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Feature by Jeff Commings
OMAHA, Nebraska, July 2. IF you need any proof that professionalism has fully infiltrated swimming, look no further than the list of swimmers on this year's U.S. Olympic team.
Only three of the team members on the men's side has a current collegiate connection. Jimmy Feigen, the fifth-place finisher in the 100 freestyle, just wrapped up his eligibility at the University of Texas, where he won the sprint freestyles at this spring's NCAA championships. Andrew Gemmell (Georgia) and Connor Jaeger (Michigan) grabbed the final two Olympic roster spots by finishing 1-2 in the 1500 freestyle.
Since 2000, the number of men with collegiate eligibility (or those who just wrapped up their collegiate career the spring before the Olympics) has dropped steadily. At the Sydney Games, 13 of the 24 men on the American team were current student-athletes or were in high school. In 2004, that number dipped to just seven out of 21 men. It should be noted that Michael Phelps, who was of college age at the time, does not count toward the total, as he turned pro as a teenager.
Why has the number been dropping? Frank Busch, USA Swimming's national team director, points to a lot of possibilities, including the way postgraduates are changing their approach to their professional careers.
“They're pretty consummate in what they do,” Busch told Swimming World. “A little bit of experience goes a long way into making choices. I hear from people like Matt Grevers saying how different his eating habits are, and others tell me their approaching to getting ready (to race) has evolved.”
Busch, a former college coach for more than two decades, knows college swimmers have a slight disadvantage during the college season. While postgrads are able to focus solely on training for the Olympics during the winter, college swimmers must first get through the tough NCAA championship season.
“Universities are paying their (college swim teams) bills,” Busch said. “College coaches are doing what they need to put food on their table and pay their bills, and that's important that they do that.”
The advent of athlete funding programs, including USA Swimming's Athlete Partnership Plan, have allowed swimmers to write their rent checks while training full time. Sponsorships have also helped, as swimsuit companies and other organizations have stepped in to keep athletes swimming into their late 20s and early 30s.
Interestingly, the number of collegiate/high school females on the Olympic team hasn't changed much in the past 12 years. In fact, it's grown from 12 in 2008 to 14 in 2012. In the case of 2008, we don't count Katie Hoff and Kate Ziegler, as they had turned pro before college.
None of this is meant to sound a death knell for college swimming, as all but one of the male swimmers on the U.S. squad (Michael Phelps) went through the college swimming experience, and the majority of those won NCAA titles. And besides current high school swimmers Katie Ledecky, Missy Franklin and Lia Neal, Chloe Sutton and Kate Ziegler are the only female swimmers on the 2012 squad who have not swum collegiately.
Plus, many of the top swimmers we saw at last spring's NCAAs — Tom Shields, Kevin Cordes, Giles Smith among them — participated in Olympic Trials finals with times that should make them early favorites for Olympic bids in 2016. Of course, many of those swimmers will be a couple of years beyond their collegiate careers.
Below, the number of swimmers on the U.S. Olympic teams in 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012:
2000 — 24 men and 24 women (13 men and 13 women with collegiate eligibility)
2004 — 21 men and 22 women (seven men and 14 women with collegiate eligibility)
2008 — 22 men and 21 women (six men and 12 women with collegiate eligibility)
2012 — 21 men and 24 women (three men and 14 women with collegiate eligibility)