Mike's Mailbag: Pursue Swimming or Major in College?

Mike's Mailbag: Pursue Swimming or Major in College?

By Mike Gustafson//Contributor  | Monday, April 17, 2017

Every Monday, I answer questions from swimmers around the country. If you have a question, please email me at swimmingstories@gmail.com.

Dear Mike,

As the deadline to SIR to a college approaches, I have to choose where to spend the next four years of my life, and ultimately whether or not I’ll ever swim again. In an ideal world, I would’ve walked-on to a prestigious DI school’s swim team, the college being a perfect fit academically and a place where I could still swim. With that school being my top choice, I took a risk and chose not to recruit last fall with hopes to get into the university with my academics alone. I ended up being waitlisted and am currently stuck deciding between two other schools.

The first school is perfect for my major, in which the school is ranked 3rd globally. However, I am not fast enough to swim for their varsity swim team. The school has no club team, meaning that if I go here, I would never be able to swim again. Nonetheless, I absolutely love the university and attending this school would definitely help me for internships, grad school admittance, and professional careers.

The second school is mid-tier academic-wise, but I would be able to swim for their team. I really like the coach and I know that being part of this team would help ease the college transition, providing a central community base. However, the school does not specialize in my major. Although ranked top 50 in the nation, the program does not compare with the academics I’d receive at the former school I mentioned.

I will either quit swimming now or four years from now, but I don’t know how much my life would be impacted without swimming. I am afraid I may not find a group of people providing the same bond as being part of a swim team would. However, I don’t want to regret my college choice when I can’t get into a good graduate school or find a stellar job – which I maybe could’ve gotten if I just had a prestigious school name attached to my resume. I have absolutely no idea what to do, and only have two weeks to decide my future.

I’d love to hear your perspective and advice to help me decide on what I should consider most when choosing a college!

Thank you,



Hey Swimmer/Swammer,

This is a tough, difficult decision. On the one hand, you have the school of your dreams. On the other hand, attending this school means you’d have to say goodbye to swimming earlier than you would have liked.

Swimming at the college level can be a wonderful experience. But it is just one facet of the entire experience. So many swimmers worry about their future swimming experience and not enough about their future.

It sounds like you are worried about your future, and I commend you. You’re thinking ahead. You’re contemplating life both with and without swimming. You’re making all the right arguments for choosing either school.

Ultimately, while it will be sad to say goodbye to swimming, academics and the “rest of your life” need to take top priority. Not because of money. Not because of future jobs (thought this is a consideration). You should strongly consider what will make you happier long-term and probably consider this top-notch academic school because they are best poised to foster a lifelong passion.

Competitive swimming, like you alluded to in your email, has a shelf-life. You will either retire now, or in four years from now. You will have to hang up those goggles at some point. (Don’t forget, however, masters swimming, lap swimming, and the fact that you can still compete in meets, should you want to, much later life.) The beautiful thing about swimming is that you can still exercise, you can still “race” the clock, and you can still set personal goals… In other words, you can still gain many of those lessons you learn in college swimming.

From my standpoint, the one main drawback is, of course, you won’t get that “team” competitive athletics experience. But there are a plethora of other team-like experiences throughout college: Sororities, clubs, majors, friendships, study abroad programs, internships… There are so many other opportunities afforded to you.

Rather than focusing on what you would miss out on, think about what you would gain: A potential lifelong career, passion, and pursuit. If you attend a college that specializes and is among the world’s best at a certain academic major, you will find something that lasts much, much longer than competitive swimming. Something that may give you joy and meaning. Something with which you can begin your life’s work and make a positive difference in people’s lives and the world around us.

I am glad you are taking this seriously. It is a big decision. Looking back at my own decisions, I made mine based on academics and specialized majors. I ended up changing my passions halfway through my undergraduate experience. Fortunately, I chose a college (Northwestern) that offered a plethora of excellent options throughout each academic category. I felt completely comfortable changing majors. You might do the same.

Choose the best school for you. If that means this particular school will prepare you for the rest of your life, and you fit in and feel good attending there, go there. Your passions might change. Your academic interests might change. You want to be at the best possible school so you can feel comfortable no matter what academic road you choose.

Competitive swimming is a chapter; it has a shelf life. It had a shelf life for me. It had a shelf life for Michael Phelps. And it has a shelf life for you. This is not a negative. Remember: Swimming, in its essence, will always be around.

Heck, you could even start your own club team. I’m sure other people are in the same boat — swimmers who aren’t fast enough to compete at the varsity level, but still want that team experience. Why not start a club program? Or just a group of people who swim every other day? Or join a Masters team?

What I’m trying to say is: When it comes to swimming, there are options to continue that passion. But when it comes to academics and the rest of your life, you probably should choose the school that can help foster a lifelong pursuit that you will enjoy much, much more than competitive swimming.

I hope this helps.

- Mike



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