or recruiting woes. 

Michael Green, an MSU alumnus who also participated in the 1988 Olympics on Great Britain's swim team, said the university could make swimming viable again if it would commit to the investment it takes. 

"Since I left Michigan State in the '80s, Michigan State has invested in other sports," he said. "They’ve built new stadiums, fields, courts to improve their competitiveness. Yet, the swim team still swims in a pool built in the 1950s.”

Jorge Gonzalez, a Cuba native and MSU alumnus, competed in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics on behalf of Puerto Rico and swam at MSU between 1967 and 1971. He said he owed his success not only to swimming but to the help it gave him to pursue an MSU economics degree and a lifelong career in banking and business. 

"Had it not been for them I would have probably not gone to college and I’d be digging ditches in Puerto Rico some place," Gonzalez said. 

Last month, the U.S. departments of Education and Justice filed an amicus brief in the athletes' case against MSU in the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that the MSU women's swimming team should have been granted a preliminary injunction to keep the team together pending the outcome of the case. 

The departments argued a lower court should have used a different set of test to determine whether the university's decision to end the team violated Title IX laws by eliminating the women's program. 

The university has maintained it did not violate any Title IX policies with the decision.