A celebration of Kenyon Swimming
This year the Lady swimmers won their twentieth national title in the last twenty-one years, and the Lords passed a milestone unequaled, unheard of-absolutely unique-in collegiate athletics, winning their twenty-fifth consecutive national championship. But Kenyon's swimming success goes beyond winning. It's a many-layered, tradition-proud story that begins in a quirky pool with a glass roof. Above all, it's the story of people and personalities: of a coach whose chief tenet is not victory but potential, and of the remarkable student-athletes whom he has inspired and who, in turn, inspire him.
As Marc Courtney-Brooks touched the wall well ahead of the field on the anchor leg of the season-ending 400-yard freestyle relay, his coach, the irrepressible Jim Steen, bear-hugged his swimmers, congratulated his coaching staff, and acknowledged the boisterous cheers emanating from the purple-clad Kenyon section at the St. Peters Rec-Plex in suburban St. Louis, Missouri.
Outwardly, given the magnitude of what had just transpired at the 2004 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division III Swimming and Diving Championships, Steen was obviously pleased. And also relieved that the media attention-The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, USA Today, and ESPN, among other outlets-would finally begin to subside. But the inner Steen, whose motivational battery could illuminate all of Knox County, was already worrying about what he and the Lords would do for an encore.
When you've just won your twenty-fifth consecutive NCAA championship-a feat so improbable and seemingly unattainable that the athletes involved must periodically pinch themselves to be sure they're not dreaming-it seems like an understatement to say that Kenyon made history in Missouri on March 20, as some press accounts had it. More to the point, Kenyon is the history of modern-day Division III swimming.
The Streak began in 1980-the year the United States boycotted the Summer Olympics, the year Mount St. Helens erupted, the year John Lennon was shot. Continuing unabated for a quarter-century, it has encompassed five U.S. presidents, two Iraqi wars, and the births of all but one of the men on this year's team.
Twenty-five straight national championships: the statistic alone is daunting. Even more intimidating, from opponents' point of view, is the inescapable conclusion that the Lords' dominance grows stronger every year. In the 1980s, they averaged six event winners per NCAA meet; in their last ten championships, they have averaged almost twice that many.
How good was this year's Kenyon men's team?
Good enough to make the NCAA title a virtual certainty. The Lords jumped out to a comfortable lead on Thursday, March 18, the opening day of the championship meet, and finished two days later with a commanding 678.5 points, well ahead of second-place Emory University (446).
Good enough to win eleven of the twenty championship events-including a sweep of all five relay events for the third season in a row.
Good enough that Courtney-Brooks, a senior from Columbus, Ohio, won six of the seven events he entered and emerged as the NCAA Swimmer of the Year for the fourth straight year. The team was so strong that Courtney-Brooks, who set national records in the 200- and 500-yard freestyle at last year's NCAAs, could afford to forsake his two best events in order to challenge his Latvian teammate Andrejs Duda '06 in the 100 butterfly and 200 individual medley.
And good enough that Duda went six for seven as well, handing Courtney-Brooks his only loss-in the 100 butterfly-even as the senior edged him out in the 200 IM. The sophomore and senior teamed up for the 400-yard medley relay, which set a new NCAA record.
Courtney-Brooks and Duda are but two examples of why, from the first day of fall practice, the Lords' "Drive for 25" campaign was considered a slam dunk. When athletes look not at their adversaries but within their own ranks for a source of competitive drama and inspiration, that's the definition of a dynasty.
The Ladies, of course, tend a dynasty of their own. (See story on page 36.) Competing in the same Rec-Plex pool a week earlier, the Kenyon women's team won its third straight NCAA Division III championship-and twentieth in the past twenty-one years. Standouts in that meet were seniors Beth Galloway and Agnese Ozolina, both of whom won six of their seven events. Galloway, who broke her own NCAA record in the 100-yard backstroke, was named Division III Swimmer of the Year.
It's worth noting that the Lord and Lady swimmers acquit themselves handsomely in academic waters, too. In 2002-03, the teams each posted a grade-point average of 3.27, compared to a 3.21 GPA for the college as a whole. Of the forty-four NCAA postgraduate scholarships that Kenyon athletes have won, all but eight have been awarded to swimmers. (Kenyon, incidentally, has won more of the prestigious scholarships than any Division III institution in the country and ranks sixth among all colleges and universities.)
