Leah Fiorentino, equestrian fans pushing to save sport
Leah Fiorentino’s first year as the executive director of the National Collegiate Equestrian Association hasn’t been a quiet ride.
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This story originally appeared in the award-winning NCAA Champion magazine.
She has launched a reorganization of the association, including the formation of a board of directors and a national advisory board. She has worked to dispel common misconceptions, including those tied to the price tag of the sport’s four-legged stars. And, most notably, she has met with college administrators and equestrian advocates across the country, all in an effort to rein in enough support to preserve equestrian’s spot in the NCAA.
That NCAA tie was established in 2002, when equestrian was added to the emerging sports for women program, which is overseen by the NCAA Committee on Women’s Athletics and helps women’s sports become full-fledged NCAA championships. To remain on the list of emerging sports, a sport must grow to 40 varsity teams within 10 years or risk being voted off the list by each division.
When equestrian didn’t meet that threshold, the Committee on Women’s Athletics recommended in 2014 that Divisions I and II remove it from their lists. (Division III has never offered equestrian as an NCAA program.)
Division II heeded the recommendation at the 2015 NCAA Convention; the Division I Strategic Vision and Planning Committee took a different route and tabled the issue in June. With the tabling, equestrian is still an NCAA emerging sport for women in Division I.
Fiorentino and other equestrian fans are seizing the opportunity, pouring new energy and ideas into a campaign to increase awareness and interest in their sport. “A club experience doesn’t provide a student with the same opportunities that a varsity sport would provide them,” Fiorentino says. “Without that kind of connection to the NCAA, the sport would really be a challenge.”
Advocating for the sport involves education. First, horses are not typically purchased, but are donated to schools. Fiorentino also clarifies that horses don’t travel like student-athletes: “Horses from Georgia don’t get on a truck and go to South Carolina for competitions,” she says. Instead, the host school shares its herd.
More than 800 women now compete in varsity equestrian programs sponsored by 23 NCAA schools. Four Division II programs will lose their tie to the NCAA in 2017, but Fiorentino said an additional 11 Division I schools have expressed interest in starting an NCAA team.
While the equestrian group focuses on growth, the Committee on Women’s Athletics is taking a closer look at the requirements of the emerging sports program. “There’s a changing landscape now,” says Julie Soriero, athletics director at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and chair of the committee. “One of the things we have a responsibility to do as the Committee on Women’s Athletics is make sure the process we have in place is fair to the people involved in these sports.”
No one can predict just yet where equestrian’s ride will lead. But for now, it is making strides.