Commentary by Jeff Commings
PHOENIX, Arizona, May 13. YESTERDAY afternoon, Connor and Cameron Hoppe were granted permission to compete in this weekend’s Sac-Joaquin sectional high school swimming championships in northern California. Less than a week earlier, they had been banned from the championships for violating a rule that forbids swimmers from representing a USA Swimming club during the high school season.
The Hoppe brothers competed at the NCSA junior nationals in Orlando last March as members of the Clovis Swim Club. If they had swum unattached, none of this would have happened, and the Hoppes would have prepared for their season-ending meet with little drama attached to it.
For more than a decade, many states — or regions in a state, in California’s case — have tried to draw a wide line in the sand to separate USA Swimming from high school swimming. By doing so, many athletes have had to choose between their high school or their club. Someone always loses in that battle. The Sac-Joaquin section is one of the few remaining entities to force this separation, and it’s time they followed suit with the rest of the state, and most of the nation, and allow athletes to represent USA Swimming and their high school concurrently. The rule was created, according to Section Commissioner Pete Saco, to keep USA Swimming athletes from sticking with their clubs for most of the season, showing up to the final qualifying meet and racing in the sectional championships. This, Saco said, is not the goal of high school swimming. I agree with that, but the rule does not seem to have sprung from that mission.
If a swimmer competes in, say, four USA Swimming meets as an unattached swimmer during the high school season as opposed to officially representing his team, how does that strengthen participation in high school athletics? It only creates extra work for those entering the swimmers in the USA Swimming meets. Perhaps those who created the rule believed that the extra step needed to enter the swimmer in the meet would cause frustration, and the swimmer would skip the USA Swimming meet.
If you are worried about “ringers” competing in only two meets a year, create a rule that dictates how many competitions they must do before the championship meet. Don’t make it harder for kids to participate in high school swimming. Let them swim.
I grew up in St. Louis in the era when the Missouri High Schools Athletic Association had a rule that swimmers could not compete in a USA Swimming meet during the high school season, nor could you train with your club team except on Saturdays. There was no leeway allowing athletes to compete unattached. No meets other than the high school meets from November to February. It was a very clear rule with no loopholes. It forced many of my rivals to skip high school swimming.
In 1990, my junior year, I was selected for the USA national junior team to compete in France and what was then East Germany for two weeks during the high school season. Because these meets in Europe were decidedly not Missouri high school competitions, my school’s athletic director and I fought the MHSAA for weeks to get permission to attend these meets. No special treatment was given to me as a member of the national junior team. Rules were rules. For a brief moment, I considered giving up my high school season for these competitions, but at the last minute, I got the waiver and was able to swim in Europe.
About five years later, MHSAA removed the rule. Missouri high school swimming improved dramatically with the tough decision of “high school or club” removed. Several other states also did away with the rule, and I can’t help but think many of the national records broken in the past five or 10 years would not have happened if athletes weren’t allowed to represent their club and high school during the season.
Those states and regions holding on to this separation of high school and USA Swimming rule are hurting the sport. I shiver to think of the thousands of swimmers who chose to skip high school swimming because they did not want to miss out on three crucial months of training with their club teams. Whether these kids are national high school record contenders or just barely qualify for their state championships, it’s heartbreaking to think teenagers have to make them choose.