This week's issue features the first installment of a four-part series on the state of high school athletics in America. To look into the increasing specialization in the high school ranks and the subsequent decline of the multisport athlete, we called on the starting shooting guard for the Brighton (N.Y.) High Barons (class of '75), senior writer Alex Wolff. Like many of today's young athletes, Wolff stuck to his specialty when he was in school. "I was a one-sport athlete before it became all the rage," he says. But unlike the hoopsters of today, he didn't play organized ball year-round; there were no summer camps, no AAU tournaments. "I would play hoops informally in the summer," says Wolff. "In the old days about all you could do was show up and try to hold the court. We were very much on our own." (His time on the playground was well-spent; Wolff wrote the classic playground treatise The In-Your-Face Basketball Book while a student at Princeton.) After covering college basketball for SI for 22 years, he is familiar with the world of student-athletes. Still, Wolff did learn something by delving deeply into this project. "I was surprised at the comfort level people have with how serious and specialized high school sports has become," he says. "I thought there would be more gnashing of the teeth."
Photographer Lynn Johnson (right, with players from Perry High in Pittsburgh) is also no stranger to high school sports. At Winchester Thurston School (class of '71) in Pittsburgh she played basketball and field hockey. When it comes to photographing athletes, Johnson searches for a truth beyond the games and the glory. "I don't look at the athlete first," she says. "I look at the person." Wolff says Johnson never fails to do her homework. "She's terrifically conscientious about getting inside a story before snapping a single shutter," he says. "She wants to know how I'm conceiving a story, and that informs how she takes pictures." Her approach has brought her much success. Johnson's work for SI swept first and second place in the sports feature category of last year's National Press Photographers Association awards.
For reporter Albert Chen, writing sidebars on four-sport athlete Carolyn Rauen and basketball burnout Stefanie Schilling hit close to home. At Howard High (class of '96) in Columbia, Md., the tennis team was only one of his many extracurricular activities. But Chen says he and many teammates didn't consider success in sports to be as crucial as some of today's athletes do. "We played, and we were very serious about it, but we didn't necessarily view it as a stepping-stone to something greater," he says. "We saw it for what it was—a positive experience we could take with us."