The economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to be felt throughout the sports world, with recent devastating results for a major North Carolina College.

Last Thursday, East Carolina University announced it would be eliminating four sports, men’s and women’s swimming and diving, and men’s and women’s tennis.

The loss of the swimming and diving program was felt hard in Haywood County, by 2018 Tuscola graduate, ECU sophomore Johnny Darguzas, and Charlie McCanless, Darguzas’ coach at Smoky Mountain Aquatics Club who graduated from ECU in 2008, and swam there for four years.

“I think it really does [show the pandemic’s impact on sports],” Darguzas said. “It’s devastating because it’s happening across this country. Our athletics department was on the verge of cutting teams, or looking at a different financial solution and trying not to cut. They were originally going to cut two teams, and with the COVID, they had to make a choice of four. I think it is hurting a lot of different teams across the country.”

ECU was already looking at athletic budget cuts due to the school’s low athletic budget and American Athletic Conference-leading 20 sports programs. The pandemic ballooned the athletic department’s deficit for this fiscal year to $10.2 million, and cutting those programs, along with other moves, projects to save $4.9 million.

For Darguzas and McCanless, the loss of their college program is a devastating reality to face. The pair spoke with The Mountaineer to put in perspective what they and countless current, former and potential future ECU Swimmers are losing.

A shocking loss

When Darguzas received an email last week about a team zoom meeting regarding compliance, he figured it was just about a possible budget meeting, as a description of the meeting context was not provided.

The university’s athletic department was not in good shape financially, but Darguzas never would have expected to hear ECU Athletics Director John Gilbert say that four athletic programs were being cut. He never would have thought he’d see his teammates and coaches on the zoom call crying, blindsided and wondering what to do next.

“It was pretty devastating,” Darguzas said. “It was out of the blue. It was all surreal. Everyone was crying, and the coaches on the call were all crying and we were trying to make sense of what just happened. [The coaches] just lost their livelihood and everything they’ve been doing for the past 17 years at ECU. They were all former swimmers too. For me, it was just a sense of shock.”

Darguzas swam for four years at Tuscola, first under Robin Batchelor, and then current Mountaineers head coach Kevin Fitzgerald.

He set team records for the 200-yard individual medley and three relay events, was a three time all-conference and all-region selection and 3A championship finalist in the 100-yard fly and 200 IM.

Darguzas credits his time at Tuscola for making him the swimmer he is today, and getting him to ECU.

“It’s just you and yourself in the pool,” Darguzas said. “That’s something I think is great for a lot of swimmers is the individualized aspect of it. Tuscola really taught me that, with Robin and then Kevin. I started in lane one, the slow lane and didn’t know how to do any stroke, really. They taught me everything I know. I think it’s been very beneficial for Tuscola and all the people there.”

Darguzas also credits his time with SMAC from 2015-2018, swimming for McCanless and Scott Simmons.

He was a finalist for the Western North Carolina Mountain Amateur Club Olympic Sport Athlete-of-the-Year, set SMAC records in 200-yard breaststroke, 100-yard fly, 400-yard IM.

McCanless played a role in Darguzas’ recruitment, speaking with ECU associate head coach Kate Moore, and knew what the former Mountaineer and SMAC member put in to get to the college level.

“Nobody worked harder,” McCanless said. “Johnny worked really, really hard to get on that team and earn a spot on that team. It was a really cool thing for him to do it.”

Darguzas was starting to make a splash for the Pirates in his sophomore year; his accomplishments included placing fifth in the 400-yard IM and 10th in the 500-yard freestyle at the Janis Hape Down Nike Invitational as a freshman, and earning a spot on the AAC AAC All-Academic Team in 2018-19.

Beyond his achievements in the pool, Darguzas was enjoying being a part of the ECU swimming family, and gaining a reprieve from the pressures of being a college student through swimming.

“It was just a sense of family,” Darguzas said. “Everyone on this team has been watching out for each other and having each other’s backs. For me, personally, it’s been hard to manage swimming and school in college. Swimming was also an escape from the pressures of school.”

Now that the program has been taken away, Darguzas feels not just his own loss and that of his teammates, but for the alumni who came before him, and the Greenville swimming community. He also spoke to his heartbreak for Moore, who he worked with closely, and his other coaches, losing their livelihoods.

“It’s really gut-wrenching that they took this away from not just us on the team now but all the alumni who have swam here, and the community,” Darguzas said. “We have a great crowd at our swim meets, and people really enjoyed coming to watch. Now, they kind of ripped it away from us.”

Heartbreak for alumni

Among that group of alumni is McCanless, a team captain and varsity record holder over his four years as a Pirate.

