Every year, as the summer days dwindle away, some of Canada's best young swimmers pack their things into the family car and head off to university. Inevitably many of these swimmers will leave behind the coaches and club programs that gave them their start and move on to attend universities in the United States. Some view this southern migration of Canadian swimming talent as disturbing, while others actively encourage it. On one hand are the American universities, with big name coaches and big time programs, and on the other are the Canadian schools, which at first glance seem to be the poor sisters of their American counterparts. Contrary to popular belief however, neither the Canadian nor the American university system is ideal for every swimmer.
The lure of an athletic scholarship is the most obvious and oft cited reason that American universities are attractive to Canadian swimmers. A scholarship is a luxury not afforded to prospective student-athletes by Canadian schools, with the exception of Simon Fraser University, which competes with American schools in the NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics).
The idea of offering athletic scholarships at Canadian universities has been hotly debated for many years. It will be reexamined by the athletic directors of the CIAU (Canadian Intercollegiate Athletic Union) at their June conference, but a system comparable to that which exists in the United States is neither probable nor feasible in the near future. University athletics in Canada are simply not marketable enough to generate the funds required to provide scholarships for athletes in non-revenue sports, of which swimming is a prime example.
The size difference between CIAU schools is also a major obstacle. For example, the University of Toronto, with nearly 50 000 students on multiple campuses, competes against Bishops, a school with a student body of approximately 2000. If scholarships are instituted how can Bishops be expected to provide the same number of scholarships as a school the size of Toronto, which has a budget twenty-five times larger? If scholarship funds are capped at a certain level then how can the playing field be level when tuition costs vary among schools, or even among students at the same school? For example, out-of-province students pay more than those who reside within the province where the university is located, and foreign students pay up to twice as much as out-of-province students. Needless to say, the widespread availability of school-sponsored athletic scholarships in Canadian universities is a long way off. The recent proliferation of National Training Centres is a step in the right direction, providing university-centred facilities and funds for elite athletes. However, swimmers in places where such centres do not yet exist or are still in the planning phase (Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes) must either relocate in Canada or head to the United States to trade their talents for education. Furthermore, to swimmers who have not yet achieved federal or provincial carding standards the United States is more attractive in many cases simply because the chance of finding available money is much greater.
But despite the money, it is not all milk and honey south of the border. In reality, the truth lies somewhere between the doomsday prophecy that is often heard in Canada, of the United States as a bottomless pit for Canadian talent, and the idea that it is the promised land for swimmers of university age. For every swimmer who chooses to leave Canada and swims poorly thereafter, there is one who stays in the country and does the same. The following is a brief discussion of five important issues to consider when choosing a university, whether in the United States or Canada.
The idea of someone paying your way through university is inherently a very attractive one. However, saving yourself and your parents a lot of money should not come at the expense of your swimming career or your happiness. In most cases U.S. college coaches do not use money as a bargaining chip any more than is necessary when dealing with poor performance, but it has been known to happen. One apocryphal story tells of a coach taping a copy of a swimmer's scholarship agreement to the block during a poor practice. The governing body of university athletics in the United States, the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) has a multitude of rules regarding the acceptance and disbursement of these scholarship funds to athletes. Much has been made of the arcane and overwhelming nature of all these regulations, but only a few major ones are really relevant for swimmers. (For anyone interested in taking a closer look at the NCAA rules regarding eligibility and scholarships, I recommend obtaining a copy of the NCAA rulebook. Information is available on the NCAA website, www.ncaa.org.)
According to the NCAA your educational expenses can be paid for by the school only if you are not receiving benefits for your athletic skills from another source, meaning that you must forfeit federal or provincial carding of any sort when you sign on the dotted line. Compound this with the fact that you cannot have a job off-campus with a student visa and that you are also prohibited from earning an income based on your reputation as a swimmer. It can, at times, make for some monetary difficulties. That is not to say that you can't teach swimming lessons in the summer or lifeguard at the local beach, but it does mean that cereal boxes, commercials, movies (even unpaid appearances), and flyers advertising those same swimming lessons with a Canadian national champion are strictly off limits. This is all common knowledge, but an additional thing that many people do not realize is that any scholarships to foreign athletes in the United States over the cost of tuition are taxable at a rate of 14%. That means money provided for books, meals, and other expenses is taxable if you are on a full scholarship. Technically the university is supposed to administer this for the athletes, but if not, the IRS will be more than happy to do so.
