Looking back on it, junior Tyler Zelen seemed destined to swim at the University of North Dakota. A third-generation UND athlete, his parents, Dan and Camille, met in the pool at UND and before that, his grandmother was also star in the water for the Fighting Hawks.
Though not recruited at all out of Duluth East High School in Minnesota, Zelen still was hell-bent on swimming at UND.
“I basically had to beg to get a spot on the swim team at UND,” Zelen said. “Honestly, I think the only reason I got on the team in the first place was because both my parents swam there.”
North Dakota’s coaches taking a chance on Zelen proved fruitful, as over his first two years in the UND program, he got faster and faster, becoming its top sprinter while he was there.
And then the cuts came.
“It definitely shook the campus”
In 2016, the University of North Dakota cut baseball — and attempted to cut men’s and women’s golf — due to the mismanagement of state funding and other budgetary concerns. Then on March 29, 2017, the second shoe dropped, and women’s hockey and both the men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams were gone, with many student-athletes finding out through social media rather than from their coaches.
“[UND swimming] had been on the chopping block for awhile due to budgetary concerns,” Zelen said. “The thing that really sucked about this last year was that [the athletics department] told us that they weren’t going to be cutting any sports at the beginning of the year. We thought our position was secure, but at the end of the year they dropped the axe with no warning.”
UND athletic director Brian Faison told The Grand Forks Herald last spring that he received reactions of “anger, shock, frustration, disappointment, and understandably so,” after the news broke.
“One thing some people don’t understand with teams in particular is that it’s family. What you’re doing is ripping family apart -- and that was very much evident with both of these teams,” Faison told the Herald. “There’s a sense of family that’s going to be gone. It’s not that they’re not going to be good friends the rest of their life, it’s just different. And we’ve taken that away.”
Students around Grand Forks echoed Faison’s sentiments.
“It definitely shook the campus because everyone started to think about what other sports would be cut,” said Peter Henderson, a student who attended UND last year. “It didn't have to be just about fans of the sports cut but just as a campus and athletics itself. No one really knew what situation our funding for athletics was in and if any more sports were to be cut soon.”
With the swimming program gone, Zelen decided to explore his options and looked to both Iowa and Wisconsin as places he could continue to swim. He ultimately decided to join the Badgers, where head coach Whitney Hite welcomed him with open arms. Hite, who was himself affected by program cuts in 2009, as the head coach at the University of Washington, felt an obligation to take Zelen in.
“Having experienced having your program cut myself, I can tell you that it is not easy,” Hite said. “If you haven’t experienced it, you don’t know how hard it is.”
Across campus, women’s hockey goalie Kristen Campbell was trying to cope with the same struggle as Zelen — where would she go to finish out her final two years of eligibility?
Campbell, a native of Brandon, Manitoba, had initially picked UND because it was close to home and was a place she was familiar with. After North Dakota’s women’s hockey program shut down, Campbell started looking for a place to call home. In Wisconsin, Campbell found a similar fit.
“It was an easy decision out of a tough situation,” Campbell said. “It’s an amazing campus with amazing athletics, and for hockey it’s a world-class program.”
Finding a home in Madison
At the end of the summer, both Campbell and Zelen arrived at UW-Madison, a much bigger and vastly different campus than the one they had known in Grand Forks.
“This campus is way bigger than UND,” Zelen said. “It was kind of shocking getting to class, it’s a lot farther than what I was used to. At UND you could get across campus in like ten minutes walking, but now I have to bike everywhere to get to class on time.”
In addition to the campus being bigger, both athletes had to find a place to stay, and in Madison at the end of the summer, that task is easier said than done. Zelen eventually found an apartment in an off-campus complex and was paired with a random roommate, while Campbell ended up living with another transfer student-athlete, women’s basketball player Kelly Karlis.
On the ice and in the water, both athletes have found a home as Badgers. Zelen leads the men’s swim team in the 50-yard freestyle and picked up a big win in that event against Georgia, while Campbell has accumulated a .949 save percentage over the first ten games of the season.
Hite delivered heavy praise for Zelen after seeing his improvement over the first month of the season.
“I think he’s doing really well adjusting,” Hite said. “[Zelen] is super positive, he works hard, he’s smart, and he gives us another dynamic that is really going to be valuable for our team, so I’m really happy he’s here. I’m not exactly thrilled about how it all went down [at UND], you never want to benefit from something like that, but I’m certainly glad he’s here.”