The SMAC coach heard about the decision last week through a friend, and his first thought was “Oh God, Johnny,” as he felt for his former pupil. He then began to think of all his fond memories of swimming at ECU, the lessons learned in and out of the pool and the lifelong friendships formed.

“It meant a lot to me,” McCanless said. “... I learned a lot at ECU. I got some lifelong friends because of the swim team. There are stories, I’ll probably be 80 years old, laying in bed, just laughing to myself and people will be like ‘What’s wrong with this guy?’ I’ll be thinking about swimming at ECU, because it was such a blast.”

McCanless started coaching in Greenville after graduating from ECU, and has been with SMAC since 2014.

He knows his head coach at ECU, Richard Kobe, had a major influence on his own coaching style. He remembers the fun he and his teammates had at the Pirates’ practices, calling it the best two hours of everyone’s day. He’s tried to carry that philosophy with him to SMAC.

Knowing the impact his time, and his coaches at ECU had on him, and the impact current head coach Matt Jabs and his staff have had and could have continued to have on current and future swimmers, it’s hard for McCanless to reconcile that loss.

“Seeing my friends, other Pirate alumni, have the same experience and grow up to be really successful adults, I think a lot of that came from being on the team, and it’s a shame that young athletes and young adults aren’t going to be able to have that experience anymore,” McCanless said. “The coaches there are fantastic. Coach Kate’s great, coach Jabs is great. They do a really good job. It’s a shame, because I think most universities, it really matters the people that you have and the impact people can make. They’re cutting a couple really good ones.”

McCanless echoed Darguzas’ surprise over the program being cut, for two reasons.

Given that ECU swimmers often boast some the highest GPAs on campus, the program hasn’t experienced a losing season in 25 years, has won four AAC conference championships in six years (including this year), Jabs was just named the AAC coach of the year, the program has produced 47 All-Americans and 21 conference championships, the men’s team has finished above .500 for 37 consecutive seasons and the women’s team for 28 seasons, swimming and diving is arguably the most successful program at ECU.

The second is that neither he, nor any of the other alumni he spoke with, received any request for aid from the university prior to the cuts being announced.

“It makes you wonder why they did it,” McCanless said.

What could have been

The timing of this announcement must be particularly devastating for a number of high school seniors across the country. Most prospective high school swimmers will have made their commitments and signed their National Letters of Intent.

Those who committed to ECU may never get a chance to wear the purple and gold as a student-athlete, and could be hard-pressed to find another option for collegiate swimming at this juncture.

“Can you imagine if you’re a recruit now and you’ve signed to go to ECU and committed?” McCanless said. “It’s almost June. How are you going to have a spot to swim next year? A lot of rosters are full, across the country. It’s terrible timing and it just really sucks. I learned so much and had so many great experiences at ECU, with the Pirates, that people aren’t going to be able to have anymore, unless the alumni can do something.”

Darguzas remembers well the moment he knew he’d be swimming as a Pirate. He wasn’t sure if he’d swim in college, but McCanless encouraged him to keep his options open. He received a call while in class at Tuscola and stepped into the hallway to hear the news: his swimming career would continue.

Remembering that, Darguzas tried to put into words the heartbreak for current recruits.

“I know what it feels like to get accepted and to come here,” Darguzas said. “It’s a really cherished moment I’ll have. I couldn’t imagine, during that time, if someone just took it away from me. I’d feel kind of robbed of that opportunity. I can only imagine what some of these kids coming from high school are going through. I know it’s got to be a troubling time for them and their families. They’re going to have to find a new school, or maybe even come to ECU but without swimming. It’s a hard choice to make.”

Hope remains

One key provision in the school’s decision: Scholarships for current swimmers, and incoming freshmen who have signed National Letters of Intent, will be honored.

Darguzas will not transfer to another college to swim; he’ll finish his education at ECU, and possibly pursue club swimming.

And the varsity programs for the Pirates may yet be saved. A change.org petition on the program’s behalf had reached over 14,000 signatures as of Monday evening, and the #SaveECUSwimDive social media movement continues to raise awareness.

With the university’s decision to cut the program largely stemming from needing to upgrade the Manges Natatorium swimming facility, the alumni and supporters have started a pledge campaign, with over $165,000 already raised.

They have asked the university to tell them how much is needed in terms of funds and set a deadline, and knowing they’ll need outside funding, information and a timeline to do so.

Whether or not the campaign to save ECU swimming and diving is successful, it’s clear the widespread changes in the wake of the economic impact of the pandemic will not spare college athletics, with two of Haywood County’s own, and countless other coaches, athletes and alumni facing the loss of their beloved programs.

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