It had to happen sooner or later, a high school phenomenon turning pro. After all, we’ve seen world class high schoolers in the past. Certainly several WAY back during the early days of track and field when youngsters like Bob Mathias were dominant internationally.
Even during what I consider the modern era of the sport – The 1960′s forward, athletes like, Houston McTear, Mary Decker, Dwayne Evans, and Gerry Lindgren among others were among the top world class level athletes. There was simply no professional track for them to transition into. More recently, however, we’ve seen Allyson Felix emerge as an international threat while in high school. She made the choice to bypass collegiate competition to turn professional and as I watched her career, I said very early on that she set the blueprint for the high school star turning pro – and it’s my guess that Allyson and her career had some influence on the Cain decision.
Many forget that Felix was the first to bypass a collegiate career in deference to turning pro. She enrolled at USC and went to school the same as if she were a scholarship athlete competing for the school. But Felix never wore the maroon and gold of the Trojans, opting instead to run against the best in the World as a professional athlete.
For all those that are deriding Cain’s decision, just take a quick look at Felix’ career. A trio of World titles over 200 meters and an Olympic title. When she wasn’t winning gold she was taking home silver, with a World silver and pair of Olympic silvers to go with the previously mentioned medal haul. She’s also set WR as part of the gold medal winning London 4×1 unit, with a pair of world titles to match. And she’s been the lynchpin on three World 4×4 titles and one Olympic gold. A pretty good medal haul for someone that didn’t have the “benefit of collegiate” training and competition to get her ready for the big time. Of course, I’m not sure she was going to get a better collegiate coach than Bobby Kersee. So perhaps competing at USC may actually have been a downgrade for Felix – no offense to any of the collegiate coaches out there.
Besides, the collegiate competition experience is fairly similar to the professional one in that the dual meet system as basically been scrapped in deference to participation in the relay circuit. The only real difference being that collegians have conference titles to shoot for and NCAA championships – which actually make it a bit tougher for the top level athletes to be at their very best at US Nationals and definitely for World and Olympic competition. Not competing as a collegian gives one the ability to be fresher at the “big” meets since you have fewer championship runs to prepare for and can shorten you competitive season if you choose. If you’re already world class coming out of high school like Felix was, your goal is less NCAA titles, and more World & Olympic titles – and her career seems to bear out that she made the proper choice.
I look at Cain as being in the same type situation. She’s already being tutored and guided by America’s best distance coach – Alberto Salazar. To enroll in ANY collegiate program would certainly be a downgrade from a coaching standpoint – no offense to the nations collegiate coaches out there. Cain will still get to go to college and get an education. In addition she’ll be able to continue working with the BEST distance coach in the US; control her competitive schedule; have outstanding training partners to work with daily. There will be no pressure to “help” score collegiate points or win tiles that at the end of the day, bring her no benefit towards her goals. Nor will she have to take unnecessary risks with her health to “earn” her scholarship. And perhaps most importantly she won’t be restricted by the NCAA’s archaic rules in terms of maximizing her earning potential. Can someone tell me why this isn’t a good decision? Frankly, in my opinion, this is the best possible scenario for the future of US female distance running.
In the world of female distance running, she is the equivalent of Kevin Garnett and LeBron James coming out of high school. The difference being that she can continue to further her education while running with the big girls! Frankly this is the type of thing I would love to see continued with some other athletes – particularly our young sprint corp. Being able to have your best young talent become paired up with our best coaches in a positive environment and develop them from cradle to grave is a step in the right direction for the growth of track and field. And as long as those young people are also guided towards continuing the educations, I see it as a win win for everyone.
I’m sure that drooling coaches might be a tad upset. But if one views the collegiate system as a developmental system for the sport, then what’s wrong with someone already developed working with a coach that can best hone their skills to the finest? Frankly I see it as the equivalent of taking a talented high school freshman and moving them up to varsity! You run them frosh/soph to get them ready for the varsity, but when they come in ready why hold them back? Anything less for Cain right now would be holding her back. Because personally I see Salazar managing her career in the same manner he has Galen Rupp’s – and we can use as many Galen Rupps as we can get.