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Swimming in confusion over boys’ role on girls’ teams

By Emily Sweeney
Globe Staff / November 27, 2011
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What happens when a high school boy breaks a girls’ swimming record?

The governing body that regulates high school athletics in Massachusetts plans to grapple with that question, as more boys are competing on girls’ swim teams in the fall season than ever before. Earlier this month, a male student from Norwood High, Will Higgins, broke a meet record for the girls’ 50-yard freestyle, leaving athletic officials scratching their heads over what to do.

Officials from the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association are expected to review the issue in January, and discuss what - if anything - can be done to address the new record and other concerns raised by female swimmers and some swim coaches.

According to MIAA spokesman Paul Wetzel, one issue is not up for debate. There’s no stopping boys from competing on girls’ swim teams.

Under state laws requiring equal access to sports for both genders, if there is no boys’ swimming program at a male athlete’s high school, he can swim for the school’s girls’ team.

“On several occasions,’’ Wetzel said, citing court challenges faced by the MIAA, “we have tried to mitigate that ruling for individual sports . . . and each time we try, we lose. So there’s not much we can do about ending mixed-gender teams.’’

Last summer, Wetzel said, several field hockey coaches proposed limiting the number of boys allowed on a field at one time. The MIAA had the proposal reviewed by lawyers, who ultimately decided that the plan - regardless of how well intended - would not stand up in court.

Wetzel said: “Our attorney said it won’t fly.’’

In high school swimming, there are boys’ and girls’ teams in the winter, but in the fall it’s strictly a girls’ season. This fall, about a dozen boys qualified to swim in the Division 1 state championships, held at MIT this month.

Recalling the state championships, Andover High School swim coach Marilyn Fitzgerald said she had never seen so many boys at a girls’ swim meet. “It changes the whole demeanor’’ of the event, said Fitzgerald.

The all-girl teams cheered extra loudly for other girls swimming in the MIT pool, she said. When Sarah Broderick of Haverhill High beat out several boys to win the 50-yard freestyle, “the place erupted,’’ said Fitzgerald.

Two boys - Scott DelRossi of Methuen and Nikita Kirik of Billerica - placed second and third in the event.

If one of them had won, noted Fitzgerald, “We would have been crowning a boy as girls’ state champion. Inherently, there’s something wrong with this.

“Everybody is upset about it. I’m sure the boys themselves would rather swim against boys,’’ she said.

The situation was particularly noticeable this fall, observers said. Of the 48 high schools with girls’ swim teams this season, eight - Billerica, Dracut, Marshfield, Methuen, Norwood, Walpole, Weymouth, and St. Peter-Marian in Worcester - had male swimmers on their rosters. (Many more high schools offer swimming as a winter sport. There were 190 boys’ swim teams and 154 girls’ teams competing last winter.)

In previous years, the issue of boys competing on girls’ high school swim teams has not been much of a problem, according to Wetzel.

Typically, only a handful of boys participated, and they did not perform as well as the best girls, he said. “We haven’t had any boys that were good enough. They’ve swum but haven’t qualified to move up’’ into postseason competition, Wetzel said, or threaten to break any records.

Wetzel said that any school with a mixed-gender sports team must inform the MIAA and all of their opponents during the season. Under MIAA rules, any opposing team can decline to play against the mixed-gender team. When that happens, the mixed-gender team gets a win (due to forfeit) but the opposing team doesn’t record the loss, so it does not hurt their record, he said.

Swim coaches say they don’t want any boys to lose the opportunity to swim. They just want to make sure that both the fall and winter seasons offer fair competition for both genders.

“I want all the boys who want to swim to be able to swim,’’ said Fitzgerald. “My only concern is with the girls. The girls in the fall have to be treated in the same manner as the girls in the winter . . . and that is not happening.’’

“Boys and girls should have their own championship,’’ said Fitzgerald.

These are among the concerns likely to be discussed when the MIAA’s state swimming committee meets on Jan. 5. MIAA officials also expect to address the record set by Higgins, the Norwood High swimmer who broke the mark set by Cynthia Kangos of Wellesley in 1985.

As far as the record goes, Wetzel said, the MIAA will be consulting with the National Federation of State High School Associations. The issue will also likely be taken up by the MIAA’s tournament management committee, according to Wetzel.

Coaches hope some kind of solution can be reached.

“It’s becoming more of an issue. We hope it will be addressed,’’ said Kim Goodwin, the coach at Norwood High School, who had six boys on her roster this fall.

Goodwin said whenever the boys swam with their female teammates, gender became secondary. “We’re one big happy family,’’ she said.

But as the boys improved, and began finishing stronger, more opponents began taking notice, she said.

The strength of the boys “is an unfair advantage,’’ said Goodwin. “It’s also unfair to have them not participate in a sport they love.’’

At Norwood High, the boys are timed separately from the girls. “They’re all racing against the clock’’ and trying to beat their own best time, said Goodwin.

She said she hopes something like that can be done on a larger scale, so that during state tournaments boys are only competing against other boys’ times.

Pete Foley, who coached Weston High’s swim team for 35 years and served as the school’s athletic director, said he would like to see more high schools forming “co-op’’ arrangements with nearby towns that would allow them to have enough participants to field a boys’ team of their own.

“If possible, I would like to see the schools where these guys are competing . . . co-op with other schools,’’ said Foley. “I think that would probably be the best thing for them to do. But it’s probably easier said than done. I don’t know the circumstances’’ of each individual school, he noted.

However, Foley said, “I’m confident the athletic directors are looking at all the alternatives and striving to do what’s best for their kids and their schools.’’

Harriet Kinnett, who is in her 16th year as head swim coach at Chelmsford High School, had four of her girls compete in the 50-yard freestyle event at the state championships. One of her swimmers - Mary Kate Coen - placed fourth, behind the two boys. If she had not been competing against their faster times, she would have taken second place, said Kinnett.

Boys “should either have their own time standards to make it, or have their own championship. Otherwise it’s not equal,’’ said Kinnett.

“I hope the MIAA will step in and correct this,’’ she said. “I don’t think it’s fair to the boys or the girls.’’

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.

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