When Candace Hill became the fastest teenage girl the United States has ever clocked, sprinting 100 meters in 10.98 seconds in June, she was suddenly good enough not only to qualify for next summer’s Rio Olympics, but also to potentially win a medal there. Now, at age 16, she has become the youngest track athlete in the United States to turn professional.
“It’s the era of the girl in general,” said Lauren Fleshman, a professional runner and five-time N.C.A.A. champion at Stanford. “Women have never been more marketable in sports than they are now, from U.S. soccer to Serena. Forty-plus years since Title IX means we have our first generation of supportive parents and coaches who grew up with the idea of female athletes not being horrifying. People are training girls harder than ever.”
Allyson Felix turned professional instead of running for the University of Southern California in 2003, going on to become one of the most successful American sprinters in history. Felix remained the only track athlete to bypass college for professional running until a decade later, when the middle-distance runner Mary Cain signed with Nike in 2013 at age 17 before enrolling at the University of Portland.
Cain was followed by the distance runner Alexa Efraimson, who signed with Nike at age 17 in 2014. Earlier this year, Kaylin Whitney, who set the high school 100-meter record before Hill shattered it, signed with Nike on her 17th birthday. The middle-distance runner Ajee’ Wilson turned pro right after high school instead of competing in college in 2012.
But none of them stood out the way Hill does. Her potential is considered so outsize that she brokered an unusual arrangement with Asics, a running footwear and apparel company. It will cover full tuition for Hill, who has a 4.6 grade-point average and top-10 class ranking in her magnet school near Atlanta, at any college that admits her. The contract, which at 10 years is also uncommonly long, effectively serves as an athletic scholarship, even though Hill, who plans to attend college while competing, will not be eligible to race collegiately. (Asics and Hill declined to discuss the financial terms of the arrangement.)
“Candace is as good a student as she is an athlete, and we found that intriguing,” said Gene McCarthy, the chief executive of Asics America Group. “For us, she’s a Halley’s comet of sport, a teenager who’s tremendously gifted in both mind and body. With that talent and drive, we’re betting that she can be the fastest woman in the world someday.”