‘I worked for this my entire life’: UAA athletes express heartbreak over sports cuts

Published: Sep. 21, 2020 at 5:00 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Many college athletes have spent hours training to get to compete for a college. It’s a big day when athletes sign with a school; the dream that ignited as a child becomes a reality, or at least that was the case for Rylee St. Onge.

St. Onge is a sophomore playing hockey for the University of Alaska Anchorage. He started playing hockey at the age of three and now is going into his second season as a forward for UAA.

Then the university announced it was defunding the hockey program, along with gymnastics and alpine skiing.

“It was kind of heartbreaking. I worked for this my entire life, playing hockey for 15, 16 years to get to my goal to play Division I hockey,” St. Onge said of the announcement from the board of regents. “... It was kind of like they were crushing my dreams.”

The University of Alaska Board of Regents announced the elimination of the sports in an effort to save the school $2.5 million per year. The cut would become effective for the 2021-22 season.

Several athletes described the announcement as shocking. Many of them added that they understood, considering the university’s state allocation remarkably reduced. UAA has experienced a $34 million cut of state funding since 2014 and will experience a $7.2 million decline in 2021, according to a statement from UAA Chancellor Cathy Sandeen.

Kylie Reese is a team captain for UAA gymnastics. She’s a senior, but this is her first year at UAA. She transferred from Seattle Pacific University after her NCAA gymnastics program was cut. Now, she hasn’t even started competing for UAA but is experiencing another gymnastics program cut.

“To have back-to-back cuts like within two months, it was very surprising that the NCAA gymnastics world was taking this turn,” Reese said.

Reese and co-captains Rachel Decious and Tere Alonso are all appreciative of the opportunity UAA has given them to compete in collegiate gymnastics. They want the program to stick around so other young women can have the same opportunity for years to come.

The program can be around for future Seawolves if the teams raise two seasons' worth of their sport’s funds by themselves, the BOR proposed. That means raising over $4.5 million for all three sports combined by February 2021. The first year’s funds need to be in cash, the second year in firm pledges.

Though a daunting task during a global pandemic, many athletes think it’s worth the time and effort. Senior skier Georgia Burgess won’t be affected by the potential cut of skiing because she graduates in the spring of 2021, but says that won’t stop her from trying to save the Skiwolves.

“I think if our program gets cut, our athletes will be looking to pursue their athletics other places, which is really sad for UAA because we have some really brilliant minds on our team and some really incredible active community members and a lot of people that want to stay in Alaska in the long term,” Burgess said. “But we came here to be student-athletes and if you take the athlete part out of that, it definitely poses a really tough situation for a lot of us.”

Though grateful for the opportunity to keep the program alive, skier Mike Soetaert called raising two years of funding at once unjust.

“Find one year’s funding a season at a time,” Soetaert said. “Two seasons seems like we are being set up to fail.”

Eliminating alpine skiing will allow the team to still compete in nordic skiing, but head ski coach Sparky Anderson said it would be putting out a “subpar product.”

Most athletes and some of the coaches wished the board included members of the athletic department in the decision-making process. The athletes were informed about the announcement shortly before it was shared with the public that day.

This isn’t the first time UAA sports have faced being cut. In 2016, then university president Jim Johnsen recommended cutting UAA and the University of Alaska Fairbanks' skiing and track and field programs in another cost-saving effort. It was later voted down in an 8-1 vote by the board of regents.

As for this season, UAA athletic director Greg Myford said they will know in early October if the season will be able to start when expected, as the coronavirus pandemic delayed the start until November.

Copyright 2020 KTUU. All rights reserved.

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