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Underclassmen UB swimmers and divers face financial and academic dilemma one month after team is abruptly cut

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After Zach Towers tore his meniscus this past fall, he couldn’t walk for two months.

He worked his way through physical therapy all year. On March 27, his doctor gave him the news he was waiting for: He could finally get back into the pool.

But just one week later, he received more unexpected news when he found out UB’s men’s swimming and diving team was one of four teams cut from UB Athletics, effective at the end of the spring semester.

“I was just getting back in a good place mentally and physically and now I got my team taken away from me which is a really big part of my life,” Towers said. “I’ve had little to no motivation to do just about anything… Me being into my studies, that kind of stuff isn’t really happening.”

Richard Lydecker, a UB swimming and diving alum and attorney, is representing Towers and five other swimmers pro bono. On Tuesday, Lydecker filed demands for payment against the university on behalf of those six students, and they are all hoping the school will compensate them so they can continue swimming without putting themselves and their parents in a financial hole.

“I think it is so wrong that the administration would treat such a large group of kids, vulnerable kids, to treat them this way and literally throw many of their swimming or diving careers out the window,” Lydecker said.

UB has said it will honor any scholarships it already gave out to members of the four teams cut. But for many swimmers, that doesn’t make up for everything else they are losing.

Towers began swimming before he could walk. His whole life, he dreamed of being a Division-I swimmer. Since there is no real professional swimming league besides the Olympics, he says Division-I swimming is the pinnacle of competition for most swimmers.

Towers, who has three years of eligibility remaining, is not sure if he will ever swim competitively again. 

He has options to transfer to schools such as University of Cincinnati, but since most schools had given out most academic and athletic scholarships by the time the announcement was made on April 3, he will be forced to pay anywhere from $40,000-$60,000 more than he would have at UB over the next three years to continue swimming. On top of that, he was given only a few weeks to research schools and make a decision. 

“The fact that UB’s hiding behind the idea that we can keep our scholarship if we stop swimming here, that really isn’t fair to us because we came here for a reason, expecting the university to honor our commitment for four years, we signed off on that, they knew they signed off on that,” said Joey Puglessi, a freshman swimmer. “By saying you can stay here, quit swimming and keep your scholarship, we’re losing everything else so that’s really not fair to us.”

Although swimmers understand that the decision was financial, most have a problem with Athletics’ abrupt announcement. Joel Shinofield, executive director of the College Swimmers Coaches Association of America, says most schools give at least a two-year phase-out period when cutting a team. At the very least, swimmers think the school could have announced the cuts sooner, when more schools still had scholarship money and roster sports left.

Carson Burt, a high school senior, committed to UB in October as soon as he received an offer. Burt immediately cut off communications with other schools he was considering, such as West Virginia and Kentucky, once he made his commitment. When he found out the team had been cut six months later, he was at a national swim meet.

“My coach pulled me out of the water because he wanted to make sure I heard the right way and not from chatter from other people,” Burt said. “We had an emotional moment for about an hour and a half where we were kind of like dumbfounded by the whole situation, it was like my future that I saw myself going into had fallen apart within 30 seconds and I had no idea how to react.”

Burt, who has Ohio residency, was told by his parents they could only afford to send him to an in-state school. Most swim programs already had full rosters and had used all their scholarship money by the time the athletes were told the teams would be cut. He has now committed to Ohio State University to swim, where he will pay $15,000 more per year than he would have at UB. That’s a $60,000 increase over the course of his college career.

“At this point in the season, there was no way any school was gonna have money for you,” Bust said. “It really left us in a situation where we couldn’t get any scholarship to any school except small things like books and stuff like that… The whole situation left everyone in a big hole and looking for money was impossible.”

Two other swimmers Lydecker is representing, freshmen roommates Puglessi and Luke Gordon, hope the school will pay for the costs they will incur from transferring. Gordon turned down offers from Boston University and RPI only a year ago to come to UB. Puglessi turned down offers from schools in major conferences like the University of Pittsburgh and Minnesota. 

Puglessi says academic and athletic scholarships covered over 80 percent of his expenses at UB.

 “I wanted to swim at a Big-10 school but I sat down with my parents and realized that isn’t really the point, you gotta find a good package financially, academically and somewhere you’re gonna fit athletically,” Puglessi said. “Not many kids can say they found the perfect package overall, but here I felt like I did.”

Puglessi has now committed to Cincinnati University and estimates he will pay $13,306 more than he would have at UB next year alone, and he still has three years of eligibility left. Gordon has committed to UMASS, where he will pay nearly full out of state tuition, costing him an extra $51,000-$55,000 over the next three years.

Gordon, who is an engineering major, said he had a difficult time finding a school that was both an academic and athletic fit for him in a matter of only a couple of weeks.

“I’d find great engineering schools but the swim team was either like here – cut in year’s past or just not good enough to make it worth transferring,” Gordon said. “And a number of places such as Cincinnati, I was considering and they were no longer accepting students into the school of engineering, so that took away other options, so it really narrowed it down for me.”

Additionally, Gordon’s brother Ryan transferred into UB from Indiana University last fall so he could swim with his brother at their mother’s alma mater.

Gordon says the UMASS application was due on April 15, only 12 days after he found out he would need to transfer. Gordon had to spend multiple weekends visiting other schools, which included missing Friday classes. This was especially tough, since Gordon has four classes on Friday’s.

Puglessi and Gordon both say they had academic scholarships at UB and that most schools would not give academic aid to transfer students at this point in the year. Both athletes say they gave serious thought to ending their swimming careers when the cuts were announced, even though both have been swimming for over 10 years and worked out for hours every day in high school to fulfill their dreams of being college swimmers.

“People say ‘don’t worry about the money everything’s gonna work out,’ but a lot of the people that say that have never been in this position where we’re on the verge of losing 10s of thousands of dollars,” Puglessi said. “As much as people say ‘it’s all gonna work out, you’ll be fine, ignore the financial aspects,’ it’s just too big to ignore. [Not swimming anymore] definitely crossed my mind, academically I’m doing really well here, financially I’m very comfortable, at first it seemed like ‘I’ll give it up just to help my parents avoid taking out loans.” 

Towers says he is considering staying at UB for a year to continue training and seek out a better situation next year, but he thinks it’s unlikely since he’s not sure who he would train with. He is used to training with a coach and team to push him, now he would be forced to train alone or pay someone to help him. 

“I worked my whole life to get to this point and I now I may not be able to continue my career, and it’s not even my fault,” Towers said. “It’s somebody else telling me my career is over or could be over if I don’t find somewhere else and pay out my ass.”

Michael Akelson is the senior sports editor and can be reached at michael.akelson@ubspectrum.com


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