"Swimmers by nature are some of the most single-minded, determined people in the universe," says Jennifer Delahunty Britz, the College's dean of admissions and financial aid. "That often translates into determination, organization, and success in the classroom."
Perry Lentz of the English department, a long-time booster of all Kenyon sports, observes that swimmers must "spend a lot of time locked in their own minds," pursuing a relentless training regimen, lap upon lap. "The reason Jim Steen is such a brilliant coach is that he gives his swimmers something to think about during all those miles in the water."
Steen himself has always viewed swimming in the larger context of learning. "I don't believe sports teams should drive a college, but they should inform the college, and vice versa."
Kenyon swimmers are, first and foremost, students and members of the College community. Home meets are well attended, and the swimmers admit they are recognized on campus (especially the men after they shave their heads for nationals). But in a village of 2,000 where life follows the same relaxed pace as the Amish horse-and-buggies clippity-clopping along Wiggin Street, the swimmers say they aren't treated differently from any other Kenyon student.
"Which makes sense," says assistant coach Jessen Book '01, who captained the men's team his senior year and graduated magna cum laude in English and biology. "It would be un-Kenyon-like to have a system in which the swimming team is separate from the rest of the College and the student body. For the size of the NCAA streak, it really doesn't get much attention around here."
"In the beginning, I just wanted to win one," says Steen, whose first NCAA men's title came in 1980, his fifth season at Kenyon. Always the tallest kid in class growing up in Mansfield, Ohio, Steen was an all-Mid-American Conference sprinter and backstroker at Kent State, qualifying for the Division I NCAA swimming championships as a junior. Thinking he was cut out for a career in student services, Steen got a master's degree in education from Miami University and initially applied to be Kenyon's director of residential life. When he learned that swimming coach Dick Sloan had resigned to take a job at Ohio State, he grabbed the phone and called Tom Edwards, the dean of students at the time.
"Tear up that housing application!" Steen told Edwards, who himself coached the Lords from 1955 to 1964. "I want to be the swimming coach."
Then, as now, Steen never met a conversation he didn't like-provided it proceeds at a rapid-fire pace, his foot tapping a staccato beat through both the speaking and the listening parts. Never off duty, he sees metaphors for living and competing in whatever book is on his nightstand, including a confrontation between Roman legionnaires and Germanic riff-raff in Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization.
When you're in charge of sixty athletes who have to wake up before dawn, jump into cold water, and swim several miles before breakfast, military metaphors come in handy. "In order to engage in battle without compromise, you must find a place within yourself where success and failure don't matter," says Steen, who concedes this is no easy task. "It requires resisting the emotional satisfaction of being number one, as well as the emotional uncertainty of defeat."
In a speed-driven sport like swimming, where final outcomes are sometimes determined by hundredths of a second, Steen's insistence that his record-breaking swimmers not think about winning may seem oxymoronic. But it is one of the reasons his athletes swim lights out every March.
And after each new NCAA championship, Steen has to dig a little deeper into his bag of motivational tricks. "In order to reach our goals," he says, "it's almost like we have to repudiate the previous year's success." Steen sees complacency as an enemy and begins every season taking nothing for granted.
"In order to keep winning, Jim feels he has to be new every year," says Kris Caldwell '84, who was a member of Steen's first women's national championship team in 1984 and who now works as director of donor relations in Kenyon's development office. "He's very inventive and always on the cutting edge of training techniques and mental-physical preparation, though we laughed about it sometimes. One year, Jim was into algae pills as a healthy way to keep our weight down."
Algae pills, lactic-acid-level testing, plyometrics, underwater video-you name it, and Steen's a believer.
"We're not obsessed with winning," he says. "But we are obsessed with being successful and reaching our potential. And how you define and attain that changes every year with every new combination of swimmers."
To understand the magnitude of what Steen has accomplished at Kenyon, he must be compared to the most famous coaches in the history of major college and professional sports. Think in terms of John Wooden (ten NCAA basketball titles at UCLA), Red Auerbach (nine National Basketball Association titles with the Boston Celtics), Casey Stengel (whose New York Yankees won seven World Series), Toe Blake (who coached the Montreal Canadiens to seven Stanley Cups), and Vince Lombardi (five National Football League championships with the Green Bay Packers). With all due respect to these legendary figures, none comes close to Steen-whose trophy case contains more championship hardware than all of them combined.
