Iowa women's rowing coach Mandi Kowal has resigned after an 18-year tenure in which she built the program from scratch before facing scrutiny and a lawsuit over the way she pushed athletes during workouts.
Athletic director Gary Barta announced Kowal's resignation without explanation Wednesday, calling her a dedicated coach and "outstanding person" who was instrumental in building a state-of-the-art boathouse that opened in 2009.
Spokesman Steve Roe said Thursday that Barta would not answer questions about what led to the resignation, which came one month after The Associated Press reported on an internal athletic department memo from 2008 in which Kowal was ordered to "bring about a culture of student-athlete well-being" in the program.
The memo was recently made public as part of a lawsuit brought by former coxswain Margaret Krusing, who claims team workouts were so demanding and poorly supervised that she developed a rare leg condition in 2008 that made it difficult for her to walk. The case was supposed to go to trial this month, but has been delayed.
Krusing's attorney and a spokesman for the Iowa Attorney General's Office said Thursday both sides recently agreed to an upcoming mediation session aimed at exploring a settlement in the case. Both declined comment on Kowal's resignation.
Kowal asked for a written list of questions from a reporter seeking an interview. She did not respond after they were submitted.
Kowal is a former Wisconsin standout and U.S. National Rowing Team participant who had run Iowa's program since it assumed varsity status in 1994. Rowing is Iowa's largest women's sport, typically having 60 to 80 participants.
Part of Kowal's legacy stands on the banks of the Iowa River, the $7.2 million Beckwith Boathouse that houses the program. Its design and features for training, including rowing machines and a tank that features moving water at various speeds, are seen as key for recruiting. Before its opening, the team had been housed in tight quarters in part of an academic building devoted to laser technology that had no showers. Flooding in 2008 damaged that building and forced the team to row at a local reservoir.
"I think Mandi has meant obviously everything to the program," said Des Moines surgeon Sue Beckwith, who donated $1 million to build the boathouse. "She's set a great foundation for the program and she's gotten it to a place where it can be competitive."
Beckwith said she had no inside knowledge of the resignation and was confident Kowal acted "in the best interest of herself and for the program." She said she doubted the resignation was linked to the lawsuit.
University spokesman Tysen Kendig called the resignation a personnel matter that would not be explained beyond Wednesday's statement. Roe said the university was in the process of starting a national search to replace Kowal, who made about $73,000 per year.
Last week, attorneys representing the university filed a motion to remove Kowal as a defendant in Krusing's lawsuit, arguing that she acted in her official capacity as a state employee and could not be sued on an individual basis. Krusing's attorney did not object to the request.
The lawsuit said Krusing was unprepared for the running and biking regimen that Kowal expected when she joined the team in 2007, and started complaining of burning pain in her legs and numbness in her feet during runs. She says team trainers failed to get her treatment, taping ice packs to her legs when she continued showing symptoms. And Kowal, a triathlete, had her join a swimming class with ex-college swimmers that only worsened her condition, the suit alleges.
Ultimately, Krusing says she could hardly walk and learned she had exertional compartment syndrome, which causes pain and swelling in arm and leg muscles and is common in athletes who make repetitive movements. She required several surgeries that have not fully corrected the condition, her mother testified in a recent deposition.
After her parents complained about their daughter's treatment, the athletics department agreed to increase her half-scholarship to full. The department agreed to continue paying the scholarship even after Krusing quit the team in 2009 and transferred to Marquette University, which received more than $60,000 from Iowa for Krusing's educational expenses.
The internal 2008 memo told Kowal to take several steps to prevent injuries, such as having a trainer provide daily injury reports, keeping injured athletes out of practice until cleared by medical staff, and developing a new training program for coxswains. The memo, written by associate athletic director Paula Jantz, cited "issues that have been raised to a level of concern" and urged her to focus on "student-athlete well-being and engage in clear, open and appropriate communication."