2012 will go down as the rare year in which the biggest story in college sports recruiting involved neither football nor men’s basketball…but women’s swimming.
Only college basketball die-hards are familiar with the Harrison twins, the genetically similar 5-star guards who recently committed to play basketball for John Calipari at Kentucky. But even the most casual sports fan is familiar with Missy Franklin, the 17-year-old, five-time Olympic medalist who signed her letter of intent earlier this month and will be swimming for legendary coach (and coach of the U.S. Olympic Team) Teri McKeever at Cal.
This week Franklin, a senior at Regis Jesuit High School in Aurora, Colorado, announced that she would also swim this season for her high school team.
She’ll swim an abbreviated schedule, and Regis Jesuit is working with the Colorado High School Activities Association (CHSAA) to ensure that the meets in which Franklin participates don’t turn into media circuses.
What I Love About This
It is rare for the world’s best athlete in a particular sport (and Franklin is the best female swimmer in the world right now) to participate on a high school team. So rare that I wonder if it’s ever happened before.
As great as LeBron James was at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s, there were easily a couple dozen NBA players at the time with superior talent.
Franklin’s decision is unprecedented. And I love it.
I love it for Franklin, because she is a senior in high school and should be able to participate in high school athletics with her friends and classmates.
I love it for her teammates at Regis Jesuit, who will forever be able to tell people that they were teammates with one of the best swimmers in the history of the sport.
And I love it for her opponents.
If you are a girl in Colorado who swims the backstroke for her high school team, and you go up against Missy Franklin, you’re going to lose. Probably by a wide margin. Even if you’re one of the best in the state.
But that’s OK.
Swimming is a sport based on time, an objective measure of who is better than whom. And while it’s great to win blue ribbons, every swimming event doubles as an individual race against the clock for each person in the pool.
Swimmers generally go into their races with some idea of which competitors they should beat, which competitors they stand little or no chance of beating, and which are more or less on their level. Everyone wants to win, but everyone also knows who they’re really swimming against.
For the swimmers involved, a race for second or third or fifth can be just as intense as a race for first.
The swimmer in lane 4 can’t worry too much about getting obliterated by Missy Franklin in lane 3, because her team needs her to beat the swimmer in lane 5.
Swimmers who will face Regis Jesuit in one of the meets in which Franklin is active will get to swim against Missy Franklin. That’s the sort of thing they’ll never forget.
No one’s grandchildren will care if grandma won first place in the 100 backstroke in a high school dual meet in mid January 2013. But if grandma finishes second to Missy Franklin? That’s a story they’ll remember.
What I Hate About It
Here’s what I hate: I hate what Missy Franklin has to give up to swim in college and, by extension, in high school.
To satisfy the NCAA (and CHSAA) Franklin has had to pass up on literally millions of dollars worth of endorsement opportunities.
I don’t like the way our culture equates success and wealth, and I’m not sure that any 17-year-old needs millions of dollars. But an elite athlete has limited opportunities to earn a living from her skills (especially when that elite athlete is a swimmer.)
Granted, I do fully expect that Franklin will have plenty more opportunities to appear in Subway commercials or to have her own line of Speedo goggles.
Franklin, who will be 21 in 2016 and 25 in 2020, is in great position to become the most decorated female swimmer in Olympic history and has an outside chance of breaking Michael Phelps’ all-time medals record. (She has five already, four gold and a bronze; she could realistically win six—in the 100 and 200 backstroke, 100 freestyle, and all three relays—in 2016 and another six in 2020. A total of six more medals between 2024 and 2028, when she’ll be 29 and 33, would give her the record.) And Franklin will likely forego her final two years of college eligibility and turn pro in advance of the Rio Olympics.
But there’s always the possibility that, because of injury or some other factor, that Missy Franklin will never again have this opportunity to benefit financially from her abilities.
Most of all I hate that scholastic athletics in the United States adheres to a definition of amateurism that prohibits athletes not only from accepting money to play for a team or participate in a competition (which makes a certain amount of sense) but also from earning money from their celebrity, charisma, and likeness.
If I made the rules, Missy Franklin (and Manti Te’o, Cody Zeller, and Skylar Diggins, etc.) would be able to play college sports and accept payment for appearing on cereal boxes, without getting in trouble. But I don’t make the rules.
I hope that Missy Franklin enjoys every moment of her senior high school swimming season and that her teammates and opponents relish every moment they have in the pool with one of the legends of the sport.
I look forward to watching her swim in Rio in four years and in Istanbul, Tokyo, or Madrid in 2020. And I hope that she’ll one day be able to use Speedo money to put her kids through college. (That is, if they don’t earn athletic sports scholarships.)
I just hate what she has to pass up right now for the opportunity to be a high school athlete.