Oliver Page-Kuhr hoped to be part of the beginning, not the end.
That’s why the Northwest School alum chose Stanford to continue his rowing career. He also spoke with coaches from Washington, Yale, California and Dartmouth during the college recruiting process.
On paper, the Cardinal’s resume couldn’t compare. And really, that was the point.
“Growing up in Seattle, UW is the rowing program that I’ve had the most experience with and been the closest to, and they obviously have a tremendous history and a program where I have a huge amount of respect for what they’ve done,” said Page-Kuhr, who graduated from Northwest last spring and competed at the Pocock Rowing Center.
“But what made me choose Stanford is that Stanford doesn’t have the history or championships that UW does, but I wanted the chance to go to Stanford and build something and be a part of the legacy of helping to build a program into something like UW or California. I wanted to be a part of starting that.”
Last Wednesday, Page-Kuhr was working a shift at West Marine — a boating and fishing supplies store in Ballard — when a Zoom call with his team and Stanford’s athletics leadership began at 10 a.m. He says he “didn’t really think it was anything super serious.” He asked his future teammates to text him updates while he worked.
“Forty-five minutes later, after the meeting had happened, I was taking a break to get a drink of water and I looked at my phone and everyone’s like, ‘The program’s canceled,’” he said. “It definitely blindsided me a little bit, because it was just so sudden and we hadn’t really gotten any inkling that this was going to happen.”
After the Zoom call ended, Stanford publicly announced that 11 varsity athletic programs — men’s and women’s fencing, field hockey, lightweight rowing, men’s rowing, co-ed and women’s sailing, squash, synchronized swimming, men’s volleyball and wrestling — would be discontinued following the conclusion of the 2020-21 academic year. The decision was made to address the athletic department’s growing financial deficit, which was projected to be $12 million in FY21 prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and $25 million or more after the virus hit. The cumulative shortfall in the next three years — without last week’s comprehensive cuts — would have been $70 million.
President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, provost Persis Drell and athletic director Bernard Muir wrote in an open letter that “we understand that the timing of this announcement, in early summer and against a backdrop of uncertainty and change across our country, is certainly far from ideal, as is the method by which we had to deliver the news to our student-athletes and coaches today, via Zoom.
“However, we felt it was imperative to confront the financial challenge before it worsened, to undertake a deliberate and collaborative decision-making process with our Board of Trustees and campus leadership, and to exhaust all alternatives before making profound changes in our programs, especially during this difficult time. That process has recently come to conclusion, and we wanted to share the news as quickly as possible in order to provide our student-athletes and staff with as much flexibility and choice as possible.”
But how much flexibility does Page-Kuhr really have? The incoming freshman is scheduled to arrive in Palo Alto, California, in September. He said that “currently, I haven’t really considered for a second leaving Stanford. But rowing in college still remains very important to me, and pursuing that at the highest level I can is something that’s important to me.”
He knows he’ll be able to do that at Stanford for at least a year. And beyond that, he’s prepared to fight for Stanford’s rowing future. The program’s goal, he said in a text message on Tuesday, is “financial independence from the athletic department and reinstatement as a varsity sport.”
“We were definitely shocked and more than a little bit angry when we heard the news, but I was sort of numb to it for a while because I was like, ‘This can’t really be happening,’” Page-Kuhr said in a phone interview last week. “It just felt so sudden and such a major change on what my outlook on the next four years was. But then I sort of settled down and we talked about what we’re going to do.
“I’m not sure the team’s really ready to talk about what our response is going to be, because we’re still figuring that out. But we definitely gathered ourselves, and I think we’re trying to shift from being sad about it to thinking, ‘OK, what can we do?’”
That’s a question student-athletes across the country are being forced to confront. Due to the financial strain of COVID-19, 56 Division I sports have been cut this offseason, according to Sports Illustrated. The growing list includes Cincinnati men’s soccer, Old Dominion wrestling, Furman baseball and many more.
Unfortunately, Page-Kuhr’s plight is not unique.
But he has hope that the beginning of his college career won’t also be the end.
“It’s been pretty hard,” he said. “There’s been moments where I think, ‘OK, we’ll get through this,’ and then there’s moments where it feels like the world’s crashing in even more than it has been the last few months.
“But overall, I think it’s moving more towards, ‘OK, this is a fight that’s not over yet. In some ways, it’s only just beginning.’ We’re definitely moving away from just the despair of it.”