The Washington Post
An Alaska high school earned a victory out of the water as well as in when the Alaska School Activities Association reversed a controversial disqualification because of a swimsuit that an official ruled to be a violation of the sport’s modesty rules.
The win by Breckyn Willis, a swimmer at Anchorage’s Dimond High School, was restored Tuesday, less than an hour after a formal appeal by the Anchorage School District on behalf of the senior and her team. The school district had called the disqualification “heavy-handed and unnecessary,” asserting that “our swimmer was targeted based solely on how a standard, school-issued uniform happened to fit the shape of her body.”
“ASAA has determined, the disqualification was the result of the misapplication of the rule and as a result is being overturned,” the association wrote in a statement, adding that all team and individual points would be restored.
Willis had just won a 100-yard freestyle race Friday when she was disqualified for her suit, a first for Alaska, and the ASAA, which governs athletics in the state’s schools, reminded officials that they must notify a coach before an athlete’s heat if inappropriate attire is observed. “ASAA will be granting this request, for the following reasons,” its statement said, citing the 2019-2020 NFHS Swim and Dive Rule Book rule 3.3.2 (Uniforms). “While the rules do allow for swimmers to be disqualified (see Rule 3.3 below), the rules clearly state that “when an official discovers a competitor wearing illegal attire . . . prior to the start of the heat/dive . . . the official shall . . . notify the coach of the competitor . . .”
Lauren Langford, who coaches swimming at another high school in the area, told The Washington Post that she believes racism, in addition to sexism, may have been a factor because Willis is among the few nonwhite athletes in a predominantly white sport. “All of these girls are all wearing suits that are cut the same way,” Langford said. “And the only girl who gets disqualified is a mixed-race girl with rounder, curvier features.”
Willis did not select the swimsuit – it was a team uniform issued to her by the school. Although she and her teammates were dressed identically, she was the only one cited for a uniform violation. Annette Rohde, who was working as an official during the meet, told the Anchorage Daily News that another female official said that the bottom of the swimsuit “was so far up I could see butt cheek touching butt cheek.” Rohde predicted that the decision would backfire.
Langford told The Post that the girl, who also won the 200 individual medley and swam on the 400 freestyle relay team that finished first, had been made to feel that her curves were a problem before. Last year, a parent took a photo of her backside and shared it with other parents to demonstrate that girls on the team were wearing inappropriate swimwear. (District officials said Monday that Dimond High School’s assistant principal “indicated to the parent who took the photographs that it was not permissible for him to take pictures of others’ children and that he should stop immediately.”)
“That to me is so inappropriate,” Langford said. She noted that the teen girl has been accused of hiking her suit up on purpose, but suits often ride up unintentionally. “We have a term for it – it’s called a suit wedgie,” she said. “And wedgies happen. It’s uncomfortable. No one’s going to walk around that way intentionally.”
Typically, rules about appropriate swimsuits are more concerned with designs and materials that might provide a competitive advantage, but there are modesty guidelines. Jewelry is banned and there are guidelines about the size of American flag decals, as well as school names, numbers, the color of the suits and other things. According to the rule book, “males shall wear suits which cover the buttocks and shall not extend above the waist or below the top of the kneecap. Females shall wear suits which cover the buttocks and breasts and shall not extend beyond the shoulders or below the top of the kneecap, not cover the neck.”
The ASAA added that, after consulting the National Federation of State High School Associations, it had sent a letter to all swim and dive officials reminding them that rules require that they must consider whether a swimmer is intentionally rolling up a swimsuit to expose his or her buttocks before they issue any disqualifications (per KTVA).
“Wedgies” happen all the time in swimming and in gymnastics, to name two sports, and Langford noted that male swimmers and divers wear skimpy swimsuits. In August, the NFHS issued a memorandum alerting coaches that “suits are being worn in such a way as to expose the athlete’s buttocks,” and provided an illustrated example of what constituted appropriate coverage. District officials said Monday that Dimond High School “made deliberate efforts over the last year” to meet those requirements – in particular, picking out the regulation swimsuit that the teen was wearing when she was stripped of her victory.
“If the suit was a problem, they all should have been disqualified,” Langford said. “But they weren’t.”