18-year-old Mary Cain signed with Nike in 2013, a highly unconventional move for track athletes.     Photo: AP

Would You Go Pro Over a College Scholarship?

More and more young female runners are signing pro contracts in a sport where racing as an elite does not guarantee financial success.

Two weeks ago, 17-year-old American sprint phenom Kaylin Whitney announced that she had signed a sponsorship deal with Nike. As a newly-minted professional athlete, Whitney, who won two gold medals competing for the United States at the IAAF World Junior Championships last year, will be skipping her senior and junior seasons of high school track to focus on making the U.S. team for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. If she succeeds, she will be the youngest person to compete on a U.S. Olympic track team in 40 years.

“My dream really is to make a USA team again,” Whitney told Track & Field News. To help achieve that goal, the young track star has enrolled in a “virtual school,” which allows her to finish her high school degree online and attend morning workouts at an elite track club in Clermont, Florida, where she lives. Despite what this might suggest about where her priorities lie, Kaylin insists that she is not favoring athletic goals over academic ones.

“Education is most important to me and I want to get through my studies first, so regardless of my decision I’m going to continue my education and I can just do online school at home,” Whitney told Track & Field News.

By turning professional, however, Kaylin is forfeiting her chances at landing a free education in the form of an NCAA scholarship. In the hyper-competitive, yet not necessarily hyper-lucrative world of professional track and field, one has to wonder: did Kaylin Whitney make the right decision?

Whitney is not the first talented athlete to pass on the proverbial “free ride.” Mary Cain, arguably the best middle distance runner in U.S. high school history, did the same thing in 2013 and, one year later, Washington state’s prep superstar Alexa Efraimson followed suit. Like Whitney, both girls signed with Nike for an undisclosed amount. In 2013, then 16-year-old Alana Hadley of North Carolina turned pro in the marathon, her 2:38.34 PR being the second fastest ever run by a high school girl.

These young women are unusual, to say the least. The New York Times described Cain’s decision to turn pro as “standard for top young athletes in sports like tennis but highly unconventional in track.”

A 2012 study from the Track and Field Athletes Association (TFAA) found that “Approximately 50% of their athletes who rank in the top 10 in the USA in their event make less than $15,000 annually from the sport.” That’s about one third of what it costs to attend an NCAA powerhouse like Stanford for one year. In a country like the United States, where the importance of a college education holds such sway, one wonders if it makes sense for a talented high school runner to opt for a pro contract instead of a scholarship, especially when the former might still be an option after four years.

Not that a college scholarship is just about the money. For athletes like two-time Olympian Kara Goucher, who was an individual NCAA cross-country champion at the University of Colorado, the college running experience was edifying both in terms of improving as an athlete and gauging whether a pro running career was really all that desirable.

“I only ran 30 miles a week in high school,” Kara told Outside. “I liked running. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t know if I loved it, yet. I’m so glad I went to college, not just for my running—I mean definitely for my running because I felt like it was a safe place to develop, to take four years to actually develop into it—but also because I didn’t know who I was when I was 17 when I graduated, I had no idea what I wanted to do or who I wanted to be.”

While Kara was adamant that going to college was the right decision for her, she was quick to point out that every situation is different. Kara was very good in high school, but she was no Mary Cain or Kaylin Whitney, whose prep performances were already on a world-class level.

Like Cain and Whitney, Allyson Felix also turned pro right out of school. Felix, the only American woman ever to run a faster high school 200 than Whitney, has since won six Olympic medals, four of them gold. At age 29, she remains one of the best sprinters in the United States. Last year, Felix claimed the overall victory in the 200 in the IAAF Diamond League–the annual series of international track meets, which pays $10,000 for each individual victory and $40,000 to the season winner in each discipline.

Felix’s example is relevant for another reason: although she couldn’t receive an athletic scholarship after turning pro, her sponsor, Adidas, paid her tuition at USC as part of the deal, and she graduated in 2008 with a degree in elementary education. While little is known about the specifics of Mary Cain or Kaylin Whitney’s contracts, college tuition may very well be included. (Also, if you’re prominently featured in Nike content like this, you’re probably doing a little better than those athletes grinding it out on $15,000 a year.) Cain currently attends the University of Portland, and Whitney still has plenty time to decide where, and if, she wants to go to university.

Furthermore, no one could accuse Cain of arrogance were she to assume that perhaps NCAA didn’t provide enough competition. The summer before her senior year in high school, Mary Cain ran the 800 in 1:59.51. Last year, the winning time in the 800 at the NCAA D1 outdoor track and field championships was 2:01.22. 

For Mary Cain and Kaylin Whitney, it’s possible that forgoing a college scholarship was the best move they can make for their running careers. They are free to compete internationally and pocket their winnings, while their training schedules can be tailored to their individual needs, rather than those of a university team. They are both hungry to represent the United States at the next Olympics, and they feel that now is their time.

As Mary Cain told the Times, “In Africa, in Europe, in Asia, they go pro, and the fact of the matter is, they are the ones kicking our asses. Maybe they’re doing something right.”

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