By Kyril Kotlovsky and Polina Movchan
When Stony Brook University’s swimming pool closed in Fall 2012, many swimmers, including team captain Allison Zelnick, were left in disarray about their futures.
“How can I describe how we felt…anger, depression, betrayal?” Zelnick wrote on her blog. “We all understood what happened, but no one could suppress these feelings. At that moment, everyone on my team had to accept that they were now retired swimmers.”
The decision to close the pool and discontinue the men’s and women’s swimming programs came in two phases. The pool was initially drained in the summer of 2012 with the intention of renovation, thus cancelling the 2012-2013 season and redshirting the whole team. Zelnick described the pool as being, “old, and full of problems,” which hurt the school recruiting-wise.
The plan was to rent out external facilities so the team could keep practicing, with the intention of competing the following year. However, when Stony Brook’s Emergency Relief Fund was cut in half—from $200 million to $100 million—the $10 million cost to repair the pool moved down on the university’s list of priorities.
A subsequent inspection from the National Collegiate Athletics Association revealed that the pool did not meet code and safety regulations, requiring a completely new facility. This left the teams without a home turf for the foreseeable future.
In a statement to the student body, Stony Brook’s Office of External Relations wrote: “For swimming or diving student-athletes who choose to stay at Stony Brook, we will honor all current athletic scholarships and will continue to receive academic support and student-athletes’ welfare services. For any swimming or diving student-athletes who wish to pursue the opportunity to transfer to another institution, we will support their unconditional release.”
These developments also came during a difficult time for the program. Dave Alexander, the founder of the women’s swimming program at Stony Brook and coach of 32 years, died of cancer that same summer. The team had just made the jump from Division III to Division I the year before.
“There are swimmers who came here as freshmen who have never swam, and don’t know the legacy of Dave or the team,” Ellen Driscoll, Stony Brook’s assistant dean of Students, said.
Although the team was aware of Alexander’s condition, they were distraught nonetheless. “I really felt like I needed to carry on his ideals as captain,” Zelnick said. She described Alexander as “the glue that held the team together.”
Unable to swim for the first time since grade school, Zelnick said she was filled with a void. She had come off a strong sophomore year, where she was named the team’s most valuable player and set school records for the 200, 400 and 800-yard freestyle relays.
“When I heard the news that my swimming career was over, I walked outside the sports complex and cried in the stadium parking lot for a good hour,” Zelnick said. “I felt betrayed. I had finally put my whole heart into swimming and it just seemed like it was ripped away from me. I had dreams where I was swimming and getting the cuts I wanted for months, and then I would wake up crying because they weren’t real.”
Zelnick’s boyfriend, fellow swimmer Hajime Ichikawa, graduated from SBU in 2013 with a degree in health science. He described Zelnick as a fun-loving individual who enjoys video games and anime, but also a great competitor and teammate.
“As an athlete she was competitive and very motivated,” he said. “She cared about the team and wanted everyone to get better. She trained hard and set the bar high. She was a great role model and a leader.”
Ichikawa said that Zelnick was angry that the swimmers were informed of their future so late in the semester.
“She was heartbroken and was not sure what to do with her career,” he said. “She had an identity crisis and wanted to transfer because she had many more swimming goals she had not reached yet.”
“I think Allison had the strongest reaction to losing the pool,” her teammate, senior business management major Joseph Zhu, said. “She was one of the few people to really fight for the return of the pool by organizing petitions and raising awareness in the community.”
Zelnick ultimately decided to stay at Stony Brook.
“I was already a junior, and transferring in the spring would have meant losing a majority of my credits,” she said. “I wouldn’t be that great at swimming anyway, because I would have been out of the pool for so long.”
The following spring presented Zelnick with a new opportunity—during a weightlifting and running session in her junior year, she describes being recruited by volleyball coach Coley Pawlikowski, who offered her a spot on the Women’s Volleyball team.
“She said they had experiences with training new athletes,” Zelnick said. “She didn’t care if I had no prior experiences, and she was willing to train me at my own pace with no expectations. I said yes right away, even when she told me to think about it.”
Zelnick joined the volleyball team with the understanding she would mostly be a bench player and could use her height and athleticism to help the other girls learn better defense techniques during practice. But she said she was simply thrilled to be part of an athletic program once again.
Zelnick’s new teammates recognized how difficult the transition from one sport to the next must have been for Zelnick.
“Taking on a completely new sport had to be incredibly tough and I think she handled it well,” captain Lo Hathaway said. “She tried her best every day to do something that had been completely foreign to her.”
Hathaway also described Zelnick as a “very determined hard worker” who “always cheered everyone on and kept her spirits high for her teammates.”
The team struggled under first-year Pawlikowski, starting the year at 4-10, but finishing strong with 12 wins in their last 18 matches.
“I was lucky that I wasn’t the only one getting used to a new coach,” Zelnick said. “I think the team made great strides in just the first year. Even myself, knowing nothing about volleyball, could still see improvements through everyone on our team.”
Zelnick’s expectations were exceeded when Pawlikowski called on her during a game against University of Massachusetts Lowell on November 8, 2013.
“I was so excited that I pretty much blacked out,” she said. “I can’t remember much, because I was so nervous that I wasn’t thinking straight.”
The Seawolves won that game, improving to 15-14, the only time all season they maintained a winning record.
Zelnick was also the recipient of the 2014 William J. Sullivan award for “outstanding contributions to the development of academics and student life on campus,” according to the schools website, which also states that this is “the most prestigious service award the University can present to a graduating senior.” She will be leaving Stony Brook with a bachelor’s degree in economics and an MBA in finance and management.
As for swimming, Zelnick hopes to one day get back in the pool.
“Once I have a steady life situation, I will probably compete in masters swimming,” she said. “I’d love to rejoin a club USA team and train. I know it will be nearly impossible to get back to where I was, but I would be happy just being a competitive athlete.”