Group raises funds to save ECU swimming and diving teams

The school announced May 27 it was eliminating men’s and women’s programs in both tennis and swimming and diving

The East Carolina men's swimming and diving won the American Athletic Conference championship in February, but that didn't keep the school from eliminating both the men's and women's squads, along with both tennis teams, in an effort to make up for a budget shortfall. (Photo courtesy of East Carolina)

Lindsay Takkunen’s first reaction to the news that East Carolina was eliminating its swimming and diving teams was sadness.

Then her competitive nature set in and she decided to take action.

Upset over the decision and determined not to let the program that meant so much to her during her college career go under in a sea of red ink, the former Pirates swimmer has become the driving force behind a campaign to keep the team afloat.

It’s an effort that has raised more than a half-million dollars in just the three weeks since ECU announced its intention to cut both its swimming and tennis programs for men and women as a cost-cutting measure.

“We heard the announcement and I kind of said, ‘No, this can’t be it,’” said Takkunen, who swam freestyle sprint events under her maiden name Gardiner from 1998-2001.

“I swam with the current head coach Matt Jabs, we were on the team at the same time, so I gave him a call to say ‘I’m so sorry,’ and from that, I just got in touch with a few alumni and we started talking on a Facebook Messenger group. Before you knew it, we had 150-200 people on the thread. That’s how we came up with our leadership committee and from there we just started rocking and rolling.”

Soliciting donations from alumni, friends and anyone else willing to contribute to the cause, the group that became known as “Save ECU Swimming and Diving” began raising the money their school’s athletic administration says it can’t afford.

It’s the same kind of private funding effort that helped bring back the previously eliminated baseball program at Bowling Green and the hockey program at Alabama-Huntsville.

To date, the group has accumulated almost 19,000 signatures on a petition urging ECU’s administration to reverse its decision to end the swimming and diving program. More importantly, it has gained more than $550,000 in pledges — or only about $100,000 away from the total amount ECU budgeted for both the men’s and women’s programs in 2020.

The goal is to raise $1.5 million over the course of five years. But even if that number is reached or exceeded, there’s no guarantee ECU will reinstate the programs.

In announcing the swimming team’s demise on May 27, interim chancellor Ron Mitchelson and athletic director Jon Gilbert said that the decision to pull the plug won’t be reconsidered. Neither has responded to requests by the “Save ECU Swimming and Diving” committee for a meeting to discuss their fundraising effort, and an interview request by the North State Journal was met with a response that “Chancellor Mitchelson addressed the ‘future’ (i.e. long-term) of the program during the press conference.”

“The chancellor and AD refuse to acknowledge what we’re doing, to give us a chance or to let us know a way we can save this program,” Takkunen said. “They’ve shown zero willingness to even try to save it.”

The decision to eliminate the swimming and tennis programs was made in response to a $10 million athletic budget shortfall at ECU that has been exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis that led to the cancellation of several winter sports championships and the entire spring season.

But according to Takkunen, the swimming programs’ budgets were among the smallest of the 20 sports ECU sponsored before the cuts, and a large portion of the expense is offset by the fact that more team members are paying their own way through school than are on scholarship.

Takkunen also disputes the administration’s claim that the aquatic center inside Minges Coliseum is — in Mitchelson’s words — “an inadequate facility that’s not a priority for investment.”

“The idea about the facility upkeep is a little bit of rubbish,” Takkunen said, “because the facility just received renovations back in 2013-14. The pool itself is 100% up to standards. It’s a fast pool. So we aren’t quite sure what the administration was looking at when it said the pool was the problem.”

With Mitchelson and Gilbert seemingly unwilling to discuss the situation, Takkunen said that her group plans to take its case to ECU’s Board of Trustees. There’s an effort to get the subject of reinstatement onto the agenda for the board’s upcoming July meeting.

If it’s able to be heard, Takkunen said the Save ECU Swimming and Diving committee has the ability to make an offer the school can’t refuse.

“Who turns down $1.5 million when you’re in a financial crisis?” she said. “If they do, you have to question whether these are the right people to take a school through a financial crisis. We’re hoping that money does talk.”

It’s a conversation that has to take place soon given that the 2020-21 school year is set to begin two weeks early in mid-August and several current team members have already transferred to other schools.

The fact that the men’s team won the American Athletic Conference championship last season and its coach, Jabs, was named the league’s Coach of the Year only exaggerates the emotions stirred by the program’s elimination.

“Cutting this program leaves me unsure about the future,” said sophomore swimmer Randi Palandro. “My teammates are my family and the ECU swim program is my home.”

Learn more about the campaign to save these programs by visiting SaveECUSwimDive.org.