Switching track

Jenny Rohl/The NewsJenny Rohl/The News

How one athlete had to choose between walking in her graduation and staying on the team.

Story by Kelsey RandolphSports Editor

Jenny Rohl/The News

Jenny Rohl/The News

Kiara Austin, who has been a track and field athlete for half her life, is experiencing what it’s like to be a full-time student for the first time after choosing between remaining on the track team and attending her graduation in May.

It started when Austin, a senior, realized the 2016 OVC Outdoor Championship fell on the same day as graduation. She approached her coach in August after making an official decision and said she would rather walk across the stage at graduation than compete.

Then in late October, Austin’s coaches gave her two options: walk in December or participate in a small ceremony after the championship. She cleaned out her locker.

She made the decision, partly because she will be the first person on both sides of her family to go through college. Graduation is more important to her than competing in a meet, she said.

Jenny Rohl/The News

Jenny Rohl/The News

“I told them if it came down to it I’d rather walk across the stage than compete in my last competition,” Austin said.

Austin has been a key contributor to the track team, competing in triple jump, long jump and hurdles. Austin holds the No. 2 spot in Murray State’s history for triple jump, which she set in the outdoor season last year. She placed fourth at both the OVC Outdoor and Indoor Championships in triple jumps in the 2012-13 season, fourth at the Indoor OVC Championships again in the 2013-14, second at the GVSU Big Meet in triple jump during the indoor season and won the event at the SIU Bill Cornell Spring Classic last season.

Austin said her problem underscores issues for both athletics and academics. Athletics did not communicate timely enough for Austin and they weren’t aware there was a concern for seniors who wanted to walk rather than compete in the final meet. For Austin, she said there was no knowledge of other outlets or resources for a solution.

“It’s hard to plan for all 12 schools in the OVC to avoid missing someone’s graduation,” said associate professor and Faculty Athletic Representative Dave Gesler. “Unfortunately we haven’t come up with a solution, but it is on our radar because it’s a shame they have to make a decision like this.”

The Murray State News scheduled an interview with Head Coach Jenny Swieton for Tuesday, but the morning of the interview Assistant Athletic Director Dave Winder canceled it and referred all questions to Director of Athletics Allen Ward. Ward, who answered questions via email, wrote that he believed the athletic department handled the situation and there was no further problem.

“We made every effort to accommodate Kiara’s desire to participate in a commencement ceremony while at the same time allowing her to fulfill her obligations to the team and track program for the aid she receives,” Ward wrote. “After she was presented with several options, she returned a day or so later communicating her lack of desire to compete any further.”

FIRST GENERATION COLLEGE STUDENT

About a month after graduating from high school in Fort Knox, Kentucky, Austin’s military family received orders to move to Germany. Throughout her entire college career, they’ve been on the other side of the world.

Finally in February, Austin received word they were moving back to the U.S. and would be stationed in Texas. They finally could watch her compete in a collegiate track and field competition and be there as she walked across the stage at graduation.

Austin approached her event coach, Rochelle Black, and told her that if the OVC Championship fell on her graduation that she would chose graduation over the competition. Austin said she was told, “We’ll talk about that when we get there.”

Again in August, Austin approached Black. When Austin didn’t hear any solutions from the athletics department, she thought of every possible solution she could. She tried to plan to the minute if she could graduate and compete. It just wouldn’t work.

On Oct. 27 Swieton called Austin into a meeting with assistant coaches Adam Kiesler, Krysten Sebby and Black.

“I remember Coach Swieton telling me she had been hearing I didn’t want to run in the final competition,” Austin said. “I thought, ‘Man, you guys know what I want. This isn’t new.’ So I told them I had been strongly considering it.”

“The next thing she told me was, ‘Well, if that’s the case you can clean out your locker at the end of the day,’” Austin said.

Ward wrote that it isn’t unusual for the coach and the athlete to have those kind of meetings without anyone else present.

“As with all matters such as this, the sport supervisor and Athletic Director were involved,” Ward wrote. “I was out of town, but kept fully informed as to the discussion and alternatives being suggested.”

SIGNING AWAY HER ATHLETIC CAREER

Austin said she went to practice that day, and at the end of the day Swieton approached Austin one more time. Austin’s answer was still the same. Austin cleaned out her locker and went home.

The next day, Austin returned to Swieton’s office where she was presented with two alternatives.

