Editor’s note: Three years ago, four sports were discontinued. While most of those 153 athletes are long gone, a handful of seniors remain. We caught up with them — and seniors who transferred schools — before the last directly affected class graduates.
Josef Stitts was 8 years old when his older sister brought home an Olympic gold medal. After that, his chief goal in life became to get to the Olympics and make his family of swimmers proud.
Everything seemed to be in place. He had already been swimming competitively since the age of 4. He went undefeated in high school and was recruited to swim at UC Davis — a Division 1 school. In his first quarter as a college athlete, he was swimming 20 hours a week and still made the Dean’s List. He fell in love with the university and the town. He got a scholarship. He was having a great season. He was even getting faster.
Then April 16, 2010 happened. Citing a financial crisis, UC Davis dropped the hammer on four sports — men’s swimming and diving, men’s wrestling, men’s indoor track and field, and women’s rowing. Suddenly Stitts had no team.
“Everything I believed in was taken away from me,” he said.
Stitts was biking all over campus trying to find his coach to confirm the rumors. Others were huddled outside the conference room waiting for officials to utter the news. Others were hanging out in the dorms, unaware of what was happening until they received a startling text message.
“People were already emotional. But when the announcement came, it was a total, complete breakdown,” said Geneva Azevedo, managerial economics major and former rower.
In February of that year, Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi set out to cut $36 million campuswide for 2010-11. The athletic cuts amounted to $2.4 million in savings and directly affected 73 female student-athletes and 80 male student-athletes as well as the coaching staffs. Athletes who chose to stay at UC Davis were able to keep most of the perks, including their scholarships.
Azevedo, Stitts and other student-athletes were warned in advance that cuts were inevitably happening, and that their teams were on the chopping block. The exception was the wrestling team, who athletes say had been explicitly told that they were safe.
“We had no idea,” said Sean Dougherty, sociology major and former UC Davis wrestler. “It was devastating watching all these guys you’ve gotten so close to crying in a locker room.”
Athletes tended to use the same words to describe how they felt: in disbelief, betrayed, angry and most of all, defeated.
“Everyone went separate ways immediately. It was like shattered glass,” Stitts said. “I had friends drop out of college. Others turned to alcoholism.”
Just after the cuts were announced, athletes from all four sports rallied and protested while parents, alumni and community members persistently called administrators to no avail.
April 17 was Picnic Day, and athletes passed out fliers to students and visitors to raise awareness. For Stitts, the lack of support marked a major point of defeat.
“People actually said to me, ‘I’m glad the team was cut.’ That’s when it became a reality — I am not a student-athlete anymore. People don’t care. Fall in line.”
Some held onto hope that they could fundraise enough money to reinstate their teams. Hope was lost when they heard the numbers.
“It was a slap in the face to say we needed $10 million in four weeks. Obviously that wasn’t going to happen,” Stitts said.
Wrestlers remember being told to raise $14 million — $7 million for the men’s team and $7 million to endow a women’s team. The endowment would have been necessary to comply with Title IX, a law aimed at preventing sex-based discrimination in educational programs. On top of that, they say the university sold the wrestling mats without warning, eliminating the chance for a club team to form.
“It seemed like they were trying to get rid of us,” said Michael Nakagawa, an international relations and Japanese double-major and former wrestler. “It felt like a back-stab.”
University officials said they weren’t familiar enough with what happened to confirm or deny the athletes’ recollections about fundraising, or about the wrestling mats being sold off.
Melanie LaCava, a wildlife, fish and conservation biology major and a former rower, said some athletes gave up on their sports because they felt abandoned.
“We worked so hard fighting, and all that effort was completely lost,” she said. “We felt like children disowned by their parents.”
‘A life-changing decision’
With rosters at other universities filling up, athletes had to decide quickly whether or not to transfer schools. And then they had to scramble.
“It was a life-changing decision that no one could prepare for,” Dougherty said.
Dougherty transferred to a junior college in order to eventually transfer to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo — the only option in California to wrestle D-1 besides Stanford.
Conrad Snell, a business major and former UC Davis wrestler, left for the University of Wyoming but had trouble adjusting. It wasn’t what he expected, and he felt too far from his family, friends and even UC Davis, which to this day is still his favorite school. He transferred again, making another 1,000-mile move to San Francisco State University.
