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MIAA to study boy-girl swim team records

Sarah Broderick, a top swimmer on the Haverhill High School team. Sarah Broderick, a top swimmer on the Haverhill High School team. (Susan Chalifoux/Globe Staff)
By Emily Sweeney
Globe Staff / January 1, 2012
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The governing body that regulates high school athletics in Massachusetts is taking a closer look at the controversy surrounding mixed-gender swim teams, and will soon address the issue of boys breaking girls’ swimming records.

This fall, eight girls’ swim teams carried male swimmers on their rosters and several boys qualified to compete in the girls’ state championships. In November, Will Higgins, a male swimmer from Norwood High, broke a meet record for the girls’ 50-yard freestyle event.

The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association’s Swim Committee will convene for its regularly scheduled meeting on Thursday. Among the topics to be discussed will be how to handle the sectional record set by Higgins.

“There will be a discussion of the boys setting records in girls’ swim tournaments on the agenda,’’ confirmed MIAA spokesman Paul Wetzel in an e-mail.

The swim committee will explore “what, if anything, can or should be done,’’ Wetzel said. “Any action will depend on that discussion.’’

Athletic officials are limited in what they can do. In the eyes of the MIAA, there’s no stopping boys from competing on girls’ swim teams because state law mandates equal access to sports for both genders. If a boy wants to swim and there is no boys’ swimming program offered at his school, he is allowed to swim with the girls.

But here’s the catch: High school swimming in Massachusetts takes place in the fall and the winter. In the winter season, there are both boys’ teams and coed teams, and separate state tournaments are held for each gender. But in the fall, swimming is strictly a girls’ sport. That leaves Higgins and other male fall swimmers no choice but to swim alongside girls, and strive to compete in the girls’ state championships.

Of the 48 high schools with girls’ swim teams this fall, eight - Billerica, Dracut, Marshfield, Methuen, Norwood, Walpole, Weymouth, and St. Peter-Marian of Worcester - had male swimmers on their rosters, according to the MIAA.

Up until recently, this wasn’t much of a problem, since most boys didn’t qualify to compete in the girls’ state championships and they weren’t setting any records.

That changed in November, at the South Division Fall Girls’ Swimming Championships, when Higgins finished the 50-yard freestyle with a winning time of 23.96, breaking the girls’ sectional record of 24.10 set by Cynthia Kangos of Wellesley in 1985. (The boys’ sectional record for that event is 21.40, according to the MIAA website).

It’s not clear how the MIAA will deal with Higgins’s meet record. That will likely be hashed out on Thursday when the swim committee meets at 9:30 a.m. at MIAA headquarters in Franklin.

The 22-member swim committee includes principals, assistant principals, and athletic directors from high schools across the state, as well as coaches and officials. The meeting is open to the public.

Rich Piergustavo, the athletic director at Milford High School, is on the swim committee and was there when Higgins broke the record at the sectional. Piergustavo’s daughter swims for Milford High School and was also competing that day.

The number of boys in the pool “took some people by surprise,’’ he said. “People in the stands were like, ‘What is this?’ ’’

Piergustavo isn’t sure how the MIAA will handle the Higgins record. “I think you have to look at the legal implications first,’’ he said. “Once that is clarified for me, I’d make a more informed opinion.’’

Joshua Blagg, Chelmsford High School assistant principal, has served on the swim committee for a year. “It’s become an increasingly sticky situation, especially this fall,’’ said Blagg. He referenced the girls’ state championships in November, in which six of the top 12 seeded swimmers in the girls’ 50-yard freestyle event were boys.

Sarah Broderick of Haverhill won the title with a time of 23.85 seconds. Higgins was academically ineligible to compete.

“It’s an interesting conundrum,’’ said Blagg. “It’s something we’ll wrestle with on Jan. 5.’’

Jim Davis, the Belmont High School athletic director, said he wants to hear from the tournament directors and get their input, as well as hear from the rest of the committee.

“I don’t have any opinion as of yet,’’ said Davis. “There’s a host of possibilities.’’

One possible option could be to move boys and girls swimming into one season, but that would essentially cut out a season, limit participation, and put even more pressure on pool time that is scarce as it is. Another option would be to hold a boys’ tournament in the fall.

Brian McDonough, Norwood High School’s athletic director, also serves on the swim committee. Norwood had six boys on its girls’ team this fall. McDonough said that in the Bay State League, if a boy displaces a girl on an all-star team, an additional all-star slot automatically opens up, so the girls have an equal chance of making the all-star squad. This is also done for field hockey, he said.

McDonough wasn’t sure what would come out of Thursday’s meeting, but is looking forward to hearing from his fellow committee members.

“It’s a highly charged subject,’’ said McDonough. “We’ve seen this coming. For the last two or three years, it’s been on our radar.’’

McDonough said he wouldn’t be surprised if a subcommittee or task force is formed to explore the issue in more depth, and solicit more input from veteran coaches around the state.

“It’ll be an interesting meeting, that’s for sure.’’

Emily Sweeney can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.

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