Swieton told Austin she could still participate in the OVC Championship, and the track team would put on  a small ceremony the day after for all 13 graduating seniors. Austin said it wouldn’t be the same as walking across that stage.

The second alternative was to walk across the stage in the December graduation ceremony and still compete in the May 13-14 OVC Outdoor Championship.

Austin said that would’ve worked had that decision been made in August and not a month and a half away from the December graduation. But Austin’s family already had paid for plane tickets for her and her grandmother to fly to Texas for the month of December. She said it wasn’t financially feasible for her family to fly back on that short of notice.

“For me, at that point, it was all or nothing,” Austin said. “Graduation is such an important event in my family. I just wanted to know why it took for me to say something before there was any alternative even given.”

Two days later, Austin went back to Swieton’s office with her event coach, and she said she officially made one of the most stressful choices she ever had to make and signed a disassociation form, which dissolved her from the team and her scholarship.

ALTERNATIVE IDEAS

Austin said she wishes the athletics department would have entertained alternative options sooner in order for more seniors to have other options as well.

One of Austin’s ideas was that she could participate in the indoor season and forgo the outdoor season because they are two separate seasons.

“I asked about it, and whether Coach Swieton meant it this way or not, she told me athletics didn’t care as much about the indoor season,” Austin said.

Austin has notable accomplishments at both indoor and outdoor. She expressed the idea of redshirting and participating in just the indoor season but felt turned down.

“I am not privy to that discussion,” Ward wrote in an email. “But I do know that Coach Swieton would not have slighted the indoor season.  If Kiara didn’t have the desire to compete any further like she openly shared with us, I’m guessing that would include the indoor season as well.”

Rick Allen, co-founder of Informed Athlete and former NCAA Compliance Officer, said since Austin was aware of her options about disassociation then there was no policy violation. However, he said it has become a matter of an ethical dilemma.

Allen said he feels the decision to seemingly push Austin off the team puts the athletic department in an ethical dilemma of either keeping an athlete who consistently does well or to take the loss and move on.

“I can see it from two standpoints,” Allen said. “One being from a disappointed family and the other I see the coach, who is hired to make those decisions, make a decision as to what is best for the team.”

NCAA bylaws allow for four reasons in which a university can reduce or cut off athletic scholarships mid-year:

  • If the recipient renders himself or herself ineligible for intercollegiate competition;
  • They fraudulently misrepresent any information on an application, letter of intern or financial aid agreement;
  • If they engage in serious misconduct warranting substantial disciplinary penalty; or they
  • Voluntarily (on his or her own initiative) withdraw from a sport at any time for a personal reason.

“I applaud her for beginning her talk with them way ahead of time,” Allen said. “But it could’ve been handled a lot better. It was not handled well at all.”

Gesler, Murray State’s faculty athletic representative, said he was unaware of the situation prior to an interview with The News on Tuesday. Gesler’s job as faculty athletic representative is to be a liaison between athletics and academics. But Gesler said he is there to ensure the academic integrity of athletics and to ensure institutional control as well as the student-athlete well-being.

“Everyone has stories on both sides of the spectrum whether they chose to walk or compete and there have been cases where students have been allowed to miss a meet,” Gesler said. “The fact that she had to give up a scholarship, and me not knowing anything else on the matter, on the surface just sounds a little goofy.”

Austin said she was unaware of the other resources she had on campus, like Gesler, to help her in coming up with other solutions, which is something she hopes improves among athletics as a whole.

LIFE AFTER TRACK

Austin said she believes she made the right decision because now she feels like a real student and not a student-athlete.

“I love it,” Austin said. “I feel like I’m a legit student because you just don’t realize how much time, effort, thoughts and emotions you put into your sport when you’re here … you put the student part on the side. It’s a different feeling but I’m OK with it.”

Austin said she doesn’t want this to happen to other seniors. Austin said for the next four years the OVC Outdoor Championship will be on graduation and she would like to see some change and preparation in coming years.

“I don’t have any ill feelings toward anybody over in athletics,” Austin said. “I still love the team – I’d even go to a track meet if I could – I would definitely support them. I just hate that it had to come to this for me.”

On Wednesday, Austin was leaving Wilson Hall when she passed a former teammate. The other athlete asked Austin how she was doing. Austin paused. “Enjoying freedom,” she said.