Is Weightlifting Losing Its Best Athletes to NCAA Sports?

Did you know that Olympians Morghan King and Sarah Robles both received NCAA athletic scholarships to attend college?  Neither, however, received a scholarship for weightlifting.  In fairness, both King and Robles began weightlifting later in life, but they clearly would have excelled as collegiate weightlifters if it had been an option for them.

Youth weightlifting is experiencing an unprecedented boom in popularity.  Between 2012 and 2016, youth membership in USA Weightlifting grew 181%.  There are now more than 2,500 weightlifters under the age of 18 in the United States.  But what will happen when these weightlifters leave for college?

Will weightlifting lose its most promising talent due to a lack of college weightlifting scholarships?

The reality is that college is expensive, and scholarship money is valuable.  A well-groomed youth weightlifter has many athletic scholarship opportunities.  Unfortunately, most of these opportunities are outside the sport of weightlifting.  Sports such as rowing, football, wrestling and track and field welcome weightlifters, with their strong legs, explosive power and lean muscle mass.

Weightlifting scholarships, however, are very limited.  Talented youth weightlifters often are forced to choose between continuing the sport they love and switching to another sport that will pay for their education.  For instance, Coach Dennis Espinosa, of Reps & Sets Weightlifting in Salina, Kansas, admitted that two of his most talented youth weightlifters accepted NCAA college scholarships for rowing and track and field.  Similarly, Omar Cummings, an elite U.S. weightlifter who secured two bronze medals at the 2015 IWF Youth World Weightlifting Championships, exited the sport when he received a college football scholarship.

This phenomenon is especially unfortunate given that weightlifters do not peak until about age 25.  When talented youth weightlifters leave the sport in their college years due to a lack of scholarship opportunities, it depletes the sport of its most promising talent.  Specifically, it reduces the pool of athletes from which the United States could generate an Olympian or World Champion.

It is a tragedy for the sport of weightlifting to develop youth weightlifters until the age of 18 and then lose these athletes to other sports in their college years.  Fortunately, there is a viable solution to this problem . . . become a NCAA sport.

The NCAA is the biggest source of athletic scholarships in the United States, so it just makes sense to partner with them.

What is the NCAA?

The NCAA, or National Collegiate Athletic Association, is a non-profit association that regulates athletes in 1,123 colleges and universities.  It helps govern the athletic programs of these colleges and universities, including organizing competitions and championships.

The NCAA is particularly interested in organizing championship events because these events generate the revenue of the organization.  Each year, the NCAA generates almost $1 billion in revenues.  About 96% of this is redistributed back to student-athletes, largely in the form of scholarships.

About 81% of the NCAA’s revenues are generated by a $10.8 billion, 14-year agreement from CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting for the media rights to the Division I Men’s Basketball Championship.  Championship tickets and merchandise sales account for the remainder of the revenue.

The NCAA and its member colleges and universities together award $2.7 billion in athletic scholarships every year to more than 150,000 student-athletes.

The NCAA currently regulates 23 sports:

Baseball                    Golf                    Softball

Basketball                Gymnastics         Swimming & Diving

Beach Volleyball     Ice Hockey           Tennis

Bowling                    Lacrosse             Track & Field

Cross Country         Rifle                      Volleyball

Fencing                    Rowing                 Water Polo

Field Hockey           Skiing                    Wrestling

Football                   Soccer

Each college or university regulated by the NCAA falls into three membership divisions—Divisions I, II, and III.  Divisions are based on college size, budget for athletic programs and number of scholarships offered.

Each year, the NCAA hosts 89 championships across these 23 sports and three divisions.

If weightlifters can receive NCAA scholarships in other sports, why should weightlifting become a NCAA sport?

College is time intensive.  So are competitive sports.  An athlete can simultaneously attend college and participate on a competitive sports team.  However, adding additional obligations—such as multiple competitive sports—may present too large of a burden, especially when the second sport requires year-round training, such as weightlifting.  At worst, the athlete will drop weightlifting in favor of the scholarship sport; at best, the athlete will not devote an optimal amount of time to developing as a weightlifter.

According to data from the International Weightlifting Federation, in the last five Olympic Games (2000 – 2016), the average age for male weightlifters was 25 years old, and the average age for female weightlifters was 24 years old.  The average years of training to win a medal in weightlifting at the Olympic Games is 10.72 years.  So, the majority of medal-winning weightlifters begin around age 14 for women and 15 for men and train continuously for 10+ years.

If the United States wants to produce medal-winning world-class weightlifters, it should promote programs that create youth weightlifters and then enable these weightlifters to remain in the sport with college scholarship opportunities.

How can weightlifting become a NCAA sport?

Perhaps the best way to enter the NCAA is to examine the most recent sports allowed into the organization and follow in their footsteps.

The most recent sports embraced by the NCAA have entered the organization through the door of the Emerging Sports for Women program.

The Emerging Sports for Women program, created by the NCAA in 1994, provides a way for eligible female sports to develop into NCAA championship sports.  The program is managed by the NCAA Committee on Women’s Athletics and is intended to help schools create more athletic opportunities for women.

Since the Emerging Sports for Women program was established in 1994, five sports have earned full-fledged NCAA championship status: rowing in 1996, ice hockey in 2000, water polo in 2000, bowling in 2003 and beach volleyball in 2015.  Other sports— archery, badminton, synchronized swimming, squash and team handball—fell short of the program requirements and were removed from the emerging sports list.  Finally, three sports are currently striving to gain NCAA championship status: triathlon, rugby, and equestrian.

