ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU/Gray News) - An Alaska school sports regulatory body reversed the disqualification of a swimmer during a high school meet, which turned into a tense dispute over the fit of athletes’ swimsuits, KTUU reports.
One of Dimond High School’s competitive racers suddenly found herself disqualified Friday from the heat she’d already won. She was sidelined by a referee who deemed the teen’s team-issued uniform to be in violation of the sport’s so-called modesty rules.
The Alaska School Activities Association decided Tuesday to reverse the disqualification, less than an hour after the Anchorage School District announced its formal appeal on behalf of 17-year-old Breckyn Willis and her team.
The district said in a statement that it had concluded that “our swimmer was targeted based solely on how a standard, school-issued uniform happened to fit the shape of her body.”
It continued to say that the district cannot “tolerate discrimination of any kind, and certainly not on body shape,” and that “this disqualification was heavy-handed and unnecessary.”
In addition to seeking a reversal of the disqualification, the district decided to seek decertification of the official involved, Jill Blackstone.
The ASAA executive director said the district believes Blackstone has targeted Willis and her sister, a fellow teammate, in a pattern of unfair enforcement over the past year.
However, ASAA would not make a determination on whether the enforcement of the modesty rules was improperly focused on the sisters. Instead, overturning the decision was allowable because the official did not notify the coach about a problem prior to Willis’s race.
The reversal reinstated the swimmer’s win in the meet and returned points to the school.
The school district also decided to seek to “suspend, with the intent to revise” the rule from the National Federation of High School Sports that defines appropriate swimwear.
ASAA said that after consulting with the National Federation of State High School Associations, it sent out a letter to all swim and dive officials reminding them that rules require that they must consider whether a swimmer is intentionally rolling up their swimsuit in order to expose their buttock before they issue any disqualifications.
It also reminded officials that they must notify an athlete’s coach before the heat if they observe inappropriate attire.
Lauren Langford, a lifelong swimmer, Director of YMCA Aquatics and coach for West High School’s swim team, published an account of the incident Sunday on Medium.com.
"The perception is that a victory was stolen unnecessarily," Langford said.
She believed Willis, was 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 stated. "It is my opinion that she has been targeted and singled out over the course of the last year."
Willis' younger sister who is also a competitive swimmer, Dreamer Kowatch, had a run-in with the same referee during the 2018-19 school year. The ref openly critiqued her suit's fit during a meet.
The girls' mother, Meagan Kowatch, said Monday that her fast-swimming daughters should be gaining attention for their performance and skill, not the fit of their swimsuits.
In August, the NFHS 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.
Brekkyn'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 NFHS letter and accompanying resources on its website. It included 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.
“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 following 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 referee did, according to Kowatch, was disqualify Wilils. She also happened to be the same referee who had embarrassed the younger sibling last year, she said.
The referee who made the disqualification did not respond to requests for comment.
Alaska School Athletic Association Executive Director Billy Strickland admitted that someone’s compliance with the swimsuit rule is subjective.
"We would encourage officials to give the benefit of the doubt to the athlete," Strickland said in a phone interview Monday.
"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.”