In Olympic anticipation, the 2020 NCAA season was loaded with top talent taking gap years. But Olympic postponement will throw a wrench into the plans of those swimmers.
First, we’ll quickly revisit the major names who sat out the NCAA season. Technically, these athletes could fall into a number of categories. “Redshirt” is a term used to describe an athlete who is enrolled at a school but does not compete for that school, thus saving a year of eligibility. The term has expanded, though, and now is used generally to describe an athlete taking a year off from college competition and not using a year of eligibility. Some of these athletes would consider it a “gap year,” rather than a redshirt, especially if they returned to their previous club to train. Prospective freshmen can defer their enrollment, effectively taking a “redshirt” year before they start their NCAA eligibility – but NCAA rules still require that they enroll within a year of graduating high school.
For simplicity’s sake, we’re going to broadly refer to all of these athletes as redshirts, using that as more of the umbrella term it’s typically used as.
2020 NCAA Redshirt List
Years listed are the grade the athlete would have been in the 2019-2020 season.
freshman, deferred enrollment
|Ida Hulkko||Florida State||Finland||sophomore|
|Mackenzie Padington||Minnesota/NC State||Canada||junior|
|Jarod Arroyo||Arizona State||Puerto Rico||
freshman, deferred enrollment
|Ruslan Gaziev||Ohio State||Canada||sophomore|
|Giovanni Izzo||NC State||Italy||junior|
|Grant House||Arizona State||USA||junior|
|Mario Koenigsperger||USC||New Zealand||senior|
We should also note one more redshirt-related name who is actually a holdover from 2018: open water swimmer Erica Sullivan deferred her enrollment two years for Tokyo 2020, and will probably wind up with less than four years of NCAA eligibility regardless of what she decides to do next year.
Assuming the 2020 Olympics happen sometime between January and August of 2021 (as implied by the most recent postponement news), this bunch will run into the same issue next year – how to split focus between NCAA competition in short course yards and Olympic qualifying and competing in long course meters.
As far as we can tell, they’ll have three main options, assuming the NCAA doesn’t make any exceptions to its eligibility rules based on coronavirus cancellations:
- Apply for a waiver to have their five-year NCAA eligibility window extended. In this case, the student-athlete would sit out the 2020-2021 season and hope to finish out their collegiate eligibility after effectively back-to-back redshirt seasons.*
- Compete in the NCAA next season
- Skip one of their four years of eligibility to take a second gap year for the 2021 version of the Olympics
*The NCAA’s Division I handbook does provide for waivers to extend its five-year rule, which requires a two-thirds majority vote from an NCAA committee.
Forecasting the Field
Though we tend to see the four-year college window as an athletic feature, we have to put aside our swimming fandom long enough to remember the academic side. Many of these decisions will be driven by where an athlete is in their educational program. A would-be senior with job prospects in their field may not want to delay a career by two years just to get one more NCAA season in under the wire. On the other hand, some may be willing to stretch out their academic program or add another undergraduate degree while using up their final year(s) of collegiate eligibility in athletics.
For those who continued training at their respective universities, the decision is mainly about their focus, both in training and whether they’ll continue their studies or take a light courseload to ready for the Olympics. At least a few of these athletes, though, changed their training bases.
- Dean Farris left Harvard to train at Texas. There’s an argument to be made that Farris in particular could be better off staying at Texas and perhaps turning pro, where his short course prowess could make him a force in the ISL. But finishing a Harvard degree is a draw of its own.
- Taylor Ruck had left Stanford to train in Toronto, though her training group there was sent home due to the coronavirus outbreak, and she’s now apparently training in Arizona. Her decision could be impacted by whether Canada or Stanford is able to return to normalcy first, as that would allow her to resume training.
- Mackenzie Padington also returned to Canada, but announced her intent to transfer from Minnesota to NC State after her gap year.
- Michael Brinegar spent most of the gap training with Mission Viejo in California.
A few athletes have some other factors to consider:
- Mario Koenigsperger left USC but planned to return for his senior year. Now, the coach who recruited him and trained him the past three years, Dave Salo, is retiring from the college ranks to focus on training his pro group. So even if Koenigsperger returns to USC, he may have reason to turn pro and stay with a familiar coach, rather than finish his college eligibility. (Sullivan would be in the same boat here, as she was recruited when Salo was head coach).
- Florida’s Trey Freeman was a late redshirt after undergoing knee surgery – it appears he was still attending school and training in Gainesville, so it would be fair to expect him back in the college ranks next year.