Iowa swimmers wondered if Title IX suit was 'going to work'

Title IX Swimmers Story
Posted at 1:47 PM, Jun 15, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-15 14:47:59-04

Alexa Puccini was just a few days into her freshman year at Iowa, working out with a couple other members of the women's swimming and diving team. It was August 2020 and she was finally on campus after committing as a junior in high school.

A couple hours later, the group was walking to an emergency meeting at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Puccini said they were wondering, "like, maybe our season's done because of COVID" and noticing the email about the meeting included "both men and women's swimming and diving, men's tennis and men's gymnastics … it's an interesting group to put together."

The coaches were lined up against the wall. The athletes, socially distanced, sat in chairs. Athletic director Gary Barta delivered the stunning news — the four teams were going to be cut after the 2020-21 school year due to COVID-19-related budget issues — and left.

"It was very, very emotional. I just couldn't believe it. … I'm like, this cannot be real," Puccini said. "It was such an awful experience."

She said she did see Barta again, months later, when he showed up at the pool to say that the women's swimming team had been reinstated.

In the interim, Puccini and a few other athletes had sued the school over an alleged Title IX violation. The argument was that Iowa had too big of a participation gap between male and female athletes — a difference of 47 athletes in the 2018-19 school year that grew to 92 for the 2019-20 school year and an expected gap of 141 athletes in the school year in which the announcement about the cuts came, according to testimony.

It wasn't an unusual situation. Schools across the country had to trim spending during the pandemic, and athletic departments at Michigan State, Fresno State, William and Mary, Dartmouth, Connecticut and other places turned to cutting teams.

If the athletes wanted to save their sports, it was up to them to do it, threatening legal action or actually filing suit with some help.

"If you can stand up, this is the time to do it. ... There's enough people that would represent you with a group of people so that you feel supported," said Felice Duffy, a former college athlete, coach and federal prosecutor who is now an attorney familiar with Title IX litigation. "And, to me, that's what's been missing the last few decades — not enough people were doing that, so not everybody knew that they could win and do these things."

Sage Ohlensehlen headed up the Iowa lawsuit. She had started as a walk-on and rose to become captain of the women's swimming team in her junior year. Her senior year started with that emergency meeting.

Afterward, she recalled, she "was kind of calculating numbers in my head … something's still not adding up." But it wasn't until she was at home a couple weeks later to take the LSAT online that the wheels started moving.

She finished the test and saw a text from her coach, who told her to "call this number immediately." It was for Nancy Hogshead-Makar, who tracks Title IX compliance issues. Ohlensehlen called.

"I come downstairs from the LSAT, and everyone's like, 'How was your test?' 'Good. I'm suing Iowa,'" she said. "They're like, 'What? You're doing what?'"

Puccini was recruited for the lawsuit by Ohlensehlen, and said all of the women knew "we could just be doing this all for nothing."

"A Power Five school, let alone a Big Ten school, these are really powerful universities that obviously have a lot of money … we're like, 'Is this even going to work, four girls from a team filing a Title IX lawsuit?'" Puccini said. (There were six plaintiffs overall, including a female Iowa high school wrestler.)

By that point, Puccini had entered the transfer portal and committed to Arizona, where she still swims.

"One of the things I said in the lawsuit and when I was testifying … was no matter how much money they gave me, I would never be able to stay there knowing what our team went through, not being able to do what I love, which was swimming," she said.

The women had help with the lawsuit, which was filed in September 2020; Ohlensehlen said Hogshead-Makar "had all the numbers … the other people to hire, to look at the numbers" and their lawyer took the depositions.

But Ohlensehlen was the public face in a lot of ways, and saw the effects. She was drug tested by the school four times after her last meet even though "I was injured … I didn't even swim well."

"I lost a lot of friends, I lost a lot of family friends in the process because for some reason, when you sue like that, people think you're trying to take money from football," she added. "I got booed in stores. It was really ridiculous."

In December 2020, the Iowa athletes won an injunction from a U.S. District Court judge that kept Iowa from cutting any women's team pending trial.

Iowa reinstated the women's swimming team two months later. The athletes and the school ended up settling for $400,000 in September 2021. As part of the settlement, Iowa added women's wrestling to be in compliance.

"In general, it was about Title IX, and specifically it was about adding women's sports, the counting of women's sports," Barta said in September. "We had already agreed on reinstating women's swimming permanently. Part of the agreement was adding a women's sport, and we chose women's wrestling, for all of the obvious reasons."

When Puccini looks back, she's proud of the lawsuit: "For us to be able to do what we did, I think inspired a lot of the other teams that had gotten cut."

Ohlensehlen said Title IX might become something she does with her law career, and said the lawsuit was "a huge deal for me."

"I wanted to be able to make sure that the opportunities that I had will be continued to be given to the people coming up, because it's made me who I am, and it's given me so much, and I needed to make sure that those opportunities are preserved for the future generations."

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