The award, which was established in 1930, was created to honor the organization’s founder James Edward Sullivan. It is awarded annually to “the most outstanding athlete in the United States.” While the AAU historically has been an organization comprised of amateur athletes, the word “amateur” has been dropped as the lines between amateur and professional athletes blurs. For example, Dressel last year made more than $300,000 in ISL prize money and salary, plus millions more in endorsements. When the award was founded, there was a more distinct line of amateurism – with only amateurs allowed to compete in the Olympics and in many of the major events in other sports like golf and tennis.
The AAU says that they have refocused their approach to just the ‘top athlete’ of the year in order to accommodate Olympic athletes, and now NCAA athletes, who are in many cases no longer amateurs.
The list of 38 athletes will be whittled down to 10 via a process that includes votes from both the media and fans, and one winner will be selected (though in some years there are two honorees).
Nominees are usually announced in April, but because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the process and ceremony have been delayed. The presentation of the award will be held at the Rosen Centre in Orlando, Florida on Friday, Oct 22, with a special recognition reception in conjunction with the Orlando Magic later that night.
Caeleb Dressel was one of the stars of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, coming away with 5 gold medals. That included wins in the 50 free, 100 free, 100 fly, 400 free relay, and 400 medley relay.
He was a captain of the American men’s swim team in Tokyo, alongside Ryan Murphy, and won gold in every event he raced except for the mixed 400 medley relay, which placed 5th. He became the fifth swimmer in history to win 5 gold medals at a single Olympic Games. That included new World Records in the 100 fly (49.45) and as the fly leg of the men’s 400 medley relay.
Lydia Jacoby was one of the breakout stars of Team USA at the Olympics. The Alaskan, who became the first swimmer from her home state to qualify for the Olympic Games in swimming, built like a slow roar in the year leading up to the Tokyo Games. As she gradually began to swim more meets in the Lower 48, Jacoby’s presence in national conversations grew. At the Olympic Trials she finished 2nd behind the World Record holder and the defending Olympic champion Lilly King. In Tokyo, Jacoby improved that to a gold medal victory at only 17 years old.
Her story captured the hearts of Americans, given her story of traveling from the small town of Seward, Alaska to find a training pool 2 hours away in Anchorage during the pandemic. Even in the best of times, that pool in Anchorage is the only long course water in the state. It was an underdog story that had Jacoby bloom into the world’s best in front of a global spotlight.
37-year old Brad Snyder, who lost his eyesight from an IED explosion as a member of the US Navy in Afghanistan, competed in his 3rd Paralympic Games in 2020. While his first 7 Paralympic medals, including 5 golds, were won in swimming, in 2020 he added running and cycling to his repertoire and competed in the paratriathlon.
Along with his partner Greg Billington, Snyder won gold in the PTVI classification in Tokyo – his 6th Parlaympic gold medal overall.
The 23-year old Maddie Musselman, meanwhile, starred for the U.S. Olympic Women’s Water Polo Team in Tokyo. The American women roared their way to a gold medal in one of the most dominant performances in Olympic water polo history, including a 14-5 drubbing of Spain in the gold medal match.
Musselman led the Americans with 3 goals in that gold medal match. She tied Maggie Steffens with 18 goals in the tournament as the most for the Americans, and second-most among all players in the tournament. She also ranked 3rd in the tournament in rebounds (9 in 7 matches) and was named the tournament MVP.
The award’s criteria say that it “goes far beyond athletic accomplishments and honors those who have shown strong moral character.”
The AAU James E. Sullivan Award annually recognizes the outstanding amateur athlete whose outstanding athletic accomplishments are complemented by qualities of leadership, character and sportsmanship. Winners achieve great success on a national and/or international stage through competition in collegiate athletics, Olympic pursuit or similar high profile competitions. Presented by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), the AAU Sullivan Award symbolizes the fostering of a community of respected amateur athletes whose example provides a great model to our AAU athletes.
Swimmers have won the award on 12 occasions. In 1944, Ann Curtis, who had won more AAU championships than any other woman, became the first swimmer and first female to win the award. Only track & field (athletics) has won the award more times as a sport.
No water polo player has ever won the award, though divers have won on three occasions: Sammy Lee in 1953, Pat McCormick in 1956, and Greg Louganis in 1984.
While athletes are eligible to win the award more than once, so far that hasn’t happened.
Prior Winners among swimmers:
1944 – Ann Curtis
1964 – Don Schollander
1968 – Debbie Meyer
1970 – John Kinsella
1971 – Mark Spitz
1975 – Tim Shaw
1977 – John Naber
1978 – Tracy Caulkins
1989 – Janet Evans
2003 – Michael Phelps
2006 – Jessica Long (Paraswimming)
2012 – Missy Franklin
The award was shared in 2020 by University of Oregon basketball player Sabrina Ionescu and University of Iowa wrestler Spencer Lee.
Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder/co-owner of SwimSwam.com.
He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming.
Aside from his life on the InterWet, …