Former team captain Gregg Parini '82, now the coach at chief rival Denison University, has a unique perspective on Steen. "Jim doesn't really motivate people, he empowers them," says Parini, who won seven NCAA titles when he was at Kenyon, then upstaged his mentor when Denison edged the Lords in the 1997 conference meet, breaking Kenyon's string of forty-three consecutive Ohio Athletic Conference and North Coast Athletic Conference championships. "The role of any coach is to empower his swimmers-to the point that when they stand up there on the blocks they don't need him any more. Kenyon swimmers get that from Jim. It's a very intuitive gift."
For a man who's been perfect for a quarter-century, Jim Steen does very few clinics, partly because he has little free time and also because, as he says, "What we do here is so uniquely Kenyon that it wouldn't translate well to other campuses and other teams."
As a blueprint for coaching philosophy and success, the 6'6" Steen is virtually impossible to copy. Balding but physically imposing, bombastic but perpetually hoarse, free thinking but obsessive to the max, Steen offers his student-athletes a form of total-immersion therapy that extends far beyond the pool and the pun. If you agree to swim for Jim Steen, you enter into a solemn contract, promising to maximize not just every facet of your own life, but of the life you share with Jim Steen.
"I thought of Jim as a father figure, even though he wasn't much older than me back in the eighties," says Kris Caldwell. "It's kind of spooky the way he can read people. But he makes wonderful analogies that get inside your head without beating you over the head. As an athlete, I hung on every word he said-and I always trusted him."
"Jim approaches swimming as though it were an art," says Gregg Parini. "Which explains why you hear him say things like, 'In a loss, you can be perfect' and 'In a win, you can be imperfect.' It's not about winning and losing for Jim; it's about reaching your potential."
Potential is a key word at Kenyon, which, as a Division III college, cannot award athletic scholarships and so must focus its recruiting efforts on swimmers who aren't being pursued by big-time university swimming programs.
"A lot of our swimmers are good enough to receive Division I scholarship money, but at a second-tier school, where the season often ends at their conference meet," says Jess Book. "At Kenyon, they have the chance to compete for national championships and get an exceptional liberal-arts education."
"Jim typically looks at kids who are borderline for going to a Division I school and who have the academic qualifications to get into Kenyon," says Tom Edwards, whose vita includes ten Ohio Athletic Conference swimming titles. "Jim's pitch is, 'There's no professional swimming league after college. So why not go to school for the joy of competing? At a place where you're not going to be exploited? Where you're going to get the best liberal-arts education possible? And where you'll still be able to compete against Division I swimmers because of the kind of opponents Kenyon schedules?' It's a pretty compelling argument."
Steen schedules major college and university opponents every year, thinking it toughens his swimmers to go up against the best. But he doesn't go to extra lengths to impress the big boys in the sport, and his mix-and-match lineups sometimes look like he's sending the junior varsity out to compete. The idea is to get everyone in the pool to see who can best serve team interests come March. The result is often a so-so dual meet record that belies a Division III juggernaut. In 1999, when the Lords bagged NCAA title number twenty, their dual-meet record was 4-10.
When a blue-chip football recruit visits a Division I school, it's not unusual for the host coach to spring a dressing-room surprise: a game jersey hung in a locker with the high school player's name on the back. Kenyon's recruiting methods are less glamorous but just as convincing-assuming, says Jess Book, that you can decipher what the head coach is saying through his distinctive rasp.
"My first impression of Jim Steen was . . . well, I was at the Ernst Center looking at the Hall of Champions, when, all of a sudden, this towering guy with the voice of an 80-year-old man descends on me like a tornado and starts spinning a yarn I can't really follow. But I was impressed with Jim's passion for the sport and for helping a swimmer be all that he or she can be. That fire in his eyes-he can maintain that intensity far longer than anyone I can imagine."
Steen has another ace up his sleeve: a thick binder that functions as a statistical time machine. He will open it to a recruit's event and point out just how much faster he can make the swimmer in four years. The proof is right there in black and white, in the form of complete listings of time drops for past Kenyon standouts.
Not as showy as the jersey in the locker, perhaps, but the well-worn notebook is a bolt of lightning to a swimmer like Kenyon first-year student Matt Jacobssen of Knoxville, Tennessee, whose events include the 200 free. Turning to that section during Jacobssen's visit to campus, Steen showed the prospect an incredible time drop for Dave Dininny '82, whose best high-school time was a lackluster 1:52.60. As an upperclassman at Kenyon, Dininny was a different swimmer entirely. Racing to the wall at the close of the 1981 NCAA 200 free final, Dininny won the event with a time of 1:42.32-an improvement of more than 10 seconds in a 200-yard sprint.