The level of competition in the NCAA is the best in the world bar none, as every year more and more non-American swimmers seek athletic scholarships at American schools. Olympians from all over the world are recruited to swim in the United States, and the NCAA Championships are known as the "world's fastest meet." Unfortunately with this influx of foreign swimmers there has been a corresponding increase in resentment of them by Americans and American athletes. (Check out the newsgroup rec.sport.swimming on the Internet for some interesting reading on the subject.) In comparison, competition in the CIAU is admittedly less stiff, since few non-Canadians elect to swim in Canada. This does not mean that CIAU schools do not offer programs that are geared toward maximizing performance, but rather that the level of the average CIAU swimmer is much lower than that of his or her NCAA counterpart. In terms of training facilities and support programs available for swimmers, American schools are also generally better equipped than schools in Canada. That is not to say that Canadian schools are inadequate in terms of their resources, but that swimmers at an American college often enjoy more perks than their Canadian counterparts. These may include free tutoring, which is often mandatory for first-year athletes, pre-registration privileges, and increased access to physiotherapy and medical care. But CIAU schools do offer several possible advantages for swimmers, one being that athletes have five years of eligibility as compared to the four years mandated by the NCAA. Another is that the competition schedule for the CIAU is usually compatible with the SNC (Swimming Natation Canada) schedule, meaning that selection meets for major competitions like the Olympics, Commonwealth Games, and World Championships are taken into consideration when Canadian universities design their programs. This may not be the case at many American universities, so before committing to a school you need to know if the coach will allow you time away from the college meet schedule to compete in Canada. These two schedules often do not mesh well, and as a result you may sometimes feel forced to focus exclusively on short course yards at the expense of your long course aspirations. It can be done, however, and most major American university programs place priority on the long course season during Olympic and World Championship years.
The cornerstone of a program's "fit" for the swimmer is, of course, the coach. If the swimmer and the coach don't see eye to eye, or at least agree to cooperate, the college years can be fraught with frustration and disappointment for both parties. The image of the starry-eyed young swimmer lead down the primrose path by a fast-talking American coach is a common perception among coaches and swimmers in Canada. Coaches like this do exist, but they are the exception to the rule. To avoid such a situation any swimmer should ask the following questions before committing to a school:
For many swimmers the departure for university signals a new level of freedom in their swimming lives, and provides them with an opportunity to choose their coach, which they may not have enjoyed during their high school years. As a result many feel the need to "escape" from the influence of their previous coaches, and consequently gravitate to a coach who has a different coaching philosophy or style. This may be a positive step for the swimmer, but it can also be a detrimental one. Many swimmers require a specific type of coach to perform well, ie. the "taskmaster" or the "motivator," but do not realize this until they have put themselves in a situation in which the coach-swimmer relationship is counterproductive.
The single most important reason to choose one school over another does not relate to the pool at all. The first consideration to make in choosing a university is the quality of education received in exchange for your efforts; The certainty that for bringing Generic University untold glory with your swimming exploits, you are compensated with an education. Just like any smart business person, you must make sure that the education received is commensurate with the effort put into swimming. The idea is to maximize both one's intellectual and swimming achievement at the same time. In order to do this the prospective student athlete must ask himself, Does the campus fit my needs, or do I fit the campus out of need (for a scholarship and a way out of Canada)?
The first consideration to make in choosing a university is the quality of education received in exchange for your efforts
For example, are the programs at a particular school what you need to achieve long-term educational and career goals? Is the quality of education better than what you would receive at a Canadian school, where tuition is often cheaper by a factor of ten? Can you finish your degree in four years and swim at the same time, or will you be forced to take less than a full course load and return for a fifth year? Will the school pay for that fifth year of school even though you are no longer eligible to swim? Are you comfortable on and around campus? Although the geographic difference between Canada and the United States is small, the cultural difference may be much larger. Living in America (despite the protestations of James Brown) is not for everyone, and many swimmers will find that after some time in the United States, Canada really isn't so bad after all.
Sadly, another thing to consider when choosing an American university is what happens in Canada after you leave. There is a certain faction of people involved with Canadian swimming-swimmers, coaches, and officials alike-who smirk whenever an athlete chooses to attend a school on scholarship in the United States and returns home having been unsuccessful. Their "I-told-you-so" attitudes demonstrate a bias against swimmers who choose to pursue their own personal excellence beyond Canada's borders, but reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation. The perceived exodus of Canadian talent to the United States is not an epidemic, but rather a positive phenomenon. Canada's best swimmers have their training paid for by a third party (the university of the swimmer's choice), saving SNC money that could be spent at the developmental level. Instead of discouraging swimmers from attending school in the United States, coaches, parents, and officials would do better to help the swimmer find the right school, regardless of its location. Swimmers are unsuccessful not because the NCAA swimming "machinery" doesn't work properly, chewing up and spitting out Canadian swimmers as fast as they can commit, but because those swimmers do not make wise decisions about the schools they choose to attend. The bottom line is that a swimming scholarship to an American university is inherently neither a panacea nor a death sentence, but it has the potential to be either. Choose what is best for you, as a student and as an athlete. Your parents and your coaches should be involved in the decision, but it should always be made to maximize the happiness and success of you, the swimmer, whether that path leads to the United States or not.
Matthew McWha graduated from Princeton University in New Jersey with a degree in English Literature. He recently completed a Masters Degree in English Literature at McGill University, where he was an assistant swimming coach. Matthew swam competitively for 14 years with the Windsor Aquatic Club and at Princeton University.