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Franklin, Ledecky hit jackpot - but may not collect

A gold for Missy Franklin in the 200-meter backstroke?

And for Katie Ledecky in the 800-meter freestyle?

You could have taken that to the bank before each swam those events at the World Swimming Championships Saturday in Barcelona.

But they can’t.

To remain eligible for NCAA swimming, neither Franklin nor Ledecky can accept the $15,000 in prize money the international swimming federation (FINA) awards to individual gold medalists at worlds.

Unless she decides to go pro now, Ledecky, 16, a rising high school junior, would also have to turn down the federation’s $25,000 world-record bonus.  She won the 800 in 8 minutes, 13.86 seconds, breaking the mark of 8:14.10 set by Rebecca Adlington of Great Britain at the 2008 Olympics.

That was Ledecky’s second world record and third individual gold medal of the meet.  She also won a relay gold.

All told, that adds up to about $100,000 (computing the relay shares is tricky because of the eligibility issues.)

For Franklin, a rising freshman at Cal-Berkeley, the 200 backstroke gold was her third individual medal of worlds.  Added to a pair of relay golds and $4,000 for a fourth place, her take-home from FINA already would be around $55,000.

Sports marketers told me last month that Franklin, 18, would have been making between $2 and $4 million in sponsorship deals if she had gone pro before the 2012 Olympics, where she won four gold medals.

That is why Franklin likely will swim just two years for Cal.

"I would love to swim all four years in college, but my parents and I know that would probably be the biggest financial mistake I could ever make," she said at June’s U.S. Championships. "The money I possibly could be receiving could help sustain me and my family for years to come.”

Ledecky, who attends a private school in Bethesda, Md., where the upcoming year’s tuition and fees are $27,900, has not yet decided about a college swimming career.  Unless she says no soon, according to USA Swimming, her FINA money goes to the national federation, which uses it for general athlete funding and services.

That decision could be a lot more complicated after Ledecky’s performance at worlds: gold and world records in the 800 and 1,500 free, gold and U.S. record (just .67 from the world record) in the 400 free, gold in the 4 x 200 free relay.  She also is reigning Olympic champion in the 800.

But the swimming careers of women who have gone pro before college have declined markedly – Katie Hoff and Dagny Knutson are notable examples.  Those who went to college, most notably Janet Evans and Natalie Coughlin, have generally prospered far more, both financially and athletically.

With the exception of a Michael Phelps, who set his first world record at age 15, few male swimmers face a similar decision because they tend to have breakthroughs in the sport much later than women – often in their early 20s, as in the case of Ryan Lochte.

Both Franklin and Ledecky still will profit from their success in Barcelona because the NCAA allows athletes to take money earned in the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Operation Gold program.

The Operation Gold reward is $30,000 for gold, $15,000 for silver and $7,500 for bronze in individual events, with relays dividing those amounts.

That adds up to about $100,000 so far for Franklin and $94,000 for Ledecky.

Both Franklin (roughly $60,000) and Ledecky ($25,000) also got Operation Gold cash in London last year.

There is a wonderful tidbit about all this.  University of Texas grad Karlee Bispo, added to the world team only because Ledecky chose not to swim the individual 200 free, is the only one of the seven women who swam prelims or finals of the winning 4 x 200 relay without NCAA eligibility issues.

The $15,000 relay prize from FINA could be all hers.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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