By Michael Neill
April 15, 1996 12:00 PM

NAPERVILLE NORTH HIGH SCHOOL senior Chad Ganden had lost the lead almost from the start of the 100-yard freestyle finals at the Illinois State Championships on Feb. 24, and he was still behind by a head at the last turn. Then, with half a pool length to go, Ganden drove his long arms into the water with increasing ferocity—and finished first by half a second. “He put his head down and won through sheer determination,” says Dick Raab, swimming coach at the suburban Chicago high school. Determination, and the wingspan that goes with a 6’5″ frame, should make Ganden, 17, a prize catch for the swim programs at Michigan State, Arizona State or the University of Minnesota. But so far, none has offered him a scholarship.

Ganden is caught in a bizarre bureaucratic catch-22. A bright student, he has a learning disability that makes it difficult for him to understand written words and has caused him to run afoul of new, tougher academic standards for student athletes imposed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. To get a waiver of the NCAA’s regulations, he would have to be already enrolled in a college. No college, however, is likely to offer him an athletic scholarship until it knows whether he’s eligible to swim.

“It’s unfair,” says Ganden. “I can do the same work other students can—I’ve done it since second grade.”

The youngest of three children, Ganden started swimming in first grade, the same year his teacher called his parents—Warren, a regional sales manager with a bread company, and Susan, a real estate agent—with disturbing news. “She told us,” says Susan Ganden, ” ‘Chad isn’t very smart. You’d better get used to it, and you should probably get him a tutor.’ ”

The following year, however, psychologists discovered that Chad had a so-called decoding problem: He could read but couldn’t always understand what he was reading. Propelled by the same determination he brings to swimming, Ganden has kept up with his course work. One of the people who has been impressed by his progress is George Klumb, director of aquatics at Naperville. “You find learning-disabled students who aren’t aggressive students,” says Klumb, “but Chad really does challenge himself. He’s a student and an athlete who learns from his mistakes.”

In 1992, responding to criticism that academically sub-par athletes were coasting through college on athletic scholarships and were graduating having learned little, the NCAA revised its rules. Under the new regulations, which went into effect this year, a prospective student must achieve a minimum score on the SAT or ACT test and have a certain grade point average in 13 “core” high school courses to be eligible even to play on a varsity team. Ganden’s ACT score was a few points too low, and due to the rules change he fell short of the required number of core courses. “We’ve come so far in recognizing the rights of people with disabilities,” says Susan Ganden. “We can’t start letting a bureaucracy take away those rights.”

Nudged by the Gandens, the U.S. Department of Justice told the NCAA last month that parts of its eligibility process discriminated against learning-disabled student athletes and recommended that it make changes. Any proposal to change the rules will have to be considered when the NCAA’s council meets this month.

For Chad Ganden, still treading water, the issue is as simple as the finishing kick in a 100-yard freestyle. “I’m too young in the sport to quit,” he says. “They’re telling me I have to stop. I can’t do that.”

MICHAEL NEILL

JONI H. BLACKMAN in Naperville

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