Editor’s note: On June 23, 1972, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 was signed into law. This month, Bally Sports assesses the impact of the landmark legislation and the future of women’s sports in America.
Sage Ohlensehlen was born and raised about 65 miles east of the University of Iowa in Bettendorf, Iowa. Her father attended the university, and as a 9-year-old, she remembers setting a personal goal to earn a swimming scholarship at her dad’s alma mater.
With such a lofty goal, Ohlensehlen began making sacrifices that an ambitious kid would not think twice about, such as attending morning practices and missing out on birthday parties in order to work out twice a day. Her determination continued throughout her high-school years.
“I gave up so much of my childhood to swim and I don't regret a minute of it, but you know, every weekend I was at meets,” Ohlensehlen told Bally Sports. “I never partied in high school. I never did anything crazy in high school because I was so hyper-focused on this dream.”
Ohlensehlen never dreamed she would be one of four female swimmers to bring a Title IX noncompliance lawsuit against the University of Iowa in September of 2020, after the school cut the swimming and diving programs for men and women along with men’s tennis and men’s gymnastics. The lawsuit alleged that the school did not create enough athletic opportunities for women.
She learned about the lawsuit when, while taking the LSAT at her parents’ house, she got a call from Nancy Hogshead-Makar, the four-time 1984 Olympic medalist and attorney who provided information and asked the soon-to-be senior to join the cause. Even though she was close to graduating and moving on to law school, Ohlensehlen said she felt obligated to sign on. Her reasons had nothing to do with the sacrifices she made to make the swim team as a walk-on, the hard work and dedication to earn an athletic scholarship or her role as team captain.
“It was for my teammates. And then mostly for the kids that I coached at that point,” Ohlensehlen said. “Because I was coaching a bunch of kids who were 8 through 15, and so many of them have the dream to swim for Iowa. And that's the exact position that I was in.”
Ohlensehlen felt like her dream had been abruptly ended after hearing the news of the university’s cuts. She said it wasn’t the first time the school had made the swim team feel less valuable than other sports, recalling the times when she and her teammates were told “your spot doesn’t make any money” or “there’s budget cuts.”
“Then I see the women's sports that do make money, like women's volleyball and women's basketball, and they're not getting nearly as much either,” Ohlensehlen said. “So, I’m like, that can't be the reason.”
Ohlensehlen said there were huge inconsistencies in not only funding but also in the athletic department’s support. ”You saw the head athletic director Gary Barta at almost every football game and every basketball game, but I barely ever saw him at any women's sports,” she said. “I think he came to one swim meet a season, maybe.”
So joining the lawsuit, after taking her LSAT in her childhood bedroom, was an easier decision than she would have imagined.
“(Hogshead-Makar) is like, ‘Do you wanna think about it?’ I'm like, ‘No, I'm in. Let's go,’” Ohlensehlen recalled. “I signed the papers. I came downstairs. My parents were like, ‘How is the LSAT?’ And I was like, ‘Good. I'm suing Iowa.’”
As captain of the Iowa women’s swimming team, Ohlensehlen was aware of the negative attention the lawsuit would bring to her and her teammates. However, she received enough support from family and other swimmers, as well as professors who gave her the time to complete her coursework while fighting the university.
On Sept. 23, 2021, nearly a year after filing their Title IX lawsuit, Ohlensehlen and fellow swimmers Kelsey Drake, Christina Kaufman and Alexa Puccini breathed a sigh of relief. The University of Iowa reached a settlement to keep women’s swimming as a sport until at least 2028 and to pay nearly $400,000 to cover legal costs.
The settlement also mandated the creation of a new women’s sports team to comply with Title IX. Iowa’s athletic department announced that it would add women’s wrestling as a Division I varsity sport in the 2023-24 academic year.
Getting the women’s swimming program reinstated and a new women’s sport added was a huge victory for Ohlensehlen and her teammates.
Attorney Jim Larew, who represented the “reluctant plaintiffs,” said their motivation was to “improve the university and make it a better place.”
"Not everyone, particularly when they filed, either understood or supported what they were doing,” Larew told the Des Moines Register. "By the time it was over, however, I think they viewed this a very positive experience for themselves as growing people and found it reaffirming that they could cause a large institution like the University of Iowa to be required to align with federal law."
A federal judge temporarily blocked Iowa’s decision to cut women’s swimming and diving in December of 2020, and the university permanently reinstated the women’s program in February of 2021. The men’s swimming and diving, tennis and gymnastics programs, however, were permanently discontinued at the end of the 2020-21 school year.
After going through what she described as the “darkest period of my life,” Ohlensehlen celebrated what she viewed as the lawsuit’s biggest triumph. “I was able to keep those kids' dreams of swimming at Iowa alive,” she said.