Among the track and field competitors at the Summer Games in Rio will be current and former athletes from several longtime college powerhouses: Oregon, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Harvard, Southern California, Penn State, and Texas A&M, to name a few.
Elijah Hall-Thompson, a sprinter who competed at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track and Field in the 100-meter and 200-meter sprints, was representing a different banner, and an often-overlooked Olympic pipeline: community colleges.
"You don't have to be down about starting at a junior college," Hall-Thompson, who ran the last two years on the track team at Butler Community College in El Dorado, Kansas, said. "You can compete against everyone. You competed against the same guys in high school and maybe things didn't go right for you, but you can still keep going stronger and harder and you're going to make it."
Forty-four athletes and alumni from community colleges will be representing 26 different countries at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio, according to the National Junior College Athletic Association. The NJCAA has staged competitions between community college teams since 1938. Today the association governs 58,000 student-athletes at over 520 member institutions, and an increasing number of those athletes are aiming for, and even making, Olympic rosters.
Community colleges, sometimes called junior colleges or technical schools, typically offer two-year associates degrees that can be transferred to accredited four-year universities or other supplemental educational programs. They also have athletic programs that regularly churn out Olympic-level talent. South Plains (Texas), for example, has ten former students representing at Rio, which ranks 12th among all college and universities in the US.
There were 59 Olympians from community colleges at the 2012 London Games, and eight medal-winners, including American long jumper Brittney Reese (Mississippi Gulf Coast), who is returning to defend her gold medal in Rio this summer. She'll be joined by fellow community-college alums like American sprinter Tyson Gay, Jamaican runner Veronica Campbell-Brown, and Leevan Sands, who won bronze representing the Bahamas in the triple jump at Beijing; all three attended Barton County Community College in Kansas.
Track and field is the main event for community colleges in the Olympics: of the 44 athletes going to Rio, 39 are in track. This makes sense; the sport isn't as expensive to stage as others, since it doesn't require multimillion-dollar facilities and travel budgets. But several coaches and athletes in pricer sports, such as swimming, basketball, and soccer, have made Olympic teams in the past. Before playing for Team USA in Rio and for the Chicago Bulls in the NBA, Jimmy Butler attended Tyler Junior College in Texas, where he attracted attention from Division I schools. Rose Anderson attended Northern Oklahoma College and competed on Great Britain's basketball team at the 2012 London Games.
Some of the recent success of community college programs at the Olympic level may be due to scale. Community colleges saw a surge when the recession hit, with enrollment spiking by nearly 18 percent between 2006 and 2009 as many cost-conscious students sought out more affordable and flexible options for higher education. While the numbers have declined slightly from their peak in late 2010, about half of all undergraduate college students in the U.S. today attend a community college, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.
Cost and the desire to bolster a low GPA were part of what drew sprinter Correion Mosby, who competed at the US track trials last month, to Hinds Community College in Raymond, Mississippi. Mosby had won state titles as a sprinter for his Louisiana high school and had his sight set on competing at a Division I college, but during his senior year he realized that his grades weren't high enough to qualify.
"It was devastating," Mosby said. He and his high school track coach began to brainstorm and found Hinds, where he is about to start his second year of school on a scholarship. "It's really stressful and it's difficult, but if you want to run and do your sport, if you're going to get it done. It's really hard, but not impossible. Being at Hinds has been great and I'm getting more time to develop and get exposure to schools."
He added, "I'm happy that someone gave me another chance to run track."
Reginald Dillon, the head men's and women's track coach for Hinds, said Mosby's story is a common one. Hinds focuses on attracting Mississippi talent first, but often scoops up high school students who still want to compete but may need more time to develop their academics and athleticism. It also gives students and coaches more time to vet options for transferring, he said, and allows students to be better equipped for life in Division I.
"In recruiting, social media has completely blown everything up," Dillon said. "It makes some kids think they're better than than they are, or that everyone should go D1 right away because they went to a camp or got a good outcome at a state meet. Camps are there to make coaches money. If you want to make a kid better, you volunteer to make them better. College coaches are not doing a good job of explaining that there's nothing wrong with junior college. It's a great stepping stone. A lot of really successful people have gone through community college. There's no limit."
While some community colleges may lack the name recognition, budgets, and coaching resources of their four-year counterparts, Dillon credited the focused athletic programs, smaller class sizes, and tutoring options with getting many students to four-year programs, to top finishes at NJCAA competitions, and to the Olympic Trials. He also helps athletes get placed in Division I programs for their junior and senior years, often fielding wider array of schoarship offers than they would have coming out of high school.
"I'm a small piece of the puzzle, the man behind the scenes," Dillon said. "But I want the kids to do what they do. An athlete can't sit out. You gotta keep yourself going."
Brian Williams II, a discus thrower who competed at the trials for Iowa Central Community College, said that he was disappointed when, in high school in Michigan, no college offers came his way. He didn't compete at all his first year after graduating.
"Not competing for a year was pretty depressing," he said. "It was a life shock for me. It hurt. I didn't know what to do with myself. Track and field was a big part of my life. I was at a loss for that year I didn't compete."
Through friends, he heard that Iowa Central had a strong program and moved there to compete. "I felt like I was stuck at a junior college, but didn't know anything about them offering athletics," he said.
At Iowa Central, he said he was "shocked" when he found out how serious the program was. As he worked his way through national competitions, the Olympic trials became a reality. In Eugene last month, Williams qualified to be on Team USA's Under 23 team, designed to bridge the gap between college and elite fields. Williams will start at the University of Mississippi in the fall on an athletic scholarship.
"I was happy to be here and get this experience so young," he said. "But I worked hard and pushed myself to be a contender. I'm glad I went to a community college because it made me into the athlete I am. I look at where I was a couple of years ago not throwing and I'm like, 'Wow.' It was a fast transition."
Hall-Thompson will also make the change from his community college to a larger program when he transfers this fall to the University of Houston, where he will be coached by sprinting legend Carl Lewis. While he said he's excited about the move, he also credited his two years in Kansas with improving his running and academic direction.
"It helped me run a lot faster and it helped me focus," Hall-Thompson said. "It humbled me into the guy I am today. You've got to want to do it. Nobody is going to do it for you."
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