Sage Ohlensehlen started as a walk-on and rose to become captain of the University of Iowa women’s swimming team in her junior year. Her senior year started with an emergency meeting telling her and her teammates that their sport was being cut.
Not only was women’s swimming and diving being cut, but the men's swimming and diving, men’s tennis and men’s gymnastics teams, too. The argument was that Iowa had too big of a participation gap between male and female athletes — a difference of 47 athletes in the 2018-19 school year that grew to 92 for the 2019-20 school year and an expected gap of 141 athletes in the school year in which the announcement about the cuts came, according to testimony.
After the meeting, Ohlensehlen recalled, she “was kind of calculating numbers in my head … something’s still not adding up.” But it wasn’t until she was at home a couple weeks later to take the LSAT online that the wheels started moving, according to a report by Associated Press sports writer Erica Hunzinger.
Ohlensehlen finished the test and saw a text from her coach, who told her to “call this number immediately.” It was for Nancy Hogshead-Makar, who tracks Title IX compliance issues. Ohlensehlen called.
“I come downstairs from the LSAT, and everyone’s like, ‘How was your test?’ ‘Good. I’m suing Iowa,’” she said. “They’re like, ‘What? You’re doing what?’”
Alexa Puccini, just a few days into her freshman year as an Iowa swimmer, was recruited for the lawsuit by Ohlensehlen, and said all of the women knew “we could just be doing this all for nothing.”
“A Power Five school, let alone a Big Ten school, these are really powerful universities that obviously have a lot of money … we’re like, ‘Is this even going to work, four girls from a team filing a Title IX lawsuit?’” Puccini said. (There were six plaintiffs overall, including a female Iowa high school wrestler.)
By that point, as the AP's Hunzinger reported, Puccini had entered the transfer portal and committed to Arizona, where she still swims.
“One of the things I said in the lawsuit and when I was testifying … was no matter how much money they gave me, I would never be able to stay there knowing what our team went through, not being able to do what I love, which was swimming,” she said.
The women had help with the lawsuit, which was filed in September 2020; Ohlensehlen said Hogshead-Makar “had all the numbers … the other people to hire, to look at the numbers” and their lawyer took the depositions.
But Ohlensehlen was the public face in a lot of ways, and saw the effects. She was drug tested by the school four times after her last meet even though “I was injured … I didn’t even swim well.”
In December 2020, the Iowa athletes won an injunction from a U.S. District Court judge that kept Iowa from cutting any women’s team pending trial.
Iowa reinstated the women’s swimming team two months later. The athletes and the school ended up settling for $400,000 in September 2021. As part of the settlement, Iowa added women’s wrestling to be in compliance.
“In general, it was about Title IX, and specifically it was about adding women’s sports, the counting of women’s sports,” Barta said in September. “We had already agreed on reinstating women’s swimming permanently. Part of the agreement was adding a women’s sport, and we chose women’s wrestling, for all of the obvious reasons.”
When Puccini looks back, she’s proud of the lawsuit: “For us to be able to do what we did, I think inspired a lot of the other teams that had gotten cut.”
Ohlensehlen said Title IX might become something she does with her law career, and said the lawsuit was “a huge deal for me.”
“I wanted to be able to make sure that the opportunities that I had will be continued to be given to the people coming up, because it’s made me who I am, and it’s given me so much, and I needed to make sure that those opportunities are preserved for the future generations.”
The fight nonetheless exacted some personal costs for Ohlensehlen.
“I lost a lot of friends, I lost a lot of family friends in the process because for some reason, when you sue like that, people think you’re trying to take money from football,” she said. “I got booed in stores. It was really ridiculous.”