Triathlon is the most recent sport added to the list of emerging sports.  In 2014, all three divisions voted to add triathlon to the NCAA’s emerging list for women.

In support of its request, USA triathlon presented the following:

  • Twelve letters of support from schools in all three NCAA divisions stating that they already sponsor triathlon as a varsity sport or would consider it if it was approved as an emerging sport.
  • Evidence of 150 club programs that already exist on college campuses.
  • A large national collegiate event, which in 2013 included more than 400 participants from 46 states.
  • 40% female participation in national collegiate events.
  • A large national membership (40,000+ members in USA Triathlon) with a strong base of young athletes (one-third of the membership is under the age of 20).
  • Strong support by USA Triathlon, including extensive certification programs for coaches and a grass-roots program to introduce more participants to the sport.

USA Weightlifting could present a similarly compelling case:

  • Colleges in all three NCAA divisions already offer weightlifting programs.  Of the 10 colleges and universities with programs registered with USA Weightlifting, four are Division I schools, two are Division II schools, and one is a Division III school:

Division I
East Tennessee State University
California State Sacramento
West Virginia University
Texas A&M

Division II
Northern Michigan University: US Olympic Education Center
Lindenwood University

Division III
University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

NAIA (non-NCAA schools)
Louisiana State University at Shreveport
Oklahoma City University

  • In addition to the 10 colleges that currently have weightlifting programs, an additional 146 U.S. colleges and universities have strength and conditioning programs recognized by the National Strength and Conditioning Association.  Since weightlifting is used as a form of strength and conditioning by many sports, it is likely that some of these universities would be willing to offer weightlifting as a varsity sport if it was placed on the NCAA’s list of emerging sports.
  • Like triathlon, USA Weightlifting also already holds its own National University and National Under 25 Championships.  In 2016, 585 athletes participated in the event.
  • 40% of the athletes who participated in USA Weightlifting’s 2016 National University and National Under 25 Championships were female.
  • USA Weightlifting has a large national membership, with over 27,000 active members.  Of these members, 3600+ athletes are under the age of 20.
  • Female athletes already represent the United States at the top levels of the sport.  Of the four weightlifters who represented the United States in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, three of them were female (Morghan King, Sarah Robles and Jenny Arthur).
  • Weightlifting is rapidly growing in popularity as a sport.  Between 2012 and 2016, USA Weightlifting membership grew by 168%!
  • USA Weightlifting also offers a number of coach certification programs, including Sports Performance Coach, Advanced Sports Performance, National Coach, International Coach, and Senior International Coach.
  • Also, USA Weightlifting recently partnered with the National Federation of State High School Associations to promote weightlifting at the high school level.
  • Finally, USA Weightlifting has created Athlete Development Camps, designed to identify and recruit new talent into the sport.

In short, weightlifting offers an even more compelling case in favor of inclusion in the NCAA than triathlon.  With the right presentation, there is no reason for it to be denied.

BUT  . . . What about the Men?!

Clearly, securing NCAA status for women collegiate weightlifters is not enough.  Male athletes are just as important to the future of the sport.  However, gaining entrance into the NCAA for women could establish a relationship with the organization that could later be used to admit male weightlifting.

Of the five emerging sports that have successfully gained NCAA championship status, two of the sports were already NCAA sports for men (men’s ice hockey since 1948; men’s water polo since 1969).  Of the five emerging sports that fell short of gaining NCAA championship status, none had male counterparts in the NCAA.  So, it is possible that establishing a link to the NCAA with women’s weightlifting could open the door for men’s weightlifting.

How Would Women’s Weightlifting Move From a Emerging Sport to Full-Fledged Championship Sport Status in the NCAA?

If women’s weightlifting is selected by the NCAA Committee on Women’s Athletics as an emerging sport, it would have 10 years to gain championship status by building 40 or more varsity collegiate teams.

However, given the rate of growth within the sport of weightlifting, it is likely that it could meet this target much earlier.  Beach volleyball ascended from the emerging sport list to championship status in a mere six years.

Interested in starting a weightlifting club at your college?  Consult Barbend’s Ultimate Guide to Starting a Weightlifting Club at College

This post features photos taken by Matthew Bjerre of Lifting Life at the 2017 USA Weightlifting National Junior Championship.

By |2017-07-15T07:33:02-04:00July 12th, 2017|Athlete Resources, Coaches Resources|

About the Author:

Susan Friend is a weightlifter, coach, and weightlifting enthusiast. Susan has participated in both the U.S. and German weightlifting systems, along with her son, Hutch, who holds four U.S. Youth National Championship titles and one German Youth National Championship title.

One Comment

  1. Vance Newgard July 13, 2017 at 2:31 pm - Reply

    As the head Olympic weightlifting coach at NMU-OTS I can offer a little perspective on weightlifting being an NCAA sport. Weightlifting at NMU is not part of the NCAA it is it’s own entity. As far as performance is concerned the NCAA would become your worst enemy. I’m not an expert in NCAA rules but I do have some compliance knowledge as I also did strength and conditioning at NMU and I can tell you that if we were NCAA coach I would only be able to coach my athletes a few months out of the year. The rest of the time they would be on their own it would be violating rules just for talking to them at certain times of the year. This is the same reason many top track and field athletes drop NCAA competition and scholarship if they have a chance at the Olympics or diamond league. I am all for developing college weightlifting in fact I have been part of the process of selling it to more colleges but I would avoid the NCAA at all costs if I could. Just my opinion.

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