By STEVE CORNELIUS, CJ Sports Editor
Callie Garner has been a competitive swimmer almost all of her life.
Garner first took up swimming in the Eagle’s Nest swimming pool at the age of four. She swam at the national level for the next 13 years in the USA swim program. As a high school swimmer, she held almost every female school and pool record.
Upon graduation from high school, Garner became the first local swimmer to sign a D1 athletic scholarship, when she inked with the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
After struggling with injuries during her first two seasons with the Seahawks’ collegiate swim team, Garner was ready to make an impact in her final two seasons at the collegiate level.
But all that came to a grinding halt when UNCW officials announced the possibility of dropping the men’s and women’s swimming and diving programs.
“We were in shock when we heard the news they might drop the swim program,” Garner recalled. “This university and this swim team had became my life. I loved the school, I loved my teammates and they were all like family to me.”
On May 15, the Intercollegiate Athletics Review Committee made a recommendation to the UNCW Chancellor Gary Miller and the Board of Trustees that UNCW should no longer sponsor teams in men’s and women’s swimming and diving, men’s indoor track, men’s cross country and softball beginning in the 2013-14 academic year.
“I really didn’t think our swim program was going to survive this, and I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Garner said. “Maryland dropped their swim program last year and the Clemson swim program went away three years ago.”
“I got an offer to swim on the University of Kentucky team, but I didn’t really want to leave UNCW and my friends,” Garner added.
While she had spent most of her life choosing swimming over many other fun activities, growing up as a young kid, Garner now was faced with much more adult-like decision about her swimming career and her future.
“All my life I have always wanted to be in the pool, but now it seemed like getting in the pool was the last thing I wanted to do,” Garner said after hearing the bad news.
Within three hours of the news of UNCW possibly dropping their swim program, a petition was put out in support of the UNCW swim program.
“Our swim program has always been outstanding,” Graner exclaimed. “We had won 12 straight conference championships, we had a swimmer qualify for the NCAA Championships, we had four swimmer invited to the USA Olympic Trails, and we were nationally ranked.”
Even more disheartening was the fact that longtime UNCW swim coach Dave Allen, who had been with the swim program for all 34 years of its existence, was just one year away from retirement.
During the three weeks between the announcement and when the final decision was to be made about the fate of the UNCW swim program, nearly 15,000 people signed the petition to kep the UNCW swim program.
Olympic gold medalist swimmer Rowdy Gaines wrote a letter to the university and the most decorated Olympic swimmer of all-time Michael Phelps actually visited the university showing his support for the UNCW swim program.
On May 30, UNCW officials announced the university would not drop any athletic programs this year. In fact, the overwhelming outpouring of support for the swim team was a major factor in their decision to keep all the mentioned sports programs.
That day, before hearing the joyous news, Garner spent the afternoon at the Eagle’s Nest swimming pool – the place where it had all started for her. With the weather still too cool for outdoor swimming, Garner reflected into the depths of the motionless pool of water.
“I didn’t sleep any the night before,” Garner said of the May 30th deadline. “I knew if they announced they were dropping the swim program I would have to make a tough decision I really didn’t want to make.”
“When we heard the good news we were all so happy,” Garner exclaimed. “We were all on the phones talking and crying to each other about our excitement of still being on the UNCW swim team.”
Moments after hearing the good news, Garner jumped into the pool and started swimming laps – in preparation for her upcoming junior season at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.