Policing swimsuits: Alaska takes a stand

Anchorage School District superintendent Deena Bishop speaks at a news conference about the...
Anchorage School District superintendent Deena Bishop speaks at a news conference about the swimsuit controversy on Wednesday, Sept. 11. (KTUU)
Published: Sep. 12, 2019 at 2:04 PM AKDT
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On Wednesday, Deena Bishop stood before reporters as a trifecta of roles in life: school superintendent, athlete, and mom of athletes and brought all of them to the aid of high school swimmers Breckynn Willis, 17, and her sister, Dreamer Kowatch, 16.

"She and her sister were the only athletes to receive attention as to the fit of their suits, and our assessment was that decision by the volunteer judge was discriminatory," Bishop said, in defense of the school district's push to return a disqualified victory, suspend the rule used to make the call, and ask that the official who made the controversial decision be excluded from future meets.

The issue surrounding swimsuit fit has broiled for more than a year, when the same official verbally warned the younger sister about attire during a state meet.

To avoid a repeat, the team was advised to issue all swimmers the same suit, which it did. Yet four meets into the season, and halfway through a Dimond High School meet Friday against Chugiak High School, it happened again, this time with the elder sister disqualified after winning a heat.

"Evidence demonstrates that the same biased call occurred when all the suits were the same on all 23 female athletes," Bishop said during the press conference.

After days of turmoil, the returned win and decision to yank the problematic rule came as relief to Dimond High School coach Scott O'Brien.

"It is time for our student athlete to get back to what she loves -- swimming, being the team captain, and just being a high school senior," he told KTUU during a phone call Wednesday.

The sisters are highly competitive, well-decorated athletes. Both are state repeat record-holders and state champs.

The saga of the swimmer versus the swimsuit rule quickly made national and international headlines, a crush of attention -- not all of it positive -- that Meagan Kowatch told KTUU has been difficult for her daughters.

"If this incident can help young people and young ladies swim without bias, swim without being targeted, swim without judgment, whether they are swimming or playing on any field, I think it is worthwhile all the attention," Bishop said.

It has intensified a national conversation the same week the United States Aquatic Sports federation is holding a national convention in St. Louis, Missouri.

For everyone who swims, coaches or officiates, the issue has made public an ongoing challenge about how to strike the right balance between too little and too much rule-making regarding uniforms.

The governing rule-making body is the Indiana-based National Federation of High School Sports Associations, which has been trying to refine how to advise officials on enforcing existing rules about attire.

"It's high school athletics in an interscholastic setting, and we have the educational background and platform to talk about role-modeling and behavior -- and behavior includes attire -- and we will work on getting the message out in a more effective way," Sandy Searcy, the federation's sports director, told KTUU Wednesday.

The Alaska School Activities Association is the state-level body that carries out the rules set by NFHS, and Searcy said local bodies are empowered to determine what's best in their community.

"This is a very scary rule that just got handed by one organization, and why didn't the other organizations hand us the same outline?" asked Joey Caterinichio, an Alaska swimming official with a background officiating snow sports at the national and world levels.

When she tried to intervene during the 2018-19 season, including leading into the state meet, she told KTUU she was briefly removed from officiating, something that the swimmers' mother and other coaches and officials have confirmed.

Caterinichio said ASAA immediately reinstated her four days after she'd become aware her name had been removed from the roster of officials.

She believes she was banned because of her efforts to clarify the emphasis on swimsuit coverage and on how an official should call it.

When students aren't swimming for school teams, many are on club teams that practice in the off season and travel to national meets, including Junior Olympics. Those meets have a different governing body, USA Swimming, which adheres to a program called Safe Sport, which provides training for coaches and officials on protecting children from abuse, sexual abuse and harassment.

Safe Sport has no jurisdiction over NFHS, and USA Swimming has not made attempts to regulate swimwear beyond "the current concept of appropriate."

Caterinichio told KTUU, when she became aware of the NFHS growing emphasis on attire and the rule enforcement, she grew increasingly concerned about its effect on athletes and officials.

"This is a slippery slope when you are working with children's private areas, and the buttocks is one of those. They didn't role play what would happen, they just threw a rule out there," she said.

"Once that child is in the same suit as everyone else, we are absolutely judging their bodies," Caterinichio said.

Imagine, she said, trying to have someone back up the call. You'd then have two people trying to review the situation. Do you take a picture? Take measurements? Draw on someone's anatomy? Because all of those are easy "Nos," she said, it becomes clear that a subjective call of this type can open up unforeseen consequences.

Another problem, Caterinichio said, is that trying to police how a suit is worn or fit means focusing attention on someone's body instead of how they are performing athletically.

NFHS's Searcy said, the federation knew it would be an uncomfortable rule to start emphasizing, but the benefits -- decorum on the deck, a safe environment for swimmers and officials -- makes it a meaningful, important effort.

"It's a changing of a culture and that sometimes takes time," Searcy said.

Bishop told KTUU that with 14,000 student athletes, ASD is by far the largest member of ASAA, and that as such the district is confident it's voice will be heard.

In pressing for a revised rule from NFHS and ASAA, Bishop said it won't be left solely to officials to discuss and influence what the rule about attire should be or how it is enforced. School district officials, with legal training on protecting children, will be at the table.

"We owe it to our student athletes to provide a fair and consistent atmosphere in which they can train and compete to their fullest, without judgment," Bishop said.

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