Lilly King and Ginny Thrasher didn’t go to class this week, but they schooled the world in their craft at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games.
King and Thrasher are 19-year-old athletes who won Olympic gold medals this week in swimming and shooting, respectively. They’re a microcosm of one demographic that sometimes gets overlooked on the world’s biggest stage: They have college connections.
Team USA has 555 athletes in Rio. Of those, 436 participated in collegiate sports or will begin this fall. That means nearly 80 percent of the American contingent in Rio has dealt with signing up for classes, making it to class and juggling things like studying, sports practice and just being a college kid.
In other words, the Road to Rio probably went through a college math class, biology lab or a history professor’s lecture.
“The student-athletes benefit because they get to compete at a high level and the colleges benefit for the opportunity to have these great students,” said Sara Wilhelmi, director of collegiate partnerships for the United States Olympic Committee. “And Team USA significantly benefits from having the partnership.”
Wilhelmi also noted that the NCAA acknowledged 433 international athletes who compete collegiately in the United States in every sport from swimming to soccer and track and field.
For King and Thrasher, it’s a typical path. King was an NCAA champion swimmer at Indiana while Thrasher a national champion shooter at West Virginia. Those are NCAA-sanctioned sports at big-name universities.
The formula of a collegiate path to the Olympic Games isn’t always that clear, nor is it an exact science. Some sports, like men’s rowing, aren’t sanctioned by the NCAA, and the men typically participate on a club team. Jiaqi Zheng is a table tennis Olympian who attended Northwest Polytechnic University, a non-profit private school with an enrollment of almost 900 students in Fremont, California. NPU sponsored Zheng when she played an intercollegiate tournament, Wilhelmi said.
The Pac-12 Conference leads the way with 113 athletes this year, nearly double the Big Ten’s 59. The ACC has 57, the SEC has 55, the Big 12 has 40 and the Ivy League has 35.
Stanford has the most athletes with 29 on Team USA. But it’s not all about the big schools. Middlebury College, an NCAA Division III school in Vermont, has three athletes, including cycling world championship bronze medalist Lea Davison.
Sports that have 100 percent of its athletes with college participation are basketball, diving, fencing, field hockey, indoor volleyball, rowing and triathlon. Soccer, swimming, water polo and track and field each have 90 percent or more participation.
But the dynamics are different for each sport, and sometimes even within the same sport. Four of the five U.S. men’s gymnasts competed in college (three of them at Oklahoma), whereas women’s gymnasts, who tend to be younger, usually put off college until their elite careers are done. From this year’s team, 19-year-old Madison Kocian plans to start classes at UCLA in the fall and will compete for the Bruins next season.
In water polo, meanwhile, 17-year-old Aria Fischer is still in high school.
“You learn from each sport when they reach their peak windows,” Wilhelmi said. “The gymnasts are younger and most are in their teens. Most swimmers are in their lower 20s, and rowers are in their 30s.”
Michael Phelps is 31 and took classes at Michigan, but Wilhelmi said Phelps isn’t included in the 436 athletes with college connections because he didn’t swim for the university, wasn’t on scholarship and wasn’t sponsored by the school.
Wilhelmi said the United States is unique in Team USA’s partnership with colleges and universities.
“Athletes can go to the university of their choice and get an education while competing at a high level in their sport,” Wilhelmi said. “They don’t have to choose whether to play their sport and then go to school. And they do it in an environment where they get great facilities, sports psychology, health plans, athletic training and top-tier coaching. The educational benefit is huge.”
It also accelerates their maturity level, Wilhelmi said, like learning to talk to the media and dealing with the pressure of being more than just a student — and understanding that they’re always in the spotlight. Wilhelmi said Olympic aspirations at young ages can lead to scholarship opportunities, and that youthful participation is vital to many sports.
“I’ve talked to CEOs in sports, and they all speak of sport survival and how it’s important to have youth looking to champions of the sport,” Wilhelmi said. “There is a pathway of knowing college is a part of chasing that dream. The future of the sports really needs the opportunity to keep growing at all stages.”
Scott McDonald is a Houston-based freelance writer who has 18 years experience in sports reporting and feature writing. He was named the State Sports Writer of the Year in 2014 by the Texas High School Coaches Association. McDonald is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.