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COLUMN

Manchester veers off beaten path, expands athletic opportunities

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For more on college sports, follow Tom Davis via Twitter at www.twitter.com/Tom101010.

Spartans create swim program

Monday, November 11, 2013 - 11:57 pm

There are many qualities that come to mind when you step foot onto the campus of Manchester University. It is an idyllic place filled with aspiring, energetic minds permeating its student body, many of whom have visions of success not just for the future in their professional careers, but currently as student-athletes, as well.

However, what Manchester is not publicly perceived to be is that of a university whose foundation is founded upon radical risk-taking and trailblazing where others fear. That is unless you take into account Spartan athletics.

The university announced on Monday that it was expanding, not trimming, its athletic programs, by adding the sport of men's and women's swimming, which for those aware of the sport of intercollegiate swimming, is almost unheard of.

A sizable gift from an anonymous donor made the decision possible according to a university release, and the team, which will compete in the Strauss Peabody Aquatic and Fitness Center, will begin competition as a club in the fall of 2014.

“This gift helps Manchester continue to offer affordable excellence in higher education,” Manchester executive director of development Melanie Harmon said in a release. "We are grateful for our donors who generously come forward to put our students first.”

This decision truly sets the Spartans apart, as Manchester is demonstrating a commitment and value for sports such as swimming, wrestling, and track, which over the past three decades have been attacked by athletic leadership at the collegiate level.

There are currently 60 universities that offer women's swimming, but no longer men's programs, one of which is my alma mater, Butler University. And that number doesn't take into account the colleges that have eliminated both men's and women's programs over the years.

As a club swimmer growing up, the thought that colleges made these types of decisions never occurred to me. If Yorktown High School offered an opportunity in the sport of swimming, why wouldn't UCLA? Miami (Fla.)? And sadly, that list of eliminated programs continues to grow.

It never occurred to me that the University of Nebraska would find the means to construct a $179 million basketball arena just a few years removed from proclaiming that “budgetary issues” would prevent it from raising the necessary $650,000 annually to keep the men's swim program afloat, no pun intended.

Much credit goes to the Manchester leadership for realizing the value of this tremendous sport, which not only strengthens the university from an athletic standpoint, but can also add to the academic mission of the university.

“We hope that the swimming coach also will join our exercise and sport sciences faculty,” Spartan Athletic Director Rick Espeset said. “This also gives us opportunity to add diversity of subject matter to our faculty.”

The team will initially compete as a swim club, with an anticipated 20 to 30 student-athletes competing in a non-varsity swimming environment at the collegiate level. However, after a year, if all goes as planned, the team will be ready for NCAA Division III competition.

The Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference, which is Manchester's conference, currently does not award a championship in the sport, but does have five universities sponsoring the sport.

"Adding a sport emphasizes the value that Manchester puts on the student-athlete experience as part of their overall educational experience,” Espeset said. “We look forward to providing that opportunity for more of our students."

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Tom Davis at tdavis@news-sentinel.com.