With its swimming and diving progam on the chopping block, the College of Charleston’s last home meet this weekend may also be one of the largest in its 37-year history.
The meet, to be held at the college’s Theodore S. Stern Center pool on Friday evening and Saturday, is expected to draw hundreds, including fellow student athletes, parents and friends, past College of Charleston swim team members, as well and local swimming and fitness supporters.
“This may be the last meet ever,” said coach Bora Yatagan. “It’s going to be an emotional weekend.”
Many also think the meet may be one of the best and last chances to convince the administration to save the program.
The Cougars will face swimming rival Gardner-Webb University, while the women’s diving team will face the only surviving remnant of the Clemson University swimming and diving program. It was cut in 2010.
Last November, College of Charleston Athletic Director Joe Hull dropped a bombshell on the team, including Yatagan, by announcing the school was cutting the program after the season ended.
Hull cited the “financial realities” faced by college athletic departments across the nation and the poor condition of the Stern Center pool, which was built in the 1970s.
The college wants to replace the only pool on campus with meeting rooms.
The swim team and its supporters, however, immediately started a campaign to save the program and generally had hope that it could succeed.
They are hoping that the meet will demonstrate to Hull and President Glenn McConnell, who supporters hope will stop by, that swimming and diving is an important part of campus life. So far, supporters say they have yet to meet with McConnell.
But on Thursday, former C of C swimmer Chris Lietzow received word, via email from McConnell’s senior administrative assistant Emily Carrig, that McConnell wanted to meet with Lietzow and a few others in early February to discuss various proposals.
Lietzow, who graduated in 2009, said while the community has been showing support, “we’ve got to come up with feasible, realistic ways to convince the administration, President McConnell and athletic director Hull to want to get behind and support us in saving the swim team.”
Lietzow acknowledged that the Stern center pool is “a little dated,” but that representatives from other area pool facilities have offered use while local governments, such as the city of Charleston, look into building a natatorium.
Among the people who have offered help are the owners of the private LTP pool in Mount Pleasant.
Jesup Szatkowski, director and head coach at LTP, said he met with Hull at the facility last month to discuss the potential of the college team using it. Szatkowski described it as a “congenial meeting of 45 minutes.”
“He (Hull) seemed genuinely open to the idea, but skeptical about feasibility. We spoke in generalities, but I gave him an idea of schedule and possible fee structure,” said Szatkowski, adding that he followed up with Hull in January.
Despite that meeting, Szatkowski admitted that he, personally, was not optimistic about the athletic department’s desire to continue the team, but that “we are continuing to fight the good fight in hopes they will reconsider.”
As a group, many still have hope, but it seems to be weakening among a few.
Yatagan says he’s noticed that motivating the team has been more challenging in recent weeks but that he remains hopeful.
“It’s getting tougher and tougher with the timeline, but I don’t want to lose hope until we sit down and talk to the president face to face. We never had the chance to talk with anybody and discuss the options to make each party happy,” said Yatagan. “I want to keep my hopes up until the last minute — until I hear from the president firsthand.”
Some younger swimmers, however, are starting to waver.
Tad Spence, a sophomore from Raleigh, said he is remaining hopeful, but if he hears nothing definitive by early summer, he’ll be looking to transfer to a college with a swim team in North Carolina, such as University of North Carolina at Wilmington. The UNCW program was on the chopping block, but has been one of the few nationally that bucked the trend and survived.
“But I hope I can stay here,” Spence added.
David and Lisa Namestnik, the parents of freshman swimmer Alexa Namestnik, say she has been going “back-and-forth” on the issue of staying and that she, too, will likely wait until the end of the school year to decide.
“One of the biggest issues, if they disband the program, is she’s having a hard time with the integrity of the school. They brought her here to swim,” said David Namestnik.
The Namestniks said many parents will be flying into to Charleston this weekend for the meet and that they have rented a banquet hall to have dinner on Saturday night, in part to talk about the future of the program.
“I don’t think it’s over. We’re going to fight until the end,” he said.