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UConn wanted to cut its rowing team. These women fought back—and won.

The UConn women's rowing team competes in the 46th annual Women's Eastern Sprints in Worcester, Mass., in May 2019.
Courtesy: UConn Rowing
The UConn women's rowing team competes in the 46th annual Women's Eastern Sprints in Worcester, Mass., in May 2019.

Grace Johnson, a junior at the University of Connecticut, says that prior to going to UConn, she wasn’t really athletic — and definitely knew little about rowing. But today, that’s the opposite. She’s competed on the UConn women’s rowing team for three years, and it’s been the experience of a lifetime.

“That’s why when I found out the team would be cut, I was disheartened. I still knew I had a couple years left of what could be fantastic rowing and getting better at something that I had just started doing,” Johnson said, reflecting on the day she learned that UConn would cut the rowing program and four other Division I sports.

Today, though, she celebrates a major win for the team. This week, the university agreed to keep supporting the program at least until 2026 — an increase from a two-year commitment announced in July. This new development comes after Johnson and 11 other team members filed a complaint in April against UConn, alleging it violated Title IX.

Title IX, established in 1972, prohibits sex-based discrimination in education programs or related activities that receive federal dollars. One of the requirements of Title IX is that the percentage of a school's male and female athletes must match the percentage of its male and female undergraduate students.

The complaint accused UConn of not fulfilling that requirement, especially when it moved to cut rowing. The university announced in 2020 that it would eliminate the program as part of budget cuts to the athletic department.

“We are 18-to-22-year-old women who don’t have any legal experience up against a really big university, and so it was very daunting for all of us. But at the same time we all knew we had to try,” said Maggie Mlynek, another plaintiff on the complaint. “It’s about holding universities accountable for the gender equity they preach.”

The rowing team is the second-largest women’s sport at the university. And with the settlement it’s expected to grow even more. In addition to the reinstatement, UConn has committed to investing in more equipment, recruiting, scholarships, coaching and more. All while pledging to work on Title IX compliance.

“To have UConn agree to concrete steps over the next few years and a yearly review to actually come into compliance with IX is really awesome. That's the most exciting for me,” Mlynek said.

In an email, UConn spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz said the university is excited to have reached an agreement, and the focus is now on supporting the team.

As for Johnson, she’s excited to see the team reach new heights.

“We’ve gotten 20 walk-ons so far this year. We’re focusing on getting better. Our coaches say we can get to be a top-20 team, which would be awesome,” she said.

Mlynek, on the other hand, is now an alumna. But she says she’s hopeful for the future. While the commitment is only until 2026, the university’s investment in the team seems promising.

“It’s everything and anything that a rowing program could ever need or want to become successful,” Mlynek said. “I am really excited to see where the team goes over the next few years.”

Camila Vallejo is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. She is a bilingual reporter based out of Fairfield County and welcomes all story ideas at cvallejo@ctpublic.org.

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