A Brief History of Female Swimmers Turning Pro Early & Forgoing NCAA Eligibility

Following Tuesday morning’s bombshell news that Regan Smith was turning pro and forgoing her final three seasons of NCAA eligibility, it felt like a good time to take a look back at other female swimmers who’ve made the same move and how it worked out for them.

Smith is the latest in a long line of female swimmers who found success at a young age, and either started their collegiate career and then ended it early, or opted not to race in the NCAA at all and went straight into the professional world with designs on sponsorship and full control of their training in an effort to maximize their competitive window.

Below, we’ll look at some of the prominent female names who have made the same decision and how things worked out. It’s important to note, however, that, on average, female swimmers tend to peak at a younger age than men, and thus the decline some of these athletes had after leaving the NCAA was due to a number of factors, not solely their collegiate status.

For every swimmer prior to Smith, the opportunity to make money in the NCAA wasn’t there, with name, image and likeness (NIL) only coming into effect recently. As a result, turning pro was really the only way for them to cash in financially on their success.

Kate Ziegler

Ziegler was a dominant force on the distance freestyle scene in the mid-2010s, first making her presence felt on the international stage with a silver medal in the women’s 800 free at the 2004 Short Course World Championships at the age of 16.

After sweeping the women’s 800 and 1500 free World Championship titles in the summer of 2005 just one month after her 17th birthday, Ziegler was the hottest collegiate prospect in the nation.

But in 2006, she opted not to go the NCAA route and instead turned pro right away, inking a deal with Speedo.

Ziegler’s success continued, reaching its peak in 2007 when she set world records in the long course 1500 free by nearly 10 seconds in a time of 15:42.54, a mark that would stand for six years. She also defended her world titles in the 800 and 1500 free at the World Championships in Melbourne, and added new world records in the short course meter 800 and 1500 free as well.

However, her success stagnated after that, as she qualified for the 2008 Olympic team but failed to advance to the final in either the 400 or 800 free. She came back to make a second Olympic team in 2012, placing 21st in the women’s 800 free.

Katie Hoff

Hoff was a star in the same era as Ziegler, and although she’s a year younger, also made the decision to turn pro coming off a massively successful 2005 World Championships.

Just 16 at the time, Hoff turned pro in September 2005 after winning three golds at the 2005 Worlds in Montreal, including two individually in the women’s 200 IM and 400 IM.

Hoff went on a run as arguably the best female swimmer in the world for a few years, adding the 200 and 400 freestyle events to her repertoire.

A former teammate of Michael Phelps at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, Hoff won repeat titles in the 200 and 400 IM at the 2007 World Championships, setting a new world record of 4:32.89 in the latter while winning by more than seven seconds. She also anchored the U.S. team home to victory in the 4×200 free relay, and had a pair of fourth-place finishes in the 200 and 400 free.

Hoff was then on fire at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials, incredibly winning five individual events, including setting another world record in the 400 IM (4:31.12). At the 2008 Games in Beijing, however, she failed to continue her run of international success in the medley events, earning silver in the 400 free, bronze in the 400 IM and missing the podium in the 200 IM and 200 free.

Hoff then failed to make the 2009 World Championship team, and though she had a bit of a career revival in 2010 and 2011, never reached the heights she had from 2005 to 2008.

Ariana Kukors

Kukors is perhaps best known in the pool for her world record-setting swim in the women’s 200 IM at the 2009 World Championships, where she shocked reigning Olympic champion Stephanie Rice and won the event by nearly a full second in an all-time mark of 2:06.15.

She found some international success prior to that, including representing the U.S. at both the 2006 Pan Pacs and 2007 World Championships, before committing to swim at the University of Washington beginning in the 2007-08 season. She narrowly missed making the U.S. Olympic team that summer, placing third in the 200 IM at Trials (.08 back of Natalie Coughlin for second).

After leaving right before the swim & dive program at Washington was cut, Kukors relocated to Fullerton Aquatics Sports Team (FAST) in 2009 and signed a professional deal with TYR.

After that explosive performance at the 2009 Worlds, Kukors was a mainstay on the U.S. National Team for a few years, including winning the 2010 short course world title in the 100 IM and adding 200 IM medals at the 2010 Pan Pacs and 2011 World Championships.

She then made her first Olympic team in 2012, placing fifth in the women’s 200 IM, and then announced her retirement in 2013.

Chloe Sutton

A distance freestyle and open water star, Sutton bypassed the NCAA and turned pro in December 2009 at the age of 17.