"By projecting the average improvement Kenyon swimmers have shown over the years," says Jacobssen, "Coach Steen showed me how my high-school time in the 200 might eventually translate to perhaps the top ten among all Kenyon swimmers in that event."
More impressive to Jacobssen's parents was Steen's guided tour of the Hall of Champions. Located in the upper lobby of the Ernst Center, this extensive photo gallery pays tribute to all of Kenyon's NCAA champions. Listening to Steen recount not only what made each swimmer special in college but what they went on to accomplish in their professional lives, parents come away thinking that every person who swims for Steen goes on to become a doctor, lawyer, university professor, or captain of industry.
"You're looking at, oh gosh, numerous Phi Beta Kappas on these walls," says Steen during a recent tour of the Hall of Champions. "They're the brightest group of scholar-athletes you're going to find anywhere in the country-in any division-and they're also the people who were the most vested in our swimming program."
The speed at which he can rattle off what each honoree is doing now is an indication of how close Steen was-and, in most cases, still is-to his swimmers:
"Tim Bridgham, my very first national champion in 1977, teaches biology at Upper Arlington High, one of the top schools in the state of Ohio; he was also coach of the state high-school championship team last year; he just retired from coaching . . . Tim Glasser got his M.B.A. at the University of Texas, works for Fifth Third Securities in Columbus . . . Joe Wilson works for Smith Barney in Milwaukee . . . Dave Dininny got his medical degree at Case Western Reserve and is a teaching anesthesiologist at University Hospital in Cleveland . . . Gregg Parini is the swimming coach at Denison . . . Chris Shedd runs his own mortgage brokerage company in Wellesley, Massachusetts . . . Michael Solomon is a physician who runs his own pain-management clinic in Florida . . . Nadine Neil, one of my first female scholar-athletes, worked as a director for a pharmaceutical company and is now in medical marketing for an advertising agency."
And so it goes, one success story after another, and all of them rooted, often deeply, in the experience of learning and swimming at Kenyon.
Not surprisingly, a number of Steen's swimmers have become head coaches in college, including Parini (Denison), Jon Howell '90 (Emory), Gwynn Evans Harrison '94 (formerly at James Madison), Matt Kinney '93 (Mary Washington), Todd Clark '87 (formerly at Case Western Reserve), Teresa Zurick Fish '88 (Illinois Wesleyan), Kateri Mathews '91 (Suny-Oswego) and current assistant coach Amy Heasley Williams '88, who was the head coach at Trinity College before returning to Kenyon in 2000 for her second stint on Steen's staff.
Given Kenyon's unparalleled success-compared to any sports team in history, amateur or pro-the widely held notion that Steen doesn't recruit the fastest high school recruits in the Division III talent pool seems, again, oxymoronic. But Jess Book and Gregg Parini both swear it's true.
"Jim's real skill is identifying recruits who can get better," says Parini, "people who, once they get caught up in the momentum for success that exists on the Kenyon campus, well, nothing is impossible for them."
Year in and year out, schools like Emory, Johns Hopkins, and Denison are thought to have better incoming talent than Kenyon, at least in terms of high-school and club-team times. But Steen is looking for more than just numbers on a stopwatch.
"We're looking for people who are trending up," says Steen.
In a training-dominated sport that's more about rehearsal than opening night, that's an approach which works wonders come NCAA time.
"We're selling an idea here," says Steen. "And we're looking for people who, on the one hand, are true individualists, but who come to Kenyon smitten with the notion that they can be a member of what they perceive to be the best team in America."
The epitome of an athlete trending up was freestyler Jim Born '86, who became a legend in American swimming.
"Pound for pound, Jim Born was one of the fastest swimmers in U.S. history," says Steen. "He was 5'11" and 138 pounds as a freshman, and his time drops-from a high-school time of 47.07 in the 100 free to 43.65 at nationals his junior year-is something you just don't see. I called him in and said, 'Jim, you could transfer to a lot of Division I schools.' He got kind of teary-eyed and said, 'Coach, do you want me to leave?' I said, 'Of course not,' and he went on to become one of only two Division III men in history to qualify for individual events at Division I nationals." (Kenyon's Dennis Mulvihill '88 is the other, and Patty Apt also did it on the women's side.)
