Junior Rebecca Waterson (Photo by Jacqueline Chao)

CHLORINE CHRONICLES: Given recent college scandals, what is ‘merit’?

It seems as if every other article I’ve read this last month has been about the college admissions scandal. Rick Singer’s side-door operation to gain admission to selective colleges in exchange for bribes has left the nation’s hardworking students confused and angry — myself included.

The story spilled just as I’d received official visit offers for my own recruiting process in college athletics. Without knowing much about the scandal, I went to school the next few days under the pretense that wealthy parents paid off proctors for perfect test scores and that was the extent of the damage.

But then I started to hear comments like, “I should have stayed in (insert sport). I would have had an easy ticket into college!”

I then read about how Singer paid off athletic directors and coaches and used Photoshop to find nonathletic high school seniors positions on college teams.

Suspiciously, the usual response time from coaches I was talking to in the recruiting process seemed to take longer than normal, so I began to panic. Will the offers be rescinded? Has this scandal halted recruitment activities at selective colleges as they all wait to see what else comes to light in the scandal? Will more colleges and sports be named? Have the last nine months of research, correspondence and building relationships suddenly come to a halt because of the nefarious actions of roughly 50 people?

Singer’s connection to Sacramento made the situation much more personal.

I know families that used his “legitimate” services. Before I moved to Sacramento, I knew he presented and recruited clients, athletes and families at Arden Hills, the former home of my club swim team, DART.

Before I knew about the scandal, classmates and teachers at school asked me about Singer. Being the day-late news reader I am, I had to text my mom to ask what was going on. After the shock of reading the Wall Street Journal article that she sent me wore off, I realized the question had been in concern that maybe my family had employed Mr. Singer. (NO!!!)

Eventually, the coaches responded, and my initial panic receded, only to be replaced by frustration. Certainly, some arguments made sense: Stereotypical admissions seem to favor students who are wealthy and have access to services and tutors or know how to legally game the system.

But the idea that admissions should be based solely on merit and not include athletics didn’t seem right.

What is the definition of merit? Is it just a GPA and standardized test scores? Is academic perfection really the only measure of merit? Although that is commendable, what about students who are slightly less than perfect according to the GPA, AP, SAT and ACT scales of measurement but bring a different set of accomplishments or skills? Are they less worthy of admission?

This fall, I overheard a freshman asking a senior what it takes to get into Stanford. They brought up my friend and fellow swimmer, Amalie Fackenthal, claiming she only got into Stanford because of swimming. They obviously don’t know Amalie’s incredible brainpower atop her athletic talents. I can speculate that Amalie’s grades and test scores likely would have gotten her into just about any university in the nation; the advantage of her swimming ability simply gave her the chance to know where she would go to college earlier than other classmates.

So to that duo: If Amalie decided to go to school simply to swim, there are plenty of top colleges that produce Olympians and national record holders besides Stanford, but she wanted to be challenged academically as well. You still have to go to school (and do well) if you’re a college athlete at a selective school!

I’ve now been to a fair number of college admissions presentations, and each college and university seems to genuinely try to build a group of students with diverse backgrounds and experiences — a combination of interesting people who want to learn about different perspectives. How can we move forward as a society if we are surrounded by same-minded peers who lack the skills to respectfully challenge and debate differences?

Which brings me back to athletics, especially non-revenue college sports like swimming. There is next to no athletic scholarship money, and there are no sponsorships by Nike or Gatorade or TV contracts as in football and basketball. We train and compete for next to no glory.

But through our wins and losses, we learn valuable life skills: grace, courtesy, respect, independence, flexibility, focus, time management, goal setting and long-range planning. We figure out how to contribute to a common goal and gain self-confidence through participation in athletics.

I incorporate these nonquantifiable skills into my life just as much as what I learn in a graded course.

So to the “pundits” who say that there is no room for athletics in college admissions, I think you’re making a mistake. I may not be an International Science and Engineering Fair participant or chess master or Carnegie Hall piano player, but my level of swimming involves the same tenacity and determination.

I’m looking to continue my education in college, and I’m not basing my entire admission on athletics. For those who say athletics is an easy ticket into school, think again. Student-athletes bring a set of skills and experiences — plus years of dedication — that add value to a college community.

—By Rebecca Waterson

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