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The Relationship Between Colleges And Olympic Sports Is Vital. Find Out What The USOC Is Doing To Help

By Karen Price | Sept. 06, 2018, 1:06 p.m. (ET)


At the Olympic Games Rio 2016, nearly 80 percent of Team USA athletes competed in college, and nearly 85 percent of U.S. medalists were college athletes. 

At the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, nearly one-third of Team USA competed in college and half the medalists were college athletes.

College has long been a pipeline to the U.S. national teams and the Olympic Games, and the USOC is now seeking to strengthen the bond, not only between the organization and college athletes and coaches, but also the various National Governing Bodies, conference leaders and the NCAA. 

The USOC hired Sarah Wilhelmi as its first director of collegiate partnerships in 2016 to lead that effort. With college students heading back to class this week all around the country, TeamUSA.org spoke with Wilhelmi to discuss the projects happening between the USOC and the major players in the college pipeline.

College athletics and the Olympic Games have always been strongly connected. Is the percentage of athletes who come though the college pipeline holding steady or growing? 

Sarah Wilhelmi: We just started keeping tight tabs on this during the Rio Games. We knew the number was high, but we were kind of shocked to learn that 80 percent of the team came through the college doors. The elite development that’s happening in college is key. And to be honest, when we start to look at it on a sport-by-sport basis, we’re seeing a lot of nuances by sport with peak ages of development. For instance, all volleyball players go through the college system but because of the maturity of the sport a lot of them play in Europe and then fold into the national team, whereas with swimming we just finished a study and found that over 10 years not one person was named to a national team after college. Of every person who was on the national team, all but four (including Michael Phelps, who turned pro at 16) out of 370 on the senior national team were named to the team while in college. 

You were hired in 2016. What was the USOC’s goal in creating this position, and then how did you set about tackling those duties? 

Wilhelmi: Out of the gate I think a lot of the desire to have this position is really a credit to the NGBs and their CEOs saying we need to be partners within the college space because our sports depend on it. Prior to 2016, college sports were in flux with conference realignments and lawsuits and restructuring with the autonomous five conferences. There was a lot of anxiety on the side of the Olympic Movement to become better entrenched and make sure that Olympic sports remain strong at the college level. But we didn’t have any data and needed to understand, what does the footprint look like in each sport? We needed to have a baseline and then learn how to maneuver and enhance from there. 

How did you do that?

Wilhelmi: Phase one was understanding and phase two was working to make sure we had the right stakeholders at the table to help us. We put together the USOC Collegiate Advisory Council with the help of former board member and current Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby and Kevin White, a current board member and Duke athletic director. They really helped recruit a rock star team of influential ADs who really reflect Team USA in a lot of ways. One thing we learned from our analysis was 80 percent of the Rio team came from colleges and of those college athletes almost 75 percent came from the autonomous five conferences. Every division has athletes on our teams and every region has different niches that we need to be sensitive to, but the big picture was recognizing the investment at the Division I level really does drive the competitive and high performance opportunities colleges are offering athletes at the peak time in their lives so they can go to school and become the best athletes in the world.

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Collegiate swimmers represent their colleges at the Phillips 66 National Swimming Championships on July 27, 2018 in Irvine, Calif.


TeamUSA.org: What was the next phase?

Wilhelmi: The council really has helped us come up with two key priorities and we’re calling them the messaging and pathway projects. As we get ready for 2020 it’s an effort to really have a voice that is one of solidarity between the schools, NGBs, NCAA and us all collectively recognizing how important Olympic sports are in our country. We want to have a shared voice and celebrate and amplify all these athletes who are trying to make national teams and hopefully watch their success all the way to the 2020 Games. That’s one project we’re working on. The pathway side, we set out to get feedback over the summer by interviewing all our NGBs with college connections and did an athletes and coaches survey and case study with USA Swimming to see how to make the road smoother. We’re looking forward to finding out at our next meeting in September how to properly implement reforms.  

Why is it important to the USOC to have these partnerships with colleges?

Wilhelmi: I think that the relationship is vital for both sides. Team USA is dependent on colleges and I think Olympic sports at the college level are dependent on the success of our Olympic sports internationally. We both need to keep each other healthy and strong. We need to be vigilant to make sure we stay strong. 

There are a lot of moving pieces here — the USOC, NGBs, hundreds and hundreds of schools and thousands of athletes. How do you try to kind of reel those all in even when everyone is working toward similar goals? 

Wilhelmi: It’s been exhausting but so invigorating at the same time because it really is a shared passion to be athlete-centered and do right for the athletes. In that vein it has been a real commitment among the college leaders, the NGBs, the NCAA and us to see, how do we do this? And it’s cool because never before has there been this hunger for change, and we want to capitalize. There’s been a lot of reform in the world of college basketball and we want to chase their coattails and do the same for our Olympians.

What are some of the challenges?

Wilhelmi: What we found from feedback and what we’re hearing from athletes directly, one thing is more flexibility and flexibility in two prongs, one being resources. These athletes aren’t saying, “Pay me,” they’re saying, “If I could just use that little bit of prize money I got or hold it until after I graduate to pay rent that would really help me.” To be honest, there’s a lot of red tape around what is deemed actual and necessary per NCAA rules to help with an elite athlete’s training. The hard thing is the rules are written to be the same for everyone, and many of them were written as a reaction to football and basketball. Some needs are so unique and sport specific, and what a fencer needs isn’t the same as what a swimmer needs so that becomes complicated.

There’s also a lot of talk on the NCAA side about time demands and what the athletes are asking for is flexibility because their international calendar is in addition to their college calendar and sometimes they need flexibility to maneuver with that.

The number three thing athletes are speaking to is the difficulty transitioning from college to post-college. There’s no road map. You’ve never had to think about an agent and money and all the many nuances in that competitive space. Sponsorships, agents, that’s all brand new and you don’t have the infrastructure you had in college, you’re building it on your own. A lot of athletes say, “If only I had a mentor, if only I had this knowledge it would have been helpful.” That tells us that the USOC and possibly the NCAA can help athletes with the transition into the professional side. 

Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.