The NCAA Championships used to be loaded with Olympic medalists... No longer. "It used to be the major leagues," said the well-placed source. "Now it's become AAA."
The well-placed source did not wish to be named. Didn't want to come across as criticizing the accomplishments of the latest crop of NCAA champs. Fair enough. But this was less a criticism than an observation of fact.
Take a look at the results. Scroll through the names of the winners. Do you see the names of any likely Olympic champions among them? Any that will appear on any podiums in London?
Well, maybe a few. Two big exceptions here, both on the women's side: Florida's Elizabeth Beisel and USC's Katinka Hosszu. Beisel is the defending world champion in the women's 400 IM; Hungary's Hosszu may be the swimmer to beat in London in the same race. She won the women's NCAA title in the 400 IM in an astonishing 3:56.54. Those two are my picks to go 1-2 in London. But beyond those two swimmers, in that one event, who else is there?
Cal's Caitlin Leverenz has to make the list. She's clearly swimming with a crazy new confidence nowadays - as evidenced by her latest performance at the Indy Grand Prix. She'll likely join Beisel as the other American entry in the 400 IM, but her medal chances are probably better in the 200 IM...
Among the men, you'd be hard-pressed to find a single guy from NCAA's who's likely to medal in London.
Texas' Jimmy Feigen might be there as a member of the U.S. 4 x 100 free relay. Maybe, in the prelims possibly. Tom Shields could drop a big time long-course 100 fly any day now, and find himself in the London final with a great shot at a medal. But first he's got to make the Team. Same goes for Arizona's insane freshman Kevin Cordes. If you go 51.32 at 18-years-old, you've got to figure a huge drop is on the way in the big pool. But again, he's gotta make the Team first - and he's got just a few old guard Olympic medalists standing in his way. (Among those three, I'll take Cordes as the best shot; think he goes 59-low at Trials, with a big shot at the London podium...)
Missing anyone? Please let me know if I am. Stanford's Chad La Tourette will very likely make the U.S. team in the mile, but it would take quite a drop to be anywhere near the medal mix in London.
When did this happen? When did the NCAA Championships - long considered the fastest short course meet on the planet - become a minor league competition? Sure, they're still fast as hell, and this takes absolutely nothing away from the excitement of the meet, but the fact remains: the stars of the Olympic Games are no longer competing at NCAA's.
Think back to another time when this was a very different environment. In 1996, Tom Dolan was widely considered the best all-around swimmer on the planet. He was a junior at Michigan. His meet the year before, at the 1995 NCAA Champs, is still the best all-around collegiate performance in history. In 2000, Erik Vendt and Anthony Ervin were mere kids in the Pac-10 when they went to Sydney and took home silver and gold, respectively. In 2004, Ryan Lochte collected his first Olympic medals in Athens; then he went back to Florida and dominated the 2005 NCAA champs.
The list goes on... But times have changed.
Now the very best stick around and turn pro after their college days are done. The average age of Olympic champions seems to get older with every Olympiad. This is a trend that's not going to reverse itself anytime soon. Indeed, Lochte has made clear that he has every intention of continuing on until Rio. And despite his protests to the contrary, I'll put money on Phelps being there in Rio too. Maybe this superstar pair won't be loading up on a million events at this advanced age, but they'll still be taking up a few relay spots, at very least.
There's one girl who could make a mockery of all this talk in a hurry. That would be Missy Franklin. If she continues to refuse the ever-escalating stacks of money being thrown her way, continues to put off turning pro, she could be the greatest all-around female swimmer on earth straight through her four years in the NCAA, at whatever lucky school wins her services. Though, there has to be a limit to how much money you can leave sitting on the table... (Another bet: Franklin sticks with her convictions and goes off to school, then turns pro after a year or two in the NCAA. Cashes in before Rio, but still gets to have the whole college "experience"...)
Of course, if the NCAA had any common sense at all, this wouldn't even be a decision for phenoms like Franklin. This behind-the-times organization could simply get with the program - that is, the Olympic program. The Games long ago admitted to the central fallacy of amateurism. And the Olympics are much better for it.
The NCAA would be too...