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'We're Going To Put It All On The Table': UConn Women's Rowing Faces Its Final Year

Courtesy: Janet Wang
The UConn women's rowing team, winter 2020.

The coach of the women’s rowing team at UConn said she hasn’t ruled out filing a Title IX complaint after the school’s shocking announcement that it will end its investment in the team. Women’s rowing was one of four sports UConn said it won’t fund after the upcoming academic year in a bid to cut its budget.

Last week, university trustees voted to ax four Division I athletic programs. The cuts affect 124 student-athletes, including as many as 60 on the women’s rowing team. 

“It’s a real shock to think that you’re going into college, maybe on scholarship, maybe you just want to join the rowing program,” said Maria Bellos, an alum of the program. “And you expected a full four years being part of a team and having a bunch of lifelong friends, and just having that kind of ripped away from you -- it’s just a devastating feeling. And they’re all devastated because of it.”

University President Thomas Katsouleas said the Athletics Division had been reviewing operations and programs before the COVID-19 pandemic. He said the institutional financial support committed to athletics has grown over the years and decisions should lead to financial sustainability.

“While this is a painful decision, it is in the best interest of the long-term viability of UConn and UConn athletics,” he said at the trustees meeting.

Junior Janet Wang said she went into UConn not expecting to be a Division I athlete, but joining the rowing program has provided her with many opportunities. She said this spring will be the team’s only time racing in the newly joined Colonial Conference, and they plan to go out with a bang.

Credit Janet Wang
Janet Wang and her rowing teammates took this photo during last year's spring break training trip in Miami. The team won a race at the end of trip against other participating schools.

“We’re coming into a new conference that we’ve never raced with before,” Wang said. “We went through long winter training, we do it every year, and I think this year knowing that we have really nothing more to lose, we’re going to put it all on the table, show them what we can do, push our limits, push one another.” 

Head Coach Jennifer Sanford said she didn’t receive the news that her team was on the chopping block until the day before the trustees meeting. She was the only rowing representative on the call.

“Less than half of the team receives any athletic aid, however, they made a commitment to wake up every morning at 4:30 or 5:30 a.m. to practice before their day begins in the classroom,” she told the trustees. “They come back later in the day to train and have meetings with coaches as they work hard and strive for being the best that they can be.”

Sanford had thought her team was safe because women’s rowing is a high-number sport typically used to balance Title IX formulas against all-male football programs. Now, she told Connecticut Public Radio, she is considering whether to file a formal complaint against the school under Title IX. 

Credit Janet Wang
Athletes at the last race of the fall 2019 season.

“I love the University of Connecticut as I’ve been here for 23 years, have raised my family on the UConn campus, and have been witness to outstanding women and men graduating and making a positive impact on the world, largely in part due to their experience as student-athletes,” she said in an email. “It pains me to have any negative attention brought to the University however as the leader of the rowing program, people are counting on me to take action to have the decision reversed, so my focus now is on gathering more information to see what options we may have.”

UConn has said it will continue to honor athletes’ scholarships. For those who decide to transfer to another school, Sanford will be there to guide them through the process and help students find the right program. 

Elaine Lee, an associate professor and alum of UConn, was involved in the rowing team as an undergraduate. When she was a master’s and doctoral student, she was an assistant coach. 

Lee was surprised when she heard about the decision made at the trustees meeting.

“Rowing is one of those sports where you can be an athlete, a really good athlete in diverse sports all your life and join in high school or college and excel, you know, and even have hopes of going to the national level,” she said.

She also said Sanford and the team do a lot for students yearly.

“There’s so many global reasons for supporting women and diversity and inclusion that Jen promotes with the team that are unfortunately going to be lost with this cut,” Lee said. 

As for Bellos, she plans to support the team from the sideline until the end.

Credit Janet Wang
The winter 2020 seniors pose for a photo.

“I do plan on coming back to see where the rowing program is going to go this year, just to see it off, and hopefully someone along the way may notice the program and try to save it. But I want to see it in its last prime.”

A petition to save the team has just over 6,000 signatures. A UConn athletics spokesperson said the department will not have any further public comment on the topic.


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