By Tom Slear//Contributor | Tuesday, March 19, 2019
The NCAA Division III Swimming and Diving National Championships will be held March 20-23 in Greensboro, N.C.
As the meet approaches, Splash writer Tom Slear takes a closer look at one of the sport’s most enduring dynasties.
There’s dominance and then there’s…well…how about this: Of the 81 NCAA Division III men’s and women’s national championships held since 1975, Kenyon, a small liberal arts school in Gambier, Ohio, has won 57 of them. That’s a success rate just over 70 percent. Along the way, Kenyon swimmers have won 541 individual and relay national championships.
No other school across the three NCAA divisions comes anywhere near those numbers. The closest in Division I is Texas with 21 men’s and women’s titles. In Division II, Drury is the best with 22. As for individual and relay champions, only Stanford’s 321 is within shouting distance.
Kenyon’s dominance becomes even more pronounced if the accomplishments of its swimming alums are taken into consideration. The Emory University women have ruled over Division III in recent years with nine straight national championships since 2010 and 11 in the last 14 years. Jon Howell, the head coach at the Atlanta school for the last 20 years, swam at Kenyon in the late 1980’s and later, as an interim head coach, led Kenyon men’s and women’s teams to national titles in 1996.
The Kenyon women’s streak ended at 17 in 2001 when nearby Denison beat them 588 to 572. Ten years later, Denison ended Kenyon’s men’s streak at 31 with a one-point victory. The Denison coach each time was Gregg Parini who swam at…can you guess?...Kenyon. He was a member of the 1980 team that won Kenyon’s first national swimming championship.
If you add it all up, Kenyon and its extended family has won 74 of the 81 Division III team championships. The last non-Kenyon-Emory-Denison swimming team to hold up the women’s trophy was Williams in 1983. For the men it goes back to Johns Hopkins in 1979.
“It’s something in the water,” quips Jim Steen, who initiated his 37-year coaching stint at Kenyon in 1975 when, as a graduate assistant coach at Miami University in Ohio, he applied for the student housing director’s position at Kenyon. He knew he wanted to work in the college setting. He just wasn’t sure in what way. Two weeks later his dad called and let him know that Dick Sloan was leaving Kenyon to become head men’s swimming coach at Ohio State.
Steen had been a competitive swimmer most of his life. He was a good enough backstroker at Kent State in 1970 to qualify for what would now be called the Division I NCAA championships. Kenyon had a solid program, certainly one Steen could build on. He withdrew his application for housing director and applied for the head swim coaching job instead.
Steen avoids any extended conversation about the ridiculously long winning streaks. No one plans for that kind of extended success. Nor can anyone say for sure how it happens. Steen’s best guess is a short memory. He forgot each title about a minute after his swimmers won it and immediately started planning for the next season as if the streak stood at zero.
“I’m pretty good at not taking things for granted,” he says, a trait Howell confirms.
“He was always curious, always trying new things, always trying to push the envelope,” Howell says. “If we had a great season, he wasn’t afraid to throw it out the window and try something new.”
Steen also stood out as a workaholic in a profession filled with men and women who equate 6:00 am with sleeping late. Steen was unrelenting, and not just with putting in the hours watching and talking to his swimmers. He thought incessantly about their performances and how to improve them. By his estimate he coached 1,000 swimmers at Kenyon. He remembers every one of them, if not by their first and last names, then certainly by their times, and not only their best times, but how much they improved (or didn’t) from year to year. If pressed, he might even recall the splits of their better races. And this from someone who admits that he often forgets where he put his car keys.
The Minutia of Success
Jess Book is the current head coach at Kenyon. He has three national titles to his credit. He is a former Steen swimmer and assistant coach. Recently he was moving to another office when he came across boxes upon boxes of notes compiled by Steen. When Book lifted one of the boxes, a yellow piece of paper fell out. On it was a list of broken swims and times done by the Kenyon swimmers preparing for the 1983 NCAAs. A week later Book ran into Steen, who still lives in Gambier with his wife and maintains an office at Kenyon. Book showed his old coach the yellow paper filled with names and split times.
“He told me a story about every one of those swims,” say Book, who wasn’t surprised. “He understood the minutia of success at a high level. He gave that feeling of being all in, of being intimately connected to the pursuit of success.”
Steen has a long-standing reputation for telling stories that flow smoothly and include rich detail. Cindy Fontana, who swam and coached at Kenyon and is now one of Howell’s assistants at Emory, remembers when Steen got started at the beginning of a practice and didn’t stop until the end. Did the swimmers encourage him with feigned curiosity? “Of course,” says Fontana, “but he was interesting to listen to. He knew how to tell a story.” Says Steen: “Every generation could tell about when I got on a roll for the whole practice. It pissed me off every time.”
The Legacy Continues
Book, Howell and Parini are but three examples of the many former pupils who learned Steen’s lessons well. When his first grandchild was born in 2011, the Master realized his time on deck was about to end. He had already passed on the women’s team to Book, and he was about to hand off the men’s team to him as well. At the 2012 NCAAs, Steen’s last one as a coach, Book counted 24 Kenyon swimming or coaching alums who were either head or assistant coaches with the other teams at the meet.
“His legacy as a mentor,” Book says, “is just as incredible as his legacy of winning.”And the legacy of both continues. The favorites this year in both the men’s and women’s championships are Emory, Denison and Kenyon.