“We have 100 little guys right now who think they’re going to make it,” said Bowman, a former college swimmer for Florida State who coached at Michigan from 2005 to ’08. “These kids believe anything is possible.
“Having worked in a college environment, I understand how they operate. And as someone who [runs] a feeder program for the colleges, our club has young kids whose dream is to get a college scholarship. [Eliminating college swim teams] really hurts us because it takes away an incentive for people to get involved at a grassroots level.”
Some U.S. Olympians are sufficiently gifted and driven to excel without competing in college. And female gymnasts train almost exclusively in private clubs, often reaching the height of their competitive powers before reaching college age.
But in other cases, there’s a direct correlation between the coaching on college playing fields and Olympic glory. It’s particularly strong in women’s team sports, which exploded in the decades following the passing of Title IX, the federal law mandating equal opportunity in educational settings.
Since women’s soccer was added to the Olympics at the 1996 Atlanta Games, the United States has won three gold medals and one silver — all with rosters dominated by college standouts.
Women’s rowing is another beneficiary. After winning gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, the U.S. women’s eight-oared shell (the sport’s most prestigious class) failed to distinguish itself at the Olympics. But in 1997 the NCAA made women’s rowing a varsity sport, and a new generation of world-class rowers followed two Olympic cycles later.
Mary Whipple, who helped Washington to two NCAA championships as a scholarship rower, was coxswain on the women’s eight at the 2004 Athens Games. That boat won silver, ending a 20-year medal drought by the U.S. women. At the 2008 Beijing Games, the U.S. women’s eight won gold. And they did it with five women who hadn’t learned to row until college.
So it grieved Whipple to learn that California-Davis recently dropped women’s rowing and that Rutgers dropped its men’s team.
“I would definitely not have been an Olympian had I not gone to the University of Washington and rowed in college,” said Whipple, who’s seeking a spot on the 2012 Olympic team. “The University of Washington got me to win the NCAAsm, and that got me the tryout for the national team. . . . It’s unfortunate that athletes have to get their sports taken away because the budget has to balance.”
It’s not that the money has dried up in big-time college sports. The problem is the vast majority of NCAA Division I athletic departments spend more money than they generate. According to USA Today’s annual survey of revenue expenses in NCAA Division I public universities, published in May, just 22 of 227 schools earned more than they spent.