Jeremy Smith, economics major and former UC Davis swimmer, took a year to figure things out. His junior year, he joined a couple of other Aggies at UC San Diego.
Those who switched schools say they don’t regret their decisions. They had to adjust to new workouts and team dynamics and deal with unit transfers that ultimately set them behind academically — but at least they still have their sports.
Stitts ultimately chose to stay at UC Davis — the school he adored — and thereby end his swimming career. He started focusing on his art studio major, hoping his sport could be reinstated before he graduated.
“Leaving meant abandoning all hope of resurrecting. We thought that if we kept fighting, used logic, we’d get it back,” he said.
A club team emerges
Led by a passionate coach, women’s rowing successfully transitioned to club status.
“Rowing still had to have a presence on campus,” LaCava said.
Even still, some rowers transferred to other schools and others couldn’t afford to pay $600 per quarter to get the team started. Out of 73 rowers, nine returned to build a team from scratch.
“We knew that year would be awful. But we thought if we got through that first year, the team would survive,” LaCava said.
Now, rowing is an established club sport that LaCava is both amazed by and proud of.
The transition was difficult though, particularly without the ICA perks. The lack of funding meant no scholarships and little recruiting incentive. The lack of priority registration meant the team would have to practice at 5 a.m. to avoid class conflicts. And the lack of access to trainers and physical therapists proved perhaps most distressing to LaCava, who had to end her rowing career as a sophomore due to a back injury.
“It’s hard to say if I could still be rowing if I had access to those facilities,” she said. “I try not to think about it.”
The most frustrating part for many of the affected athletes — particularly the wrestlers and swimmers — is that they still don’t know why they were cut.
“The only answer we got was ‘budget cuts,’” Smith said about the swimming team. “It all seemed very shady to us. We wanted to know why it was our team that got cut over other teams.”
Administrators used a variety of criteria in the decision-making process, but potential financial savings and Title IX compliance were at the top of the list.
Affected athletes blame Title IX, the school’s allegiance to football and other high-profile sports, and the Chancellor and former Athletic Director Greg Warzecka themselves.
UC Davis was the last UC campus to have wrestling — the college sport has been getting cut all across the nation. Within the past five years, CSU Fullerton, CSU Bakersfield, University of Nebraska-Omaha, Portland State University, Duquesne University and other schools cut their wrestling teams. Boston University is ending its wrestling program after the 2013-14 season. Even the Executive Board of the International Olympic Committee recommended dropping wrestling from the 2020 summer Olympics.
“Wrestling’s an easy target. It’s not as popular in the public mind,” Snell says.
The sport that felt the cuts least was men’s indoor track and field. Indoor athletes could still compete in their same events during the outdoor season.
“It wasn’t too integral to our sport,” said Blake Asbill, a former indoor thrower who quit to focus on his studies in computer science. “But there was sadness for all the other teams who were left with nothing.”
Nakagawa considered transferring at first, but he couldn’t find a school where he could wrestle and still get an education comparable to UC Davis. He stayed and went through withdrawals until he discovered a passion for mixed martial arts. He’s now in his second year of training and plans to make it his career.
“A lot of us lost our spark until we found something else,” he says. “I feel very fortunate.”
Azevedo contacted the women’s diving coach and nabbed a spot on the team her sophomore year. Her past training as a gymnast served her well, and she’s grateful to still be a student-athlete.
Meanwhile, Stitts is enjoying his college experience in a way that would have been impossible had he continued swimming. He’s made academics a priority. He picked up gardening at the Experimental College. He’s stayed connected to the water through lifeguarding.
“It’s a new zest for living.”
For the most part, the student-athletes said they feel like the campus has forgotten about their sports. The majority of current undergraduates, after all, weren’t around when the cuts were made.
But the students themselves think about their old teams often and still stay in touch. LaCava and Azevedo are roommates and best friends, and rowers have gone to Azevedo’s diving meets to cheer her on. Dougherty and Snell regularly visit Davis for unofficial wrestling reunions — like Picnic Day this year. Snell remarked that, in his friend’s houses, he still sees “Save Wrestling” and “Support Athletics” posters hanging on the walls.
And despite all the feelings of defeat, some still believe their sports might be reinstated one day.
“It’s been repressed and beaten back, but I don’t think I’ve ever given up hope,” Stitts said.
JANELLE BITKER can be reached at email@example.com.