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Female swimmer disqualified over bathing suit. Critics cite body shaming.

NBC News logo NBC News 9/10/2019 David K. Li
a car parked on the side of a road: Dimond High School, in Anchorage, Ala. © Google Maps Dimond High School, in Anchorage, Ala.

A top female swimmer in Alaska was disqualified from a race she had already won when a referee ruled that her bathing suit was immodest and showed off too much backside, officials said Monday.

The swim coach of Dimond High School in the Anchorage School District plans to appeal the ruling that was made Friday against 17-year-old Breckynn Willis during a dual meet against Chugiak High School, NBC affiliate KTUU reported.

Alaska follows national high school standards that call for male swimmers to have their buttocks covered and for girls to have both their buttocks and breasts covered.

Willis wore to the meet a school-issued swimsuit that follows the requirements put forth by the high school sport's governing body, a district statement on Monday said.

"The coach’s protest was quickly denied at the meet, and we expect the coach to appeal," the statement said. "The disqualified athlete was wearing the approved, school-issued suit during the race. In the first three meets this year, the Dimond swim team has had no disqualifications related to the wear of the swim uniform."

Annette Rohde, another official working the Dimond-Chugiak meet, told the Anchorage Daily News she “froze in disbelief” when the head referee disqualified Willis from the 100-meter race she had just won.

Rohde said she confronted the referee after the meet: “I told her, ‘I need to know how you’re defining this, because this is going to blow up.’’’

The referee reportedly told Rohde that the bottom of the girl’s suit “was so far up I could see butt cheek touching butt cheek.’’

Despite calls for the disqualification to be reversed, the Alaska School Activities Association, the state's governing body for high school sports, said Friday's ruling will likely stand.

ASAA executive director Billy Strickland said the host school, in this case Dimond, would have needed to establish an appeals committee at the meet — which it did not. Schools almost never had an appeals committee assigned for a routine meet at this point of the season, according to Strickland.

But even if an appeals committee had been in place Friday, that panel would only be able to reverse a rule's misapplication, and not a disputed judgement call, like this uniform ruling.

Strickland wasn't at Friday's meet and didn't see Willis' swimsuit, but said she should only have been penalized if the athlete intentionally hiked up her gear to expose her body.

“We would want the official in every sport, when making a subjective call, that the benefit of the doubt go to the athlete," Strickland told NBC News on Tuesday.

Willis is one of the Alaska's top female swimmers, winning state titles in the 200-meter freestyle and 100- meter butterfly last year. Her sister, Dreamer Kowatch, is also a top pool performer, having won Alaska's 500-meter freestyle in 2018.

The girls' mother, Meagan Kowatch, told KTUU that Dreamer had a run-in with the same referee who openly critiqued her suit's fit during a meet.

Lauren Langford, the swim coach at West High School in Anchorage, wrote a lengthy post on the internet publishing platform Medium saying that swimsuits are sized to fit snugly for racing and that Willis was singled out because she has more curves and looks different than her fellow swimmers.

"This young lady and her sisters are being targeted not for the way they wear their suits but for the way those suits fit their curvier, fuller figured bodies," Langford wrote in the post Saturday. "Their ample hips, tiny waists, full chests, and dark complexions look different than their willowy, thin, and mostly pallid teammates."

Langford told NBC News on Tuesday that the disqualification also carried racial overtones, because Willis is multi-racial in the overwhelmingly white sport.

“I don't think the official who made the call was going at it from a position of racism," Langford said. "But I do think that's an unintended consequence, that this huge stance was taken against this girl, who doesn't look like the other athletes."

Even though Lanford coaches at another school, she said Willis and her sister are universally respected and popular in the Alaska swim community.

“They're wonderfully smart and funny and heralded by all their teammates as incredibly hard working," the opposing coach said.

Willis' family could not immediately be reached for comment on Tuesday.

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