In Defense of Short Course Yard Swimming
There has been much debate in recent years over the role college swimming plays here in the U.S. in the development of our elite international athletes, and the discussions on SwimSwam have heated up quite a bit recently after the performance of our World Championship Team this past week in Kazan. Disregarding the Flame wars that often result from anonymous Internet forums, there are several well-articulated points from both camps. On one end we hear that SCY and college swimming is a detriment to the development of our elite athletes in the big pool, while on the other end we hear how college programs aid in the development of said athletes.
I have enjoyed following the banter from the sidelines, until now. My humble opinion falls right of the middle, leaning heavily towards college programs having a positive impact on our international performances. In short, I believe both parties are right in specific circumstances, with the overwhelming majority of said circumstances leaning towards college swimming as a benefit to elite international performance. To paint the brush of opinion 100% in either direction would be foolish, as would using the outliers to prove the rule (e.g. because not swimming in college was the right choice for Michael Phelps it is the right choice for "XYZ" elite athlete").
First, let us assume the following to be true about a top high school recruit:
Our example high school senior is identified by every top 25 program as having the desire, drive, motivation, body type, and talent to achieve elite level status in our sport
We shall define elite as having the aforementioned abilities and to earn a spot on one of the following international teams, all LCM
Miscellaneous Elite: Duel in the Pool, etc.
The student-athlete has not yet achieved a roster spot on one of the above teams
The high school senior will receive full scholarship offers from every top 10 program
The program offers Full Cost of Attendance scholarships
The potential student-athlete also has an option to:
Continue training with his/her current club team
Join a different club program that may have a reputation as a "hotbed" for elite development and may or may not have a post-grad group training as well.
If you thought ahead regarding my assumptions, you knew where I was going with the strict set of criteria I mentioned above, but I did so for a logical reason. Not only do the above set of criteria bode well for going the college route after high school, this student-athlete profile represents, in my opinion, nearly all of the elite level graduating seniors each year. For the above recruit, honing her skills at the college level is the logical choice, and gives her an opportunity to realize her national level potential. Yes, there are exceptions to the above. Michael Phelps is a once in a lifetime athlete, and surely he was right to bypass the college system and focus his efforts solely on LCM training. But Phelps is the extreme exception, not the rule. Yes, in another exception, I do believe a certain distance star is making the right decision in deferring college for a year to focus on Rio - When one considers how well she is swimming right now and the potential she has for 2016 it is an obvious choice.
Now consider the two recent examples above where staying at the club level made sense vs. the plethora of current and former elite level athletes who were developed by the NCAA system (and yes, swimming yards!) and who went on to do big things on the international stage, either while still in college or at a post-grad pro group afterwards (or Singapore, for that matter). It is hard to argue against college swimming for them, and I do believe the NCAA format offers student-athletes the ability to continue on the path to achieving their full potential. In fact, I will go so far as to say that the elite level college programs can now offer a true professional style training environment for the most self-disciplined of student-athletes thanks to full C.O.A. and the other reasons I will list below, and it is an environment that club programs would find extremely hard to match. The age of semi-professional swimming and diving is here, and one need not skip the college process to enjoy professional style benefits.
Just a few of the many perks available to an elite level athlete that meets the criteria listed above...as I run down through the list, compare against a club program - could the club provide a similar benefit?
No club fee except for summer LCM
Free access to the following support staff:
Athletic Training, PT, MD, etc.
Sports Nutrition, Sports Psych, Professional Counseling
Strength and Conditioning
Fee recovery aids
Free equipment, suits, clothes
Free travel, lodging, and meals for summer Nationals, Trials, etc.
Train with other elite athletes
World class facilities
And finally, Full Cost of Attendance scholarships have redefined the term student-athlete, and this fall we're being ushered into the era of semi-professional collegiate swimming & diving. Full COA as it is called, is a new scholarship model in which the major schools, on top of paying for room & board, tuition, fees, and books, are now providing student-athletes with a monthly stipend (a different amount for each school), in which the student-athlete is supposed to pay for out of pocket expenses the old scholarship did not cover, such as travel, technology, etc...Certainly a Brave New World! Getting back to the list of benefits, the smart, self-disciplined student-athletes will use full COA to further their athletic success by using the stipend money for products and services that improve athletic performance and which the school is not able to provide, making the choice to swim in college even more appealing for someone evaluating the alternative and who wants to win Olympic gold.
If swimming in yards and not LCM (and honestly, how many elite programs only train yards??) is the price we as a sport have to pay for all of the benefits listed above, so be it. Can you imagine our success at the international level without the facilities, coaching, support staff, money, and general overall resources the college programs provide? If tomorrow every single college program in the country was cut, how would USA Swimming and our club programs pick up the tab and train the next generation of international superstars? Note once again, the Phelps types will always be OK in a world without college swimming...but tell me of a Claire Donahue, Kevin Cordes, Kelsi Worrell, or Matt Grevers, just to name a few recent examples of athletes who needed the college system to attain world-class levels in LCM? One could debate that they would or could have attained such levels in their respective high school club programs or even a different club....we'll obviously never know, but when one considers the rise of Kelsi Worrell over the past three years, it is hard to imagine her success without the program that Arthur has built at Louisville. Everyone who recruited Worrell out of high school knew she was going to be a superstar, and thank God (she does too) we had college swimming for her to realize that international success.
Obviously it is only fair to point out that I enter the fray with a bias as I have been in college coaching for the past 10 years, but I have looked objectively at the data, have debated both sides over and over again in my head, and in the end simply find it more challenging to argue in favor of club programs over college for the nearly 100% of high school seniors each year.
And as for Kazan, yards and the NCAA system is not the issue. I find it hard to believe for example that Nathan Adrian's 2012 100 free in London wasn't affected by college swimming and yards...but somehow his 100 free at this summer's World Championships was? With all due respect to a few of the people blaming yards and the NCAA in the SwimSwam comments section, I think we're making this more complicated than it is:
The rest of the world is getting better
We didn't swim as well as many of us expected we would (we are spoiled here in the U.S. with super FAST swimming at nearly every international meet, every year)
I will end with the thought that one of the above two points is great for the future of our sport. I have always believed that swimming is the only sport that could one day rival soccer for worldwide dominance, and while that may be a long way off, I hold a subjective belief that swimming does hold the #2 spot in the world as we speak (certainly T&F could make an argument here as well). Of the major sports worldwide, FINA has 208 member nations and I believe only FIFA and the IAAF have more. When you look at who is competitive worldwide, the sheer number of member nations, and the popularity of the sport in other countries...folks, we should be happy that the world is getting better because ultimately it is better for the sport and will in turn make us better.
Perhaps someone more connected than I can fill me in on what it means to swimming in Poland to have beaten the U.S. Men's 4 x 100 Meter Freestyle relay, make a World Championship final, and place 5th. I am no Polish swimming expert...have they ever had a relay top 5 at LCM World Champs before? Perhaps this historic moment will make headway in Poland and they will in turn see a spike in the number of their youth in swim programs? I think back to South Africa in 2004 and now the success of France, Brazil, and Russia in the 4 x 100 Free and can't help but smile - While I hate to lose, did it or did it not get a bit boring slugging it out with the Aussies every year?