High school swimmer disqualified over fit of school-issued swimsuit

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - A disqualification of a state championship swimmer during a high school swim meet in Anchorage Friday has turned into a tense dispute over the fit of athletes' swimsuits.

Athletes Breckynn Willis and Dreamer Kowatch, sisters, pose with their athletic trainer, Dewayne Ingram.

This, after one of Dimond's competitive racers suddenly found herself disqualified from the heat she'd already won, sidelined by a referee who'd deemed the teen's team-issued uniform to be in violation of the rules.

"If we find that this was an error in judgment by an official, we are going to definitely ensure that there are steps in place so that it doesn't happen again," said Kersten Johnson-Struempler, Senior Director of Secondary Education for the Anchorage School District.

Struempler would not give a timeline for the district's investigation but said it had begun over the weekend after an article critical of the disqualification call became widely circulated.

Lauren Langford, a lifelong swimmer, Director of YMCA Aquatics, and coach for West High School's swim team published an account of the incident on Medium.com over the weekend.

West High School coach Lauren Langford first publicized the story in a blog post and thinks the girls are being held to a double standard.

"The perception is that a victory was stolen unnecessarily," Langford said.

Langford believes the student-athlete, 17-year-old Breckynn Willis, is being punished for her athletic physique - a combination of genetics and years of training to gain strength and speed.

"The rest of her team was wearing the same uniform, and she was the only one disqualified," Langford said. "It is my opinion that she has been targeted and singled out over the course of the last year."

During the 2018-19 school year, Willis' younger sister, Dreamer Kowatch, who is also a competitive swimmer, had a run-in with the same referee. The ref openly critiqued her suit's fit during a meet.

The girls' mother, Meagan Kowatch, told KTUU Monday that her fast-swimming daughters should be gaining attention for their performance and skill, not the fit of their swimsuits.

In August, the National Federation of State High School Associations notified coaches across the nation about a rule change that allows for the disqualification of an athlete if a uniform is not within guidelines, and a change of attire would delay the race.

A NHFS illustration of what parts of the body should be covered by the swimsuits.

Breckynn's disqualification came after she'd won, and before she'd go on to compete with her team in a relay event in the same swimsuit that same night. The Dimond girls won that match with no penalties.

The Alaska School Activities Association published the NHFS letter and accompanying resources on its website, including an illustrated graphic showing appropriate and inappropriate suit coverage for male and female athletes, under what's known as the "modesty rule."

The national organization sets the rules, and then local sporting associations have some flexibility to determine implementation according to community standards.

"There is a growing trend in high school swimming and diving of athletes wearing training and competitive suits in a manner that contradicts with the intention of their original design and manufacture," NFHS Executive Director Karissa Niehoff wrote in a memo dated August 7. "Specifically, suits are being worn in such a way as to expose the athlete’s buttocks. This issue is not gender-specific and is occurring in various states across the country."

The guidelines state suits must "be worn in the appropriate size as dictated by that manufacturer’s specifications for the athlete’s body type and shall remain unaltered. Boys shall wear suits which cover the buttocks, and girls shall wear suits which cover the buttocks and breasts."

"Before these suits even get on an athlete's body, the cut of them isn't in compliance with the modesty rule," Langford said, demonstrating the angle v-shape on the backside of women's competitive suits sold by most manufacturers.

On Monday, the Anchorage School District confirmed the suit Willis was wearing was an approved suit considered to be in compliance with the rules, and that it had been used without incident at three prior meets this season.

Meagan Kowatch said the disqualification did not come until the main referee in charge Friday night had to leave halfway through the meet, putting a different referee in charge for the remainder of the evening.

The first thing that the referee did, according to Breckynn, was disqualify Willis. She also happened to be the same referee who had embarrassed the younger sibling last year, she said.

Calls and emails to the referee who made the disqualification were not returned.

"We would encourage officials to give the benefit of the doubt to the athlete," Alaska School Athletic Association Executive Director Billy Strickland said in a phone interview Monday, though he admitted determining whether a suit is being worn in compliance with the rules is subjective.

Breckynn Willis' coach DeWayne Ingram says that Willis' determination and hard work over the years has built her success.

"What we're attempting to do is try to define the parameters of the problem that quite frankly has been brought to us by adults who are uncomfortable being on deck with young men and young ladies who are not appropriately covered," Sandy Searcy, Director of Sports for the National Federation of State High School Associations, told KTUU from her Indiana office.

The goal is not to have officials focus on the backsides of male or female swimmers, but provide guidance for compliance, Searcy said.

Still, Langford said she believes the renewed emphasis on modesty is well-intended but has gotten out of hand, especially when the rule itself is vague.

"It does not state that that coverage of the buttocks needs to be full coverage," Langford said. "That's something that we have gotten carried away with. If we are going to police this rule and if it's not a thong or a g-string, then it is in compliance."

Kowatch wants her daughter's disqualification overturned, her victory restored, and the referee they've had conflicts with to stay away from officiating her girls' races.

"We're really concerned about the allegations that were brought forward, Johnson-Struempler said, "but I think that we still have to complete our investigation before we can really land on one side or the other of the issue. She added that female athletes "shouldn't be judged by their body when they are out there as an athlete, they should be judged on the merit of their play."

Breckynn Willis and her sister Dreamer Kowatch (Photo courtesy of Meagan Kowatch)

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