She had already found international success at that point, winning the women’s 10km open water event at the 2006 Pan Pacs (when she was just 14), the 2007 Pan Ams, and then represented the U.S. in the event at the 2008 Olympic Games.

Sutton is one example of a swimmer who clearly improved after going pro, as she transitioned from elite open water swimmer to one of the best the country had to offer in the pool.

She qualified to represent the U.S. at five consecutive major championship meets from 2009 to 2013, including becoming the first American to qualify for the Olympics in both pool and open water swimming in 2012. Sutton also won a pair of individual medals in the women’s 400 free (silver) and 800 free (bronze) at the 2012 SC World Championships, and won gold in the 400 free at the 2010 Pan Pacs

After making a pair of finals at the 2013 World Championships, Sutton missed the Pan Pac team in 2014 and then announced her retirement in February 2015.

Dagny Knutson

Knutson initially committed to swim collegiately at Auburn, but after a significant change in the coaching staff there, she decommitted and ultimately decided to turn pro in 2010. Like Kukors (and Katie Hoff for a time), Knutson went to swim at FAST in Fullerton, California.

Prior to this, Knutson had found a ton of success in her high school years, including breaking Hoff’s American Record in the 400-yard IM in a time of 4:00.62 in 2008.

In 2009, at the age of 17, she made the U.S. World Championship team and went on to win a silver medal in the women’s 800 free relay, and after turning pro, won gold on the same relay at the 2011 World Championships.

But Knutson dealt with a number of issues after that, including an eating disorder, resulting in a 2012 retirement. She was also in a battle to regain her amateur status, or at least a collegiate scholarship in the NCAA, and ultimately got the latter in late 2013.

This was one career where things would have looked entirely differently had she gone to the NCAA from the beginning.

Missy Franklin

Franklin was a teenage sensation in the United States in the early 2010s, and the massive success she experienced on the international stage from 2011 to 2013 was followed by an incredible collegiate career at Cal.

After winning five medals at the 2011 World Championships (three gold), five medals the 2012 Olympic Games (four gold), and then amassing a record-breaking six gold medals at the 2013 World Championships in Barcelona, Franklin joined the Cal Bears in the fall of 2013.

She was the 2014 NCAA champion in the women’s 200 free, and then swept the 200 free (1:39.10), 200 back (1:47.91) and 200 IM (1:52.11) titles in 2015, helping Cal win the national title. Seven years later, her 200 free time still stands as the fastest in history.

But after two seasons in Berkeley, Franklin opted to turn pro to cash in on her vast international success, not to mention the fact that her personality made her very marketable after her global breakout in London.

After going pro, Franklin’s swimming career slowly went on the decline, with injuries playing a prominent factor.

She won five medals at the 2015 World Championships in Kazan, though no individual golds, and then at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, she failed to make an individual final, tying for 13th in the women’s 200 free and placing 14th in the 200 back. She did win a gold medal as a member of the U.S. women’s 800 free relay, but was left off the finals relay despite being one of the individual representatives in the 200 free.

She officially retired in 2018.

Kathleen Baker

Not unlike Franklin, Kathleen Baker was a collegiate star at Cal, sweeping the 100 back, 200 back and 200 IM during her sophomore year at the 2017 Women’s NCAA Championships.

She then added a fourth individual title as a junior in the 200 back, setting a new American Record, and then carried on her long course success with three wins at the 2018 U.S. National Championships—which came right before her announcement that she was turning pro and forgoing her final year of eligibility—including setting a new world record in the women’s 100 back (58.00).

Baker had a ton of international success in the years prior, winning 2016 Olympic gold in the women’s 400 medley relay, Olympic silver in the women’s 100 back, and then winning three medals at the 2017 World Championships in Budapest.

The early portion of her pro career continued to go well, as she won four medals, including gold in the 200 back, at the 2018 Pan Pacs before adding four more medals at the 2018 SC World Championships.

She then fell shy of an individual medal at the 2019 Worlds, and was bumped from the women’s medley relay after the breakout performance from a rising teenage sensation named Regan Smith.

Baker appeared to be on track for a good Olympic Trials showing in 2020, clocking 2:08.75 in the 200 IM in February of that year, but the COVID postponement disrupted things and then she ended up racing the 2021 Trials with an injury and missed the team.

The 25-year-old last competed in the International Swimming League (ISL) season last December and was not in attendance at the U.S. International Team Trials this past April, which served as a qualifier for the 2022 World Championships.

