College swimming gets faster every year. While you may be able to find some events in this years NCAA Championships across all three divisions and genders that didn't take a leap forward this year, you will find many that have. The improvement is so dramatic that I wouldn't believe if the times weren't sitting right there.
Take this day three results of the 2003 NCAA Championship, David Marsh' first at Auburn just fourteen years ago. Look at the winning times! Some would be borderline for qualifying for the meet now, we have already seen a d2 swimmer and expect to see a d3 swimmerl blow away 2003 BRENDAN HANSEN in the breaststrokes.
These championships represent some of the best things about our sport, as well as it's unique strengths. Whereas there is a huge gap in play between the NCAA Divisions in some other sports, swimming remains competitive.
Yet simultaneous to this amazing display, there are programs fighting for their lives. When I began coaching and writing about swimming, one of the first people to reach out to me was someone who was extremely passionate about the sport. He said his dream was to coach his alma mater. We exchanged e-mails for a while and lost touch.
A few years later, he realized that dream, and I was always happy when I got reminded of what he was doing. Then, this winter, I read this. That person, Joel Blesh, was unceremoniously cut from the job at his alma mater that he was so passionate about.
What was his crime? Doing the right thing, sticking up and fighting for the survival of his team. Chances are Blesh is not alone, that while we're all celebrating the amazing fastness of Katie Ledecky, Caeleb Dressel and others this next week that behind closes doors college swim teams are fighting for survival. What follows will be a grim spring tradition of programs hanging in the balance.
I don't want to be a party pooper. I will enjoy these meets. In fact, I write because I need to throw some cold water on my own face to stop from being overly optimistic at times like these. I have, at several junctures, imagined that the circumstances beyond a swimming programs control would actually benefit us. They never do.
When I began my coaching career at Penn, I was shocked to immediately find out that the school fundraised a significant part of their operating budget on a yearly basis. At my next stop Georgia Tech, the late 2000s financial crisis and some drunk college kids was used as justification to unceremoniously defund all scholarship money that we hadn't already endowed.
But if the economic crisis was the reason for the cut, surely as the stock market turned around the scholarships would come back? No. Georgia Tech only regained their "full funding" through donors.
When colleges were allowed to expand their scholarships to cover cost of living expenses, and momentum started to build towards actually paying athletes in revenue sports, I allowed myself to fantasize that this would be good for swimming. If schools actually had to compensate revenue athletes, then finally their "advantage" would end?
Wrong. If schools began to see a significant bite into their profits from "revenue" sports, they would for sure look down the line to programs like swimming to cut financial weight. And that sucks. It is not fair. But such is the tension: NCAA Swimming is awesome, but unless we throw our own resources behind ensuring it remains funded, it will be taken from us.
So while you are watching your favorite team these next couple weeks (or already did last week), consider cutting a check for their endowment. Or ask if they accept venmo, it's 2017 after all.