Alaska high school swimmer’s ‘butt cheek’ race disqualification overturned

An Alaska high school swimmer’s win was stripped away last week after an official disqualified her over a uniform violation, stirring up a local controversy and leading to accusations of racism.

But on Tuesday, the Alaska School Activities Association announced a decision to overturn the disqualification. That means Dimond High School swimmer Breckyn Willis’ victory in a 100-yard freestyle race will be restored, The Washington Post reported.

“While the rules do allow for swimmers to be disqualified ... the rules clearly state that ‘when an official discovers a competitor wearing illegal attire…prior to the start of the heat/dive…the official shall…notify the coach of the competitor…,’” Billy Strickland, executive director of the ASAA, said in a statement. “All evidence gathered, including the statement provided by the official, indicated the official did not notify the coach prior to disqualifying the student. “

Annette Rohde, an official at the Anchorage swim meet on Friday, said the referee who disqualified the swimmer told Rohde the girl’s swimsuit “was so far up I could see butt cheek touching butt cheek,” the Anchorage Daily News reports.

Lauren Langford, the coach at West High School in Anchorage, wrote Saturday in a Medium post on the incident that “this young lady and her sisters are being targeted not for the way they wear their suits but for the way those suits fit their curvier, fuller figured bodies.”

The girls are among the top high school swimmers in the city and are mixed race, the Daily News reports.

“They are being targeted not because they are wearing their suits to be scandalous ... but rather because their ample hips, tiny waists, full chests, and dark complexions look different than their willowy, thin, and mostly pallid teammates,” Langford wrote. “Some will argue this has nothing to do with race, but when the same officials targeting these girls have been heard saying that so-and-so white girl also shows too much skin but has never been disqualified for a similar violation the racial facet of this issue cannot be ignored.”

Anchorage School District leaders said in a statement Monday that they are “reviewing the disqualification of a student athlete” during the home meet.

School leaders said the “disqualification appears to stem from a difference of opinion in the interpretation of the rules governing high school swim uniforms.”

The Dimond High School swimming coach immediately filed a protest after the disqualification, but it was denied, according to the district.

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Citing “an ongoing national discussion” about uniforms, the school district said it has made “deliberate efforts over the last year to ensure athletes’ uniforms meet the regulations prescribed by the National Federation of State High School Associations.”

The girl who was disqualified was wearing an approved swimsuit the school issued her that should have met the association’s requirements — a uniform that was given to every other swimmer on the team as well, the district said.

Rohde said she wasn’t sure if the swimmer’s uniform violation was prior to, during or following Friday’s race, which was one of four races she swam and the only one she was disqualified from, according to the Daily News.

“If you’re in a situation where your suit creeps up, somebody comes over to a coach and says, ‘Hey, you’ve got an athlete who needs to adjust his or her suit,’ and they have that opportunity to fix it,” longtime Alaska coach Cliff Murray said, according to the Daily News. “And if they don’t, there are ramifications.”

School officials said they “expect all referees and officials to conduct themselves in a manner that respects the dignity and rights of every student athlete regardless of the young person’s gender, body shape, race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, or disability.”

“We owe it to our student athletes to provide a fair and consistent atmosphere in which they can train and compete to their fullest potential,” the district’s statement said, adding that school leaders “will not tolerate actions by its coaches, students, staff, or community members that discriminate, target, or otherwise create an unsafe or inequitable environment for its student athletes.”

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Jared Gilmour is a McClatchy national reporter based in San Francisco. He covers everything from health and science to politics and crime. He studied journalism at Northwestern University and grew up in North Dakota.