Alexa Puccini was just days into her freshman year in Iowa, training with a few other members of the women’s swimming and diving team. It was August 2020 and she was finally on campus after enlisting as a junior in high school.
Hours later, the group was heading to an emergency meeting at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Puccini said they were wondering, “like, maybe our season is over because of COVID” and remarking that the email regarding the reunion included “men’s and women’s swimming and diving, men’s tennis and men’s gymnastics…it’s an interesting group to build.”
The cars were lined up against the wall. The athletes, socially distanced, were seated in chairs. Athletic director Gary Barta broke the stunning news — all four teams were going to be axed after the 2020-21 school year due to budget concerns related to COVID-19 — and left.
“It was very, very emotional. I just couldn’t believe it. … I’m like, this can’t be real,” Puccini said. “It was such a horrible experience.”
She said she saw Barta again, months later, when he showed up at the pool to say the women’s swim team had been reinstated.
In the meantime, Puccini and a few other athletes had sued the school for an alleged Title IX breach. 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 jumped to 92 for the 2019-20 school year. and a projected gap of 141 athletes in the school year in which the announcement of the cuts came, according to reports.
It was not an unusual situation. Schools across the country have had to cut spending during the pandemic, and athletic departments in Michigan State, Fresno State, William and Mary, Dartmouth, Connecticut and other places have stepped up. turned to cutting teams.
If the athletes wanted to save their sport, it was up to them, threatening legal action or suing with help.
“If you can get up, now is the time to do so. … There are enough people who would represent you with a group of people that you would feel supported,” said Felice Duffy, a former college athlete, coach and federal prosecutor who is now an attorney familiar with Title IX litigation. “And, for me, that’s what was missing over the last few decades – not enough people were doing that, so not everyone knew they could win and do those things.”
Sage Ohlensehlen led the Iowa trial. She had started out as an extra and became captain of the women’s swim team in her freshman year. His senior year began with this emergency meeting.
Afterwards, she recalls, she “was kind of crunching numbers in my head…something still doesn’t add up.” But it wasn’t until she was home a few weeks later to take the LSAT online that the wheels started to move.
She finished the test and saw a text from her trainer, who told her to “call this number immediately”. This was for Nancy Hogshead-Makar, who tracks Title IX compliance issues. Ohlensehlen called.
“I’m coming off the LSAT, and everyone’s like, ‘How was your exam?’ ‘Good. I’m suing Iowa,” she said. “They’re like, ‘What? What are you doing?'”
Puccini was recruited for the trial by Ohlensehlen, and said all the women knew “we could just do all this 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, ‘Will it even work, four girls on a team depositing a Title IX lawsuit? “,” Puccini said. (There were six plaintiffs in total, including a high school wrestler from Iowa.)
By then, Puccini had entered the transfer portal and committed to Arizona, where she is still swimming.
“One of the things I said in the trial and when I testified…was no matter how much money they gave me, I could never stay there knowing what our team went through, don’t not being able to do what I love, which was swimming,” she said.
The women were helped with the lawsuit, which was filed in September 2020; Ohlensehlen said Hogshead-Makar “got all the numbers…the other people to hire, look at the numbers” and their lawyer took depositions.
But Ohlensehlen was the face of the public in many ways and saw the effects. She was doped by the school four times after her last encounter, although “I got hurt…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 go after that people think you’re trying to take money from the soccer,” 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 prevented Iowa from removing any women’s teams pending trial.
Iowa reinstated women’s swim team Two months later. Athletes and school ended up settling for $400,000 in September 2021. As part of the settlement, Iowa added women’s wrestling to be compliant.
“Generally it was about Title IX, and specifically about adding women’s sports, counting women’s sports,” Barta said in September.. “We had already agreed to permanently restore women’s swimming. Part of the deal was to add a women’s sport, and we chose women’s wrestling, for all the obvious reasons.
When Puccini looks back, she’s proud of the lawsuit: “In order for us to do what we did, I think a lot of other teams were fired.”
Ohlensehlen said Title IX could 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’ve had will continue to be given to people who come in, because that’s made me who I am, and that’s given me so much, and I had to make sure that these opportunities are preserved for future generations.
For more on the impact of Title IX, read AP’s full report: https://apnews.com/hub/title-ix Video timeline: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v= NdgNI6BZpw0