Simone Manuel

Manuel was an absolute star during her collegiate career at Stanford, starting things off with a bang when she broke the American Record in the 100 free as a freshman in 2015.

She then took a redshirt season in her sophomore year, going on to win Olympic gold in the women’s 100 free at the 2016 Games in Rio, and then she led the Cardinal to consecutive NCAA team titles in 2017 and 2018 before turning pro after the 17-18 season.

Her success on the international stage was illustrious during her time competing in the NCAA: four Olympic medals in 2016, and eight medals combined betwene the 2015 and 2017 World Championships.

Things continued to roll for Manuel after turning pro, as she swept the women’s 50 and 100 free at the 2019 World Championships, taking out current world record holder Sarah Sjostrom in both races. Factoring in relays, Manuel won a total of seven medals at those Worlds in Gwangju, including four golds.

But that’s the last time Manuel has been a prominent name on the international swimming scene, as she opted not to compete in any of the ISL seasons, and then struggled at the 2021 U.S. Olympic Trials before revealing she had been dealing with overtraining syndrome.

After missing the final of the women’s 100 free, Manuel did find her way onto the Olympic team in the 50 free at U.S. Trials, going on to pick up her fifth career Olympic medal with a bronze in the women’s 400 free relay in Tokyo. She missed the 50 free final, placing 11th, and her current status is unknown, as she, like Baker, didn’t race at the 2022 U.S. Trials in Greenboro.

Katie Ledecky

Like Baker and Manuel, the greatest female swimmer on the planet, Katie Ledecky, turned pro following the conclusion of the 2017-18 NCAA season.

Ledecky was a superstar from a young age, roaring to Olympic gold in 2012 at 15 in the women’s 800 freestyle before beginning her assault on the world record books in 2013.

She started her collegiate career after a dominant 2016 Olympic performance, setting world records in the 400 free (3:56.46) and 800 free (8:04.79) and winning four total gold medals.

That transition saw her move on from her coach at Nation’s Capital, Bruce Gemmell, to join Greg Meehan at Stanford.

Ledecky continued to excel while on The Farm, both in the NCAA ranks and internationally, putting on a dominant display at the 2017 World Championships and rewriting the NCAA record books in five events (three individual) whiel competing collegiately.

After winning five of her six individual events at NCAAs in her two-year collegiate career, leading Stanford to back-to-back national titles, Ledecky went pro.

She had a breakout swim in the 1500 free shortly thereafter, setting a new world record at a Pro Swim Series in May 2018, but has largely stagnated since then, and for a few years (though she was ill at the 2019 World Championships), struggled to come near her best times.

That has taken a turn for the better since she moved to the University of Florida last year, though it’s clear Ledecky’s progress slowed shortly after she went pro.

What Does This Mean For Smith?

Swimmers going pro is usually as much about having full control of their training regime and competition schedule than it is about endorsement money, and perhaps that’s never been truer than it is for Smith, who is the first to make this change under the new name, image and likeness (NIL) reality in the NCAA.

Examples over the last 15 years or so show us female swimmers forgoing NCAA eligibility to turn pro typically doesn’t work out well. Part of that is undeniably due to outside factors, including age and life in general, but the trend is hard to ignore.

Given that Smith made this announcement in August (and not March or April), it’s clear this is something she thought long and hard about and felt was necessary to take her career, particularly on the long course stage, to the next level.

“After a tremendous amount of reflection and soul-searching, I have chosen to pursue my competitive swimming goals as a professional athlete,” Smith said on Tuesday.

She believes Bob Bowman can get her there.

“It’s time to focus on increasing my training intensity. I’m entirely confident that Bob’s leadership and training will have me exactly where I want to be for Paris 2024. I believe that, in the long run, this is the best way for me to continue to develop as an athlete.”

Will the move work out for Smith? Only time will tell.

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He Gets It Done Again
1 year ago

A few more I remembered:

-Megan Quann (Jendrick)
-Jessica Hardy turned pro after two years at Cal
-Kaitlin Sandeno turned pro after 3 years at USC
-Kathleen Hersey turned pro after two years at Texas and started training with Eddie Reese
-Amanda Weir turned pro before using up her eligibility I believe

Todd Stultz
1 year ago

A number of the athletes mentioned in this article had medical issues that truncated their careers. It became clear retrospectively that despite her phenomenal ability, Katie Hoff was probably dragged down at least in part by chronic lung problems (multiple pulmonary emboli). I still remember seeing results from a December short course meet where she just flat out lit up the 1650, with a strong overall swim capped by a 149 last 200. I doubt very much that her decline had anything to do with turning pro.

