CRYSTAL LAKE – About 110 Sage YMCA swimmers, coaches and parents stood on the corner of Route 14 and Pingree Road Tuesday morning to protest the YMCA of Metro Chicago's decision to cut the swim team in half amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Families of the Sage YMCA Piranhas, a nationally ranked swim team with members ranging from 6 to 18 years old, were notified July 31 in an email from Sage YMCA Executive Director Jordan Bley that their team would be reduced from 220 to 120 members when practices resumed Aug. 25.
The modified swim team, which also cut into each swimmer's practice time significantly, came as a surprise to many of the 220 swimmers and their families. Many of the team's swimmers currently are looking for new facilities to swim, but limitations across the state because of COVID-19 have made it difficult.
In an open letter to the community signed, "The Sage YMCA Piranhas Family," the team accuses Sage YMCA in Crystal Lake and YMCA of Metro Chicago of trying to eliminate the team over several years.
Some members said they have already canceled memberships and moved on to other organizations. Others accused the organization of forcing out their head coach.
On Tuesday, the Piranhas gathered in front of Sage YMCA and walked to the corner of Route 14 and Pingree Road to protest the actions taken by Sage YMCA and the YMCA of Metro Chicago.
"We were like a family," said Madalyn Uhl, 15, while holding a sign with blue lettering that read, 'This team matters.' "We all kind of stuck together. We had each other's backs. It all kind of got taken away from us."
Jamie Gindorf, a 2020 Prairie Ridge graduate who will swim on Butler's women's swimming team in the fall, joined the Piranhas when she was eight. Gindorf said she feels for the younger swimmers.
"A lot of them are still in high school or getting into high school and they have no place to swim," Gindorf said. "Everyone is scrambling. For a lot of them, they define themselves as a swimmer. That was their life is. And they don't have that anymore."
YMCA of Metro Chicago announced the temporary closure of all of its 17 locations, including Sage YMCA in Crystal Lake, March 16 because of COVID-19. On March 27, YMCA of Metro Chicago announced it would close facilities through April 30 and furlough most of its staff.
Fourteen Sage YMCA coaches, including head coach Ed Richardson, were furloughed March 27. Between March 27 and July 30, emails from Richardson to Bley, Sage YMCA Aquatics Director Ursula Buol and YMCA of Metro Chicago President and CEO Richard Malone went unreturned, according to furloughed coaches.
Bley and Richardson did exchange a couple of emails, YMCA of Metro Chicago spokesperson Man-Yee Lee said, "but there were little details to share at that time." Richardson was the only full-time employee on the Piranhas coaching staff.
Sage YMCA reopened July 1, with capacity limits because of safety restrictions and social distancing requirements. Three facilities – in Naperville, Des Plaines and Niles – shut down permanently in May.
As of Tuesday, no one but Richardson has been contacted by Sage YMCA or YMCA of Metro Chicago about their current job status. Richardson received an email July 31 from Bley to set up a time to talk about changes in the program, according to furloughed coaches. Later that same day, Bley sent an email to families about the changes, including reducing the team from 220 to 120 members.
Richardson, who asked Bley to give him the weekend of July 31 to Aug. 2 to think about how the swim team would need to change and operate because of the pandemic, resigned in an email to Bley on Aug 2.
Coaches said that they were removed from the Team Unify management app Aug. 1, while all photos and swim accomplishments were removed from the team profile.
In an email to the Northwest Herald, Denise Lam, executive vice president and chief operating officer at YMCA of Metro Chicago, said that the decision to reduce the number of members on the team was "based entirely on safety."
"Out of overriding concern is for the health and safety of all of our 7,500 Sage YMCA members, including the over 200 children participating on the swim team," Lam said. "We're reopening the entire YMCA at reduced capacity to limit the possibility of spreading the virus. That means in every space and every program is opening up with fewer participants than before COVID-19. Aquatics is no exception.
"We believe this gradual approach to reopening is being adopted by many other businesses such as restaurants as a precautionary measure, and the Y is no different. We feel it is the responsible thing to do, especially as the number of COVID-19 cases in McHenry County appears to be back on the rise, which gives us cause for concern."
Lam said that it is policy of YMCA of Metro Chicago to limit communication with furloughed staff.
"From week to week, it's been difficult to predict when and how many staff should return from furlough, given the pandemic’s uncertain nature," Lam said in the email. "Our policy is to limit our communications with furloughed staff to conversations about their work status only. We make it a point not to discuss work-related matters because they are furloughed and not being compensated. We are very careful about that."
However, Lee said they did send out weekly recorded messages and two weekly newsletters – one for staff and one for members. In addition, there have been "town hall" calls on Zoom to communicate significant changes to the YMCA's 3,000 employees and tens of thousands of members.
All furloughed staff also receive a weekly recorded video message, Lee said.
Sage YMCA lead instructor Grant Dahlke has been with Richardson at Sage YMCA for seven years. Before that, the two started a team at the Crystal Lake Country Club but the number of members on the team quickly outgrew the size of the facilities.
Dahlke said Richardson had a plan to use a pair of fire exit doors on the backside of the building to ensure safety and adhere to capacity restrictions for all 220 members of the team but the idea was never heard by anyone from Sage or YMCA of Metro Chicago.
"We brought 100 swimmers to Sage YMCA, which basically doubled their team size," Dahlke said. "And seven years later we grew the team to 220 swimmers with a waiting list. We could have probably gone to 300 swimmers if we had the pool space and time. We put McHenry [County] swimming on the map. We made a name for that building."
Before he started coaching at Sage, Richardson was a coach for Palatine High School and Palatine Park District swimming programs for more than 30 years – where he helped produce multiple division, conference and state champions. On Sept. 19, Richardson is being inducted into the Illinois Swimming Hall of Fame.
The Sage YMCA Piranhas have won multiple state titles under Richardson and were the 2020 Northwest District champions.
"Ed took over and it went way up from there," Gindorf said of Richardson's impact on the team. "Ed put so much time and effort into the team. He treated a lot of us like we were his own kids."
Quinn Cynor, a senior at Woodstock High School, said that he is done with the team and found a place to practice in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin. A state qualifier in each of his first three years of high school, Cynor has rejoined the DeKalb County Swim Team at Kishwaukee Family YMCA in Sycamore, where he started swimming before joining Sage YMCA.
"We just want to get the word out here and make them feel it the way we feel it," Cynor said. "It's horrible. ... Pretty much all of these kids right now are teamless and have to go find other teams."