Every four seasons, athletes in Olympic sports have to begin to make tough decisions about how to balance their training and academic schedules, both in terms of collegiate training and more high-level training for the Olympic Games.
There are a few options available to athletes. Tim Phillips of Ohio State and Allison Schmitt of Georgia have opted to go with simple “redshirts,” where an athlete doesn’t compete for the NCAA team, and maintain the extra year of collegiate eligibility. In both of these situations, the athletes have also chosen to not participate in classes (and fulfill the the progress-towards-degree requirements), and have actually decided to train with other teams. In many situations, training with a team that is not your collegiate team can help keep things simpler, if the athlete does not participate in NCAA competition, because there are special rules about practicing with a team during these redshirt years when athletes are not academically enrolled.
The more interesting, and generally less understood, rule regards the so-called “Olympic Waiver.” If you search through the NCAA rule-books, there is no real “Olympic Waiver” rule per se, rather there are several waivers that allow athletes, when training for certain designated international events, to fall behind the progress-towards-degree requirements and other eligibility requirements and still compete with the college team. Usually, athletes who take an “Olympic Waiver” are employing a few of these different rules.
The University of Texas swim teams seem to have been among the most frequent (though not only) users of this portion of the NCAA rule book, and this year, sprint star Jimmy Feigen is the highest-profile swimmer that we’ve seen envoke the waiver. The NCAA rule-books are full of words-upon-words of information about academic waivers (which without being a compliance officer I wouldn’t even attempt to completely explain), but the nuts-and-bolts of the situation is that Feigen will be able to practice and compete with the Texas swimming squad during the spring semester without being enrolled as a full-time student.
The “Olympic Waiver” terminology is a bit of a misnomer, because (with limitations to the number of uses), the waiver can be applied to competition in a wide range of events. The list includes World Championships (which Dave Walters used a waiver on for the 2007 event in Melbourne), Pan American Games, or junior versions of the same events. Prior to Walters and Feigen using the rule, Ian Crocker used it in 2000 for the Sydney Olympics. The difference between their uses and Feigen’s is that there’s were specifically used for meets in Australia. This is significant, because the meets took place during the academic year (the 2012 London Games will take place after Feigen’s eligibility is complete) because they were held in Australia. International travel during an academic year obviously makes course-work difficult.
In Feigen’s case, however, the rule still applies, because there are allowances for the academic year immediately preceding a qualified event, including being in an approved training program or upon the recommendation of the USOC.
Long-story short, we have confirmed that Feigen will be competing at the 2012 NCAA Championships (barring any unrelated circumstances), which spells bad news for the rest of the country. His potential absence to prepare for the Olympics presented a possible chink in the armor for what appears to be a very loaded Texas squad. They’re going to be hard to beat with Feigen on board.
If you’re interested in reading the full context of the eligibility rules and academic waivers, click here to see the full NCAA bylaws. The pertinent article is article 14, that begins on page 127 of the manual.
(Sidebar: One of the most interesting debates over the “Olympic Waiver” involved the Texas women’s team in 2002. The case actually had to go before the state court system to be resolved. The jist of it was Joscelin Yeo used a waiver in 2001, but at the same time was transfering to Texas, and there was a huge debate over whether the waiver to full-time enrollment also waived 12 hours of the waiting period related to Yeo’s transfer year. Texas was responsive throughout, but things got ugly when Cal complained after Texas tried to count the Orange-White meet and “facsimile meets” (postal meets) towards an NCAA 4-meet suspension. Not pertinent to the case at hand, but interesting if you’re into that kind of thing. Read more about that case here.)