Up until now, many Canadian universities have relied upon an "If you build it, they will come" philosophy for athletic recruiting. But while those words might ring true for American baseball legends, they do not always suffice for young Canadian swimmers. Our universities are equipped with some of the best swimming facilities in the country, yet these days, many swimmers are lured to US colleges for a different "field of dreams": money. Can we blame them?
Unlike many American colleges, universities in the Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union (CIAU) cannot award entrance scholarships for athletic performance. But schools in the Western conference want to change that policy. And if they don't get their way, they will consider abandoning the CIAU.
Like most amateur sports in Canada, swimming is not immune to the loss of high calibre athletes. Nikki Dryden, Owen von Richter, Shannon Shakespeare, and Jessica Amey are just a few of the many swimmers drawn to the States by full scholarships, fierce competition, and a change of climate. Certainly, some athletes head south for variety's sake; in order to stay motivated they need to experience a new training and racing environment. But if their leaving is solely a financial issue, the toll on Canadian swimming leaves many coaches concerned.
"Losing athletes to the States is a huge problem if they are potential students at our universities," says University of Toronto head coach Byron MacDonald.
University of British Columbia's Tom Johnson agrees. "We can't be the little sister anymore. We cannot continue to let our swimmers go south to (often) substandard academic and athletic programs."
We've all heard tales of swimmers heading south to what appears to be-on paper anyway-a full ride in terms of financial assistance. But there are often hidden costs not covered by scholarship money. Or, the swimmer may be getting a full ride but the school is division two or three and perhaps academically inferior. And sometimes, since they're paid to be there, "swimmers get bowled over because they have to swim," says David Fry, coach of the Dalhousie Tigers.
With all of these drawbacks, it would seem not to be such a difficult task to keep our swimmers in Canada. Concedes MacDonald, "Right now, if you take away the money, not many people are going to go."
The Western conference's desire to offer entrance scholarships to deserving athletes does seem like a good solution to the problem. But is it feasible?
"We need to give money," says Johnson. "Where should it come from? Anywhere. The institution, corporations. People have a minimalist approach. You know, (isn't Canada) good enough?"
The general consensus from coaches at February's CIAU championships was that we are good enough to keep our athletes here and we need to be able to offer our student athletes more than the current limit of $1500 after their first year. But many coaches feel there have to be strict guidelines.
"Schools should be able to give money but there needs to be a cap on the amount permitted," says Andrew Cole, coach of the University of New Brunswick swim team. "Maybe $5000 or something. And students should have to disclose all the moneys they're receiving. This will keep the rich schools from being able to grab all the Curtis Mydens."
This sounds like a reasonable plan, but in an age of endless funding cutbacks and constant tuition hikes, where is the money for scholarships going to come from? If schools do manage to raise the money, who is to say it will be distributed fairly?
There are foreseeable problems, 1) within the institution itself, where high-exposure, often male-dominated sports could receive the bulk of the funds; and 2) within each conference and across the country, where richer schools could attract better athletes.
These are the concerns of the Western conference's main opponent in the debate, Ontario, which staunchly opposes the idea of allowing athletic scholarships.
"Ontario feels somewhat like the Ivy League in that a student should be choosing university based purely on their academic needs foremost and athletics shouldn't come into it," says MacDonald. "Once students are on campus, Ontario will probably be in favour of scholarships-but not to entering students."
"As it stands, if there's no gender equal (scholarships) it's pretty obvious what's going to happen; they're going to all go to football, basketball, etc. I think what's very sellable is scholarships to financially needy students."
Swimming/Natation Canada has recently introduced a grant program aimed at supporting Canadian university swimming programs with elite athletes. The program's purpose is to keep high performance university athletes in the water throughout the spring and summer. The incentive is money from a $25,000 pot that will be distributed to both an individual and their university team.
However, the criteria are strict. To be eligible for money, swimmers must make an A final at Spring Nationals, and in that swim they must meet a 900 or 910 point standard for women and men, respectively.
"My idea is that we're putting something out there and saying, ÔReach it!'" says Dave Johnson, Canadian coach of high performance services. "The CIAU can play a huge role in contributing to successful swimming. A minimum standard requires guys to stop making excuses and get going."
Not everyone agrees with Johnson's idea, simply because the grant will be helping those athletes who are already federally carded.
"This grant program will do nothing to help CIAU swimming," grumbles Brian Cartlidge of the University of Waterloo. MacDonald agrees. "I think the focus of Sport Canada is on the elite, period, and I think the focus of Swim Canada is quickly becoming the elite, period."
Other coaches say that any money that goes towards swimming is a good thing.
Ultimately, the CIAU scholarship decision will not be made by swimming coaches. But, hopefully, when the CIAU rules on the issue in its June annual general meeting, our sport won't be ignored.