Born won a gold medal in the 400 free relay at the 1987 Pan American Games, and he qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1984, 1988, and 1992. A quiet, unassuming guy, he trained with and competed against some of the giants in the sport.
In 1985, Born's 100 free time was second best in the country, and at the close of the 1986 NCAA meet only two men were ahead of him on the U.S. charts-6'6" Matt Biondi, who would win eight Olympic gold medals in his career, and Scott McAdam, a future Pan Am teammate. In 1987, Born spent six months in Europe training with 6' 7-1/2" Michael "The Albatross" Gross, whose resume includes three Olympic golds and twelve world records. Not surprisingly, Born continued to mature as a swimmer. At an international meet in West Germany, U.S. coaches wanted to give him a chance to set a new American record in the 50 free, so they asked him to swim the first leg of the 200 free relay. Born's lightning-fast split missed the American record by less than a tenth of a second-sparking the U.S. team to a new world record.
"I remember the first time I clocked Jim as a freshman; I wanted to see how his frail, little body moved through the water," says Steen. "He didn't look bad-a bit snake-ish on the surface-but quick. As I walked back to my office, I glanced at my stopwatch, momentarily caught my breath, and immediately knew two things for sure: the future had just arrived, and never again would I challenge my top sprinters to head-to-head competition with the coach."
It's not a Polar Bear Club kind of day, as it would be back in Gambier. But the Arlington Park Rec Center is an outdoor facility and the temperature in Sarasota is only 44 degrees as the Kenyon Lords and Ladies shuffle off a bus in rumpled sweat suits and matted hair for a Sunday morning workout near the end of their January training trip to Florida. Before they hit the water, Coach Steen has some good news and some bad news.
"I'm giving you tomorrow off!" (Applause!)
"But we'll make up for it with two practices on Saturday when we get back to Gambier." (No! But then applause again.)
With his assistant coaches running much of the workout, Steen eases his gangly frame onto a poolside stool and reflects on his career in athletics.
"My mom was an ex-basketball-coach-turned-high-school-teacher and my dad was a salesman, so I probably picked up stuff from both of them. I went out for football in high school as a 6'5", 200-pound sophomore, but I didn't like getting dirty. I didn't mind hitting people if I could finish the play standing up, but I literally hated getting dirty. I told Coach Ward I was quitting the football team and I went to swimming practice that same afternoon. As soon as I got to the pool, I said to myself, This is where you belong."
Steen says he has had numerous "opportunities" to coach at the Division I level, but no concrete job offers. "I interviewed at Stanford in 1979 along with Skip Kenney, who got the men's team job and still holds it today. And there was interest over the years from places like Harvard, Notre Dame, and Northwestern. But this is where I belong. When I took the Kenyon job in 1975, this was a program defined by good coaching, a program not unfamiliar with the pursuit of excellence. My goal was to leverage that success-to see if, in fact, there were any limitations on success."
As one of the few people on the planet who regularly defy the notion of limitations, Steen took a moment on that Sunday morning in Florida to reflect on what it would mean to win another NCAA title come March.
"Twenty-five of anything is given special significance. My wife and I celebrated our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary better than any other. Sure, you pause. But you don't stop. Our team will mark that moment-if it happens-and, yes, it will definitely help us in the recruiting area. But, in truth, I need a twenty-fifth NCAA men's title like a hole in the head. Some schools have none. We have twenty-four."
In 1825, Kenyon's founder, Bishop Philander Chase, went in search of a permanent home for the college-seminary-grammar school he had founded in Worthington, near Columbus, the year before. Described in P.F. Kluge's Alma Mater as "a passionate, imperious man, larger than life," Bishop Chase was looking for a place where young men would not be tempted by the sin and corruption he feared they would encounter in Columbus. Climbing the hill where Kenyon now stands and looking out, Chase famously said: "This will do."
Jim Steen has more than a little preacher in him, and he certainly has passionate and larger than life covered. Imperious doesn't really fit, although he will get in a swimmer's face when he wants to make sure he's being understood. He's not crazy about the press because, as a breed, reporters know so little about swimming. Plus, all they want to talk about is winning-and that's Jim Steen's least-favorite topic. Bishop Chase might applaud such an attitude, although he was a tenacious competitor himself. One can only wonder what the bishop would make of Steen's mantra of self-actualization, living