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Wednesday, August 30, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Hedges' reversal saves swimming

Seattle Times staff reporter

As abruptly as the decision was made to cut the swimming program at the University of Washington a month ago, the decision was changed yesterday.

Athletic Director Barbara Hedges announced that men and women's varsity swimming would not be dropped after the 2000-01 season as earlier planned. Hedges said she reversed her decision because of an outpouring of mail and phone calls, plus concern in the media about discontinuing the sport.

The emergence of partners to help build a new pool, which will make the program more competitive nationally, was also a major factor, she said.

Dropping swimming "was a good decision at the time, because I didn't feel that there was hope to build a new facility to have a program that we want to have," Hedges said. "Now I feel there's hope."

Hope came in the form of Pacific Northwest Swimming, a division of U.S. Swimming. The organization agreed to work with the university in its already year-old plans to build a 50-meter training complex near the university. The complex will be comparable to the King County Aquatic Center in Federal Way.

Hope also came from alumni, who came together to show there was community support for swimming in Seattle, something Hedges didn't think existed.

"In the last month, I've heard from a lot of people," Hedges said. "There was a lot of passion, and it was the passionate people I listened to the most."

She received dozens of electronic-mail messages questioning how she could cut a sport just because Husky Pool, built in 1937, was outdated. That pool has six 25-yard lanes and no diving well. Most programs in the Pac-10 have 50-meter lanes and a diving unit.

Hedges said she will gather a task force to look into building a pool. Estimated costs are $15 million-$20 million. Where the funding would come from, where the pool would be built and what it would include are things the task force would decide.

The process is going to be slow, however.

Hedges plans to take her time forming the task force and didn't place a deadline on when the new pool would be built. So it seems the program bought itself some time.

UW swim coach Mickey Wender said, "We're just very excited that we've been given this opportunity to continue to move the swimming program in the direction that we started the past couple of years. We're excited mostly about all of the support from the alumni and community."

Alumni viewed as ironic that Hedges' original elimination of the program, because "its facility gave it no hope of competing nationally," came only weeks before 11 Husky swimmers traveled to the U.S. Olympic trials in Indianapolis. And high-school star Megan Quann, whose brother is an incoming freshman on the UW swim team, qualified for the Olympics.

But Hedges' focus wasn't the Olympics. She looked at how the university hadn't placed above sixth in men or women's team standings at the Pac-10 championships in decades. Yet, the top-five team placers in the conference are also top-10 placers in the NCAA championships. Plus, the UW program was returning to its 1970s stature, when it had Olympians and national champions.

In Wender's two seasons heading the program, his team has broken 22 school records and qualified 11 swimmers for the Olympic trials. He had 17 incoming freshman, including a few state high-school champions.

After the original announcement in July, Wender was helping some swimmers transfer to other colleges. When he left for vacation Sunday, many still hadn't decided what they were going to do. Three had already transferred, including Jenny Cray, who advanced to the Olympic trials.

Cray, a sophomore, is now at the University of Texas.

"This is so scary, because I made my decision so quick," Cray said. "When my parents told me Washington had the program back, I thought it was a bad joke. I don't know how to feel. One minute they don't want you, and then they're saying come back. Here (in Austin), there's so much support from the athletic department and an awesome facility. . . . I've never experienced that in my life."

Sophomore Brendan Bray is scheduled to swim at Utah, and New Mexico native Sarah Ross, a top distance swimmer, decided to attend New Mexico State.

Wender was looking for employment, interviewing at Michigan State last week, with the thought that he would be out of a job after next season. His team starts practice Sept. 11.

"It's nice to know there's more stability," he said yesterday. "Now the rally of support to get this pool built is a condition that must be met as soon as possible."

If Washington had cut the program, it would have been the first time a women's program was dropped from a university since Brown discontinued volleyball and gymnastics in 1992. The school later was sued by nine female athletes.

Legal counseling was sought in the Washington case, but in favor of both the men's and women's programs. And since swimming has been reinstated, no legal action will be taken, said Catherine Clark, a lawyer with Williams & Williams in Kenmore and a former Husky swimmer.

She helped organize a meeting last Thursday with about 30 people associated with Washington swimming to see how they could save the program. The group wrote letters to Hedges and received responses to their concerns.

"Boy, we got goal No. 1 met fast!" Clark said of the primary focus to bring back varsity swimming. "Now I feel like a 9-year-old kid. We have the team back! Oh, I screamed in sheer joy for five minutes, and everyone was looking at me!

"This is the right decision, and I speak for the entire alumni association when I say we are thrilled, tickled pink and so appreciative of Barbara Hedges. And let me repeat that 400 times."

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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