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Mike Stromberg: UND leaves champion swim team high and dry

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo.—A legacy of UND swimming and diving was drowned this spring. To say I am disappointed by the decision is an understatement.

The two most successful programs in the university's history by most measures—sunk. And success in these programs was not due to an abundance of scholarship dollars. Instead, the programs were built on gumption and drive, and the programs' elimination won't save UND's athletic budget.

In March 1997, the UND men's and women's swimming and diving teams returned from NCAA Division II Nationals. The women's team finished third and included an individual national champion. This was the 13th year in a row of earning a Top Six finish, and it officially secured their legacy as the most successful athletic program in UND's history.

The men's team finished 10th, the ninth year with a Top 10 ten finish at NCAAs.

After a long winter of snow and cold, it was especially gratifying.

A few short weeks later, the Red River rose as the record-breaking snow from that winter began to thaw. Sandbag Central was established, and the community jumped in to help.

My team was no exception. We coordinated a quick response group to handle any requests for help. One of the swimmer's homes became our staging location.

For a full week, the team responded nearly 24 hours a day to calls to fill, carry and put down sandbags, until the final command came in to evacuate the city. We knew we had done all we could.

After the flood, our team coordinated efforts to house volunteers on the UND campus. It was no small feat housing more than 3,000 volunteers at Hyslop, but we ensured each volunteer had a cot and daily meals. We helped with transportation, our locker rooms provided a place to shower, and our pool even offered a place to swim.

Giving back was embedded so deeply into our team culture.

The UND women's swimming and diving program had more success than any women's program in the history of UND and produced more All-Americans than all other women's teams combined. We also accumulated more NCAA national trophies than all other UND athletic programs put together.

At the Division I level this year, the UND women won four of five relay titles at the Western Athletic Conference Championships and crowned many individual champions.

For their part, the men's program represented UND nationally for 21 consecutive appearances at NCAAs, finishing in the Top 10 18 years in a row and crowning multiple national individual and relay champions.

Over those years, it produced more All-Americans than all the other men's sports combined.

And after its move to Division I athletics, the men's program continued its success in the WAC. Swimmers have been tenths of seconds from qualifying for the NCAA Championship meet—the fastest meet in the world.

During my tenure, 90 percent of the student-athletes on the women's team paid their own tuition. On the men's team, 95 percent did so. At present, 60 percent of women and 70 percent of men pay their own tuition.

That means both programs' cost-per-athlete is lower than most other athletic teams. Specifically, 70 percent of the other athletic teams are costing the university more dollars to maintain.

When tuition revenue is included, the program actually saves UND $180,000 per year.

And the program brought about $23 million in economic dollars to the city of Grand Forks during my tenure.

The spirit of our success came from within; we loved to train, we loved to race, we loved being a part of a wonderful university and fantastic community. Kids came to swim at UND because this culture was apparent from first contact. It wasn't due to scholarship dollars.

For many years, our swim lesson program—run by UND swimming and diving—made more money for the athletic department than the football program.

It seems strange to choose to close a door on one of the most successful athletic programs in the history of UND. The exemplary student athletes charged the UND flag to the national level in swimming, diving and desire—that is, until that door abruptly was closed.

In Grand Forks, the Red River Flood of 1997 was devastating. Today, a similar feeling has overtaken me as our team, our legacy, has been willfully drowned by a flood of poor decisions.

A UND graduate, Stromberg was UND's head men's and women's swimming coach from 1980 to 2002. He was twice named NCAA Division II Coach of the Year and is a member of the UND Letterwinners Association Hall of Fame.

Stromberg currently is the owner of and head swim coach at Altitude Performance Swim Team in Colorado Springs.

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