1 year ago

The article seems to assume that athletes that stay all 4 (or 5) years always have everything work out well. That seems unlikely. Some NCAA swimmers stay on top, and some decline.

For example, if Simone Manual had not gone pro, she still would have been training at Stanford as an NCAA swimmer with the same coaches, etc; and still may have had overtraining syndrome. I’m not sure you can blame her going pro early on this.

Reply to  bignowhere
1 year ago

For the love of God, it’s Manuel, not Manual.

Gator Chomp
1 year ago

Can’t really say Ledecky has largely slowed/stagnated since 2018 since her best times are so far out there, and she has been so consistent. At age 25, she has had fastest times in the world in multiple events every year for a decade now, before and since turning pro. In addition to her WR in 1500 Free, Ledecky has won 16 of her 42 international medals since turning pro; was USA’s most decorated female Olympian for a second straight Olympics in Tokyo and the first to win an event three Olympiads in a row; Female swimmer of meet at 2022 Budapest (3rd time in 5 Worlds); and completed her degree from Stanford as an Academic All-American of the Year while… Read more »

Reply to  Gator Chomp
1 year ago

Just wanted to add that the article called KL the greatest “female” swimmer on the planet. Seems quite limiting.

Reply to  Gator Chomp
1 year ago

I mean.. stagnate by definition means to stop developing or progressing. She is maintaining an incredible level, but it isn’t anywhere near her peak. I think stagnate is a fair word to use even if it sounds pejorative.

DP Spellman
1 year ago

A few points:
1. Foreign athletes (including quite a few females) leave NCAA institutions and turn pro quite often too but we just don’t notice it as much.

2, Missy Franklin started to have some injuries while training at Cal (including back issues at Pan-Pacs) / before turning professional.

3. I don’t blame anyone at a high level for turning professional (especially under the old draconian NCAA rules). “CREAM, get the money” if you have a good shot for it!

Bo Swims
Reply to  DP Spellman
1 year ago

Summer swam ISL at 15.

He Gets It Done Again
1 year ago

Amanda Beard turned pro after two years at Arizona. Won gold at the next Olympics.

1 year ago

Just want to echo some of the comments that a number of these women were directly impacted by awful coaching situations with the most obvious being everything that went down at FAST. There’s also a number of fluke illnesses or injuries close to the olympics that drastically changes the perception of many of these swimmers careers. Baker is the clearest example where she seemed on track to make at splash at trials but had her foot injury so close to trials. Simone was one of the best sprinters in the world in 2019 and who knows how 2020 would have played out for her without COVID.

Mr Mackey
Reply to  swimswamswum
1 year ago
Reply to  Mr Mackey
1 year ago

A doc in what happend there would be great.

I was hoping Katie Hoff would talk about it in her book but she really didn’t cover it.

Awsi Dooger
1 year ago

A few days in Paris compared to daily experiences for 3 more years at one of the top universities in the world. The friends she would have met who don’t know or care anything about swimming.

Reply to  Awsi Dooger
1 year ago

She’ll be what, 22 by the time Paris is over? Not sure how returning to Stanford would work if it’s even possible but that’s a perfectly fine age for someone to continue school.

Erica Sullivan is like the same age that Smith will be (3 total gap years) and it looks like she is doing great

Patroklos Stefanou
Reply to  jeff
1 year ago

I disagree…if you don’t like studying now, it is going to be so difficult to get back into it after years of training and chilling…Smith is leaving Stanford because she doesn’t like school, because if she did, she wouldn’t be leaving…

Reply to  Patroklos Stefanou
1 year ago

I disagree. Did much better in grad school after a six year break from UG.

Reply to  Patroklos Stefanou
1 year ago

I don’t know if she didn’t like school (or one that isn’t online) but after deferring a year and only swimming for 1 year it is clear that education is not her main focus at this time.

Reply to  Patroklos Stefanou
1 year ago

Agree 100% Patroklos. My guess is the academic part of her experience is too rigorous. And, tutors can only help so much. You still have to take test on your own. Or, if you are a top athlete do they pass you through your classes at a school even like Stanford.

Boat Songs by MJ Lenderman
Reply to  Jackson
1 year ago

She’s definitely more brawn than brains.

About James Sutherland

James Sutherland

James swam five years at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, specializing in the 200 free, back and IM. He finished up his collegiate swimming career in 2018, graduating with a bachelor's degree in economics. In 2019 he completed his graduate degree in sports journalism. Prior to going to Laurentian, James swam …

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