America's Best Collegiate Athletes Often Not American

Article excerpt

When swimmer Ryk Neethling powered South Africa's Olympic relay team to an unprecedented gold medal in Athens last summer, the Americans were surprised, to say the least. Except for US assistant coach Frank Busch.

"We'd talked about it for a long time.... Emotionally, it was an incredible experience," he recalls.

As a teenager, Mr. Neethling had been recruited by Mr. Busch to attend the University of Arizona, where he competed on a generous scholarship - courtesy of the state's taxpayers. In fact, with three of South Africa's four relay medalists having attended Arizona, the school could go into the business of franchising global Olympic athletes.

In some ways, they already have - and they're not alone.

For decades, foreign athletes have come to the US to train and bolster American university teams, boosting the level of competition and bringing Yankee jocks shoulder to shoulder with multiculturalism. But now, with nearly $1 billion to spend in scholarship money and growing pressure to field winning teams, schools are increasingly filling their rosters with foreign athletes.

The trend is fueling a debate about whether taxpayer-funded collegiate programs are developing international talent at the expense of aspiring American athletes - not to mention America's Olympic hopes.

"I think that's something we need to be concerned about," says Chuck Wielgus, executive director of USA Swimming, a governing organization. He points out that at last year's National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I swimming championships, foreign athletes constituted 40 percent of the field. He's worried that the prevalence of foreign athletes means fewer scholarships for Americans - a crucial incentive for talented high schoolers to stay in the pool.

But it's not just swimming that's affected. Nearly one-third of NCAA ice hockey and tennis athletes last season were not American. In other sports, the percentage of foreign athletes is lower, but they're concentrated at the top. Of the 20 "All-Americans" in the final event of this month's NCAA skiing championship, for example, only six were American.

Zachary Violett, a cross-country skier who didn't make that half- dozen, would like to think he'd have pocketed at least three NCAA championships by now if it weren't for the Europeans that dominate his sport. At last year's event, he finished fourth behind three Norwegians.

Is that frustrating? "Well, I like to [complain] about it, but it's great having people to chase," says Mr. Violett, who emphasizes how much he's improved by skiing head-to-head with the Europeans.

Most of them compete for schools that wouldn't even consider Violett when he was applying to colleges, and certainly didn't offer him the full-ride scholarship the "Euros" enjoy.

Not to be defeated, Violett reverse- engineered the process: He went to a ski gymnasium in Gielo, Norway, where he trained "nonstop" and worked late nights in a restaurant to make ends meet. …