Mike's Mailbag: The Gap Year


By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

Every Monday I answer questions emailed to me from swimmers around the country. I’m not a doctor, so take my advice with a grain of salt, but I’ve been around the sport most my entire life, as an NCAA swimmer, part-time coach, and writer. If you have questions, please email me at swimmingstories@gmail.com.


Hey Mike,

I was wondering what your opinion was on taking a "gap year" in between high school and college. Right now, I'm 15, just starting my sophomore year. I get straight As in school, I just missed making Winter Juniors in the 400 IM at championships this past summer, and I've set my goals to go to Irvine next summer for Summer Juniors. I have a pretty big training schedule...I think it adds up to 24 hours in the water, plus 6 hours of dryland/gym workouts per week. My coach and I have really been stepping up the training intensity in the past couple months and I'm already noticing the differences. As I approach college, and my training gets even more intense, do you think it would be a good idea to take a year off before college, just to train with my club? I feel like it would give me an opportunity to really make some big steps forward, with no distractions other than working hard and getting faster. It's something I'm interested in doing, but I was also wondering if you knew whether or not it would mess up my college application, if colleges would still be interested if I took a year off, and just if it's a good idea in general.

Thanks a lot,
Gap Year Swimmer

Dear Gap Year Swimmer:

Taking a “gap year” is an oft-fantasized thing many swimmers contemplate. Imagine: an entire year with no distractions! Naps all day! Swimming 24/7! Seriously, many swimmers go through school, social lives, and extra-curricular activities and think, “If only I had one season (or one week) with no distractions…”

Ultimately, you should make this decision with your family and coach. They know you best. You are only 15-years-old, so a lot will change between now and when you make this decision. College is very expensive. Finances are a huge factor, as well as the potential to improve even more. Some swimmers have taken a year off to train, and they have been very successful.

However, I was like you. I dreamed about taking a year off to train. I was “that type of swimmer” who sat in class and wrote splits for dual meets. I was obsessed with swimming. I thought if I took one season off from distractions, I could become a really, really good swimmer.

I never took a gap year. Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t.

In life, the older you get, the more you’ll crave a remote control to hit STOP. As your responsibilities pile up, you’ll become over-scheduled, over-crazed, and over-committed. Then the responsibilities will pile up even more: you’ll graduate from college and get a job. You’ll date. You’ll have a social life. You’ll have time commitments outside of work.

This is part of life. Learning how to balance all of these time commitments is the great lesson you learn from swimming. While swimming is about personal bests, it’s also learning who you are: as an athlete, student, and overall person.

So many people, when taking time off, say, “There’s always time for college. But there’s only one time when I can swim really fast.” I disagree. I think there is only one time in your life for college, and that is when you are 17/18. It’s important at this age to push yourself outside of your comfort zone. I believe that it is important to get away from your club team, experience new coaching styles, different teammates, and, most of all, figure out just who you are.

And it’s important to do this stuff when you are a teenager. Your mind is developing, and you have the energy to explore and experience. That’s all part of being a collegiate “student-athlete.”

By taking a gap-year, you might become a better swimmer. But unless you’re going to win an Olympic gold medal, what else are you learning about yourself? You’re missing out meeting kids your own age, with your own maturity levels, and your own experiences. You’re missing out on discovering what you want to do for the rest of your life. You’re only young once. Swimming, while very important, is not your entire life. Swimming will only last a short time. The lessons you learn when you graduate high school and throughout your collegiate life last much longer.

A gap year would likely involve living at home, going to swim practice, training with younger teammates (who are probably slower than you and still in high school), and not venturing outside of your comfort zone. It means that when your friends leave for college or other pursuits, you will still live at home. They’ll be off exploring and growing, and you’ll be training. Ultimately, when you never venture outside of your comfort zone, it’s difficult to truly grow as a person.

To answer one of your questions, I don’t know if colleges smile or frown upon students who take gap years. I can’t tell you whether or not this is the right thing for you to do. Again, this is your decision. You could be very successful taking a gap year. You know yourself best.

But you’re only 15. I’m glad you’re invested in swimming, but there are many other things in this world you have to experience to grow outside of swimming. Part of that includes finding something besides swimming to become passionate about. And you’ll start that process when you go to college, or whatever you decide to do.

While it’s enticing to simply stay at home with your club team and train, you’ll grow even more if you meet new collegiate teammates, discover new training methods, take new classes, expand your mind, venture outside your comfort zone, and slowly start the road towards the rest of your life.

You’ll grow, become more mature and, likely, swim even faster.

You are 15 and you train 30 hours a week. Already, you are getting so much out of your club experience. But a college swim team can (likely) offer better teammates, different (and possibly better) coaching, more interesting classes, and an experience of personal growth that you just can’t get sitting at home.

I hope this helps.