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The Daily Tar Heel

Op-ed: UNC’s win-at-all-cost attitude jeopardizes the safety of athletes


This op-ed is part of the Mental Health Collaborative, a project completed by nine North Carolina college newsrooms to cover mental health issues in their communities. To read more stories about mental health, explore the interactive project developed specifically for this collaborative.

Our experience on UNC’s swimming and diving teams was disturbing.

We felt we had gained a higher status than non-athletic regular people, or as we referred to them — NARPs.

Despite this “status,” we often felt worthless outside our dedicated purpose to compete. Eventually, our struggle with mental health didn't matter, nor did any diseases, injuries or anything else really.

No matter what, we were going to practice in the morning.

Between 2020 and 2022, chlorine singed swimmers’ eyebrows, hair and skin for months at a time. During those times, many athletes complained. Since the pool would have to be closed for a week to fix it, our performance took primary concern over our health.

Issues like this unsettled us. But leaving didn't seem possible. Athletes seek approval from coaches and quitting was looked down on by everyone involved.

So we didn't say anything when we were injured or struggling. We sucked it up and went to 6 a.m. practice. We lost our eyebrows. We avoided hot showers because our skin burned. We practiced over the NCAA’s 20 hours of training per week limit, consistently dedicating well over 22 hours to the sport.

Even if we felt nothing, struggled mentally, were suicidal — it did not matter because we thought it made us special. We were told that it made us special; that we were going above and beyond dedicating ourselves to a cause.

No, we were brainwashed.

And now, years into retirement, we lay in bed wide awake wondering why the hell we bought into a program that jeopardized our health.

As ex-swimmers of the UNC swimming and diving teams, we want to tell other athletes: You are more important than your performance. If you are suffering as a result of your relationship with your program, something needs to change.

From our point of view, the University’s athletic revenue machine mandated that programs had to meet high expectations, especially those that didn’t make a lot of money.

The University’s swimming and diving teams are profit-negative programs. So, we watched coaches, frantic to meet these expectations, conduct themselves in a manner that discouraged missing practice to recover from any injury or disease. Athletes were paying the price to keep our scrutinized program afloat.

Oftentimes, we witnessed those who failed to perform be ignored and stonewalled. Similarly, we knew key point scorers who were denied legitimate claims of injury and illness to maximize training time.

The NCAA should classify these behaviors as abuse. They stretch the “splendors” of collegiate athletics into a nearly unattainable goal.

The NCAA says its core mission is to “provide a world-class athletics and academic experience for student-athletes that fosters lifelong well-being.” But the current dynamic risks the safety of everyone involved.

If this win-at-all-costs attitude isn't reversed, we will witness the complete degradation of the meaning of sport at UNC. The exploitation of athletes, who put their bodies and minds on the line to be part of what they are taught makes them important, is unacceptable.

– Former UNC swimmers, senior Samuel Long and junior Olivia Gschwind

Editor's Note: Samuel Long and Olivia Gschwind are former staffers at The Daily Tar Heel.

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