Texas senior swimmers team up once again, this time in documentary filmmaking

Ethan Ferguson

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the April 20 issue of The Daily Texan.

Texas seniors Jake Sannem and Austin Katz earned a National Championship together less than a month ago as a part of the Longhorn men’s 800-meter freestyle relay team. Now, the two are taking entirely different paths with their swimming careers.

While their bond through swimming is coming to an end, their relationship as creative partners is just beginning. Sannem, a human dimensions of organizations major, and Katz, a radio-television-film major, are working alongside each other on a mini-documentary about the Mexican free-tailed bats in Austin. Up to this point, they’ve affectionately called the documentary, “Batumentary,” Katz said.

“This is not the official title, this has just been a joke and sitting title for the moment while we figure it out,” Katz said. “What the documentary is trying to understand is the difficulties that wildlife faces as humans have been urbanizing the world around us. We’re just using the bats as a case study.”

Sannem, who had the option to return to the Texas program due to the NCAA’s decision to grant all athletes an extra year of eligibility as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, is choosing to call it a career after a remarkable senior season.

“One of my biggest goals that I had in the sport was that I wanted to win something, whether that be an individual title, a relay title, a team title,” Sannem said. “In terms of goals in the water, I surprised myself this season and really accomplished a lot more than I had ever expected.”

Katz’s time with Texas is also over, but his swimming career is not. The senior is training for the June 13-20 USA Swimming Olympic trials after earning All-American honors at Texas in the 800-meter freestyle relay and the 200-meter backstroke. 

“I’m competing in trials later on this summer in a couple months (and I’m) super excited, super pumped,” Katz said. “The Olympics have been a goal of mine since I was ten years old, maybe even younger.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic gave the pair inspiration for the documentary. The duo said societal reactions to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s July 2020 update that said that COVID-19 originated in a market in Wuhan, China, put an unfair blame on bats as the cause of the pandemic. Sannem said they wanted to learn more about the Mexican free-tailed species and its importance to Austin.

“COVID created this negative connotation that has really been affecting the bat population here in Austin,” Sannem said. “We spent a lot of evenings under the South Congress Bridge (and) the bridge in Round Rock, learning a lot about the bats there.”

According to Texas Parks and Wildlife, bats provide positives for the Central Texas ecosystem and are an essential part of farming. Not only do they help pollinate plants and spread seeds, but they also help control insect populations. The city of Austin is about 60 miles away from the world’s largest Mexican free-tailed bat roost in Bracken Cave.  

“It’s important that we don’t lose an integral species just out of blind retribution for something that they didn’t cause,” Katz said.