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COMMENTARY

MIAA decision on swimmers draws criticism

It was a historic snowstorm measured in hours, inches, and, if you’re a Massachusetts high school swimmer, frustration.

Unlike the wrestling and gymnastics competitions scheduled for last weekend, the MIAA boys’ and girls’ swim championships set for Feb. 16-17 can’t just push their championships back a week. With their sport’s biggest meets held at college sites, snow meant cancellation, not postponement.

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And that meant hundreds of swimmers saw their season end because even though they qualified for sectional competition that was supposed to be held this past weekend, their times weren’t fast enough for the state meet. The sectionals were going to be their last opportunity to qualify for the biggest meet of the year. With the sectionals canceled, their season was suddenly over.

Nowhere was the frustration greater than Western Mass. Its sectional was scheduled for Springfield College on Saturday. Western Mass. schools and competitors place far greater importance on sectional meet performance than in Central or Eastern Mass. Swimmers taper their training to coincide with the sectional competition with a hope to qualify for states there. For example, in the 500 freestyle, 23 of 28 North sectional swimmers had already qualified for the boys’ state meet. In the South, it’s 17 of 22. But in Western Mass., just three of 21 competitors had qualified. And the same pattern holds true in other events. The snowstorm hurt EMass swimmers, but it devastated Western Mass. kids. And it didn’t take long for the MIAA to replace the storm as the bad guy in the eyes of Western Mass. swimmers and their supporters.

The MIAA decision involved more than 20 people, including tournament directors Richard Lennon, Pete Foley, and Patricia McDiarmid, who combine for more than 100 years of swim coaching and administration. They were joined by MIAA assistant director (and former Minnechaug athletic director) Ned Doyle, members of the MIAA swim committee, along with associate director Sherry Bryant and executive director Dick Neal.

A four-hour meeting Thursday was followed with a conference call Friday. The end result was the cancellation of all six sectionals (three boys’ and three girls’ events) scheduled for this past weekend. The MIAA did not allow Western Mass. to move its meet to Sunday, citing logistical and safety concerns as the primary reasons in a statement on its website.

The decision to not allow Western Mass. to go Sunday started a grass-roots movement, one that has given those swimmers at least one more meet. Led by Minnechaug athletic director Mike Roy, Western Mass. schools have organized their own sectional meets. On Monday, Westfield High will host the girls’ sectional. On Tuesday, Chicopee High will host the boys’ sectional. Competing schools will split the cost of the meets and there will be no spectators allowed because of the size of the venues.

But despite the effort, and even though it will allow the meet, the MIAA has said it will not count the swimmers’ times toward qualifying for the state meet. According to Lennon, the logistics of getting additional qualifiers into the state meet is too much to overcome on such short notice.

The girls compete Saturday at Springfield College, the boys Sunday at Harvard.

“The bottom line for me was letting these kids swim,’’ said Roy, who took over as Minnechaug AD from Doyle in 2010. “If we got some sort of advantage out of this, I’d stop asking. It wouldn’t be fair and I agree with that. But we don’t have league meets. It is different here. I think there are a lot of people that don’t understand what this meet means to Western Mass.”

The backlash against the MIAA has extended to social media with Olympians Ryan Lochte and Missy Franklin among many using Twitter to express support for Western Mass. swimmers and asking the MIAA to reconsider.

“I don’t think they anticipated the backlash they received,” said Roy.

McDiarmid has been the Western Mass. swim tournament director for 26 years. The former Minnechaug coach and current Springfield College professor of health and physical education felt running the meet a day later was possible, but agreed the storm created logistical challenges.

“The MIAA had a tough call to make,’’ McDiarmid said. “I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes.’’

McDiarmid knows as well as anyone the importance of the sectional. “It is by far the capstone event for Western Mass. athletes,” she said.

The EMass sectionals couldn’t be pushed back because MIT is hosting its conference swim championships next weekend and Harvard men’s and women’s teams are gearing up for the ECAC and Ivy League championships and won’t give up pool time. The only reason Springfield College is available is because its swimmers are headed to MIT.

The skies may have cleared but the storm continues in Western Mass. Swimmers will be in the pool Monday, but for what? McDiarmid can answer that.

“Because the kids are heartbroken,’’ she said. “Is there any other reason?”

Bob Holmes can be reached at rholmes@globe.com.
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