'We are still here': Dumped by MSU, swimmers join the club team, win national championship

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

The now-defunct Michigan State swimming and diving programs have delivered their pitch for reinstatement at several Board of Trustees meetings and in several court filings.

This weekend, several swimmers sent a message from the pool.

The Michigan State Swim Club, which in the year welcomed more than a dozen members of the men's and women's swimming programs that the university eliminated as official varsity sports, won the 2022 College Club Swimming national championship Sunday in Atlanta.

Michigan State junior swimmer Travis Nitkiewicz competes at the club national championships over the weekend in Atlanta.

Michigan State claimed 20 individual national championships, including six titles by juniors Travis Nitkiewicz and Kasey Venn, five for sophomore Stephan Freitag and four for sophomore Sydney Kelly. All four were members of the swimming and diving programs which were cut in October 2020 by a university claiming financial issues amid a pandemic, as well as infrastructure issues. 

Michigan State completed its final season of swimming and diving in the spring of 2021.

"I hope that this would send a message to the university that we are obviously still here, and we are still in competition form," said Nitkiewicz, who came to Michigan State out of Northville High. "We are ready to resume at the varsity level as soon as they are.

'"If we can do this without varsity-level training and a much different level of equipment and facilities, what could do with this same group at the varsity level?"

Nitkiewicz joined the MSU swim club last fall with a few others, and several others joined in January.

MSU's swim club won national championships in the following disciplines: 400 IM (Kelly), 200 butterfly (Kelly), 200 breaststroke (Venn), 200 breaststroke (Nitkiewicz), 200 medley relay (Evan Stanislaw, Nitkiewicz, Freitag, Kirk Maibach), 50 butterfly (Venn), 200 IM (Nitkiewicz), 50 freestyle (Sheridan Phalen), 100 breaststroke (Venn), 100 breaststroke (Nitkiewicz), 200 freestyle (Kelly), 1000 freestyle (Sophia Balow), 200 freestyle relay (Phalen, Balow, Venn, Kelly), 200 freestyle relay (Stanislaw, Nitkiewicz, Freitag, Maibach), 100 butterfly (Freitag), 50 breaststroke (Anne-Kathrin Bucher), 50 breaststroke (Nitkiewicz), 100 IM (Venn), 100 IM (Freitag) and co-ed 200 freestyle relay (Stanislaw, Freitag, Venn, Phalen).

In team competition, which is combined for men and women, Michigan State edged runner-up Virginia.

“We are incredibly proud of these student-athletes who continued training despite the challenge put in front of them by President (Samuel L.) Stanley with the cutting of the varsity program,“ said Tom Munley, an MSU swimming alum and member of the advocacy group, Battle for Spartan Swim and Dive.

“We are not at all surprised by their success, and we hope that this national championship receives the same recognition as the water polo team got from the trustees and President Stanley.

"With that being said, recognition alone is not enough. We believe this demonstrated competitiveness adds another reason to reinstate both programs at the next Board of Trustees meeting.”

In October 2020, then-Michigan State athletic director Bill Beekman announced the cuts in an effort to save more than $2 million a year for an athletic department that, like so many others across the country, was scrambling to address financial concerns early in the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 100 programs were eliminated across the nation in 2020, though some were reinstated amid challenges and improved finances.

Michigan State swim club members, from left, Sydney Kelly, Kasey Venn, Pruitt Walther and Sophia Balow.

The financial picture had improved significantly by early 2021 — Michigan State's athletics budget is well over $100 million — and Beekman said publicly he was open to ideas about possibly salvaging the program. But he stepped down in August and was replaced by longtime athletic department official Alan Haller. Haller hasn't met with the advocacy group, and has repeatedly deferred to Stanley on the swimming and diving situation. Stanley has said he has no plans to reinstate the programs to varsity status.

The women's program has taken its case to court, and in February scored one legal victory when an appeals court shut down a lower court's decision to deny a preliminary injunction. The women's program, claiming MSU violated Title IX rules, has more hope of being saved than the men's program. A judge has ordered Haller to sit for a deposition but has said Stanley doesn't have to sit for one.

In announcing the cuts in October 2020, MSU said it would honor scholarships — 24 spread out over 59 athletes — for those who chose to stay and finish their degree at Michigan State. Nitkiewicz stayed.

"I wanted to go to Michigan State, not just for swimming but because it was Michigan State; the people, the campus, I just liked the environment and the togetherness of the student body," said Nitkiewicz, 20, adding that the varsity swimmers were welcomed with open arms by the club team.

"They took away swimming, but in recruiting, they call it the broken leg test — if you could never swim again, would you be happy here? And the answer to that is yes. I'm glad I chose to stay."

The Battle for Spartan Swim and Dive, which said it has secured over $10 million fundraising commitments to help restore the program and pay for future scholarships, has sent nearly 50 speakers to Board of Trustees meetings, and plans more to be in attendance for the April 22 meeting. Balow's father, Michael, has launched a campaign for a Board of Trustees seat, spurred by the saga over swimming and diving.

One other Division I school in Michigan cut a sport amid the pandemic, with Central Michigan eliminating men's indoor and outdoor track and field. CMU has since added men's golf, which is set to start in 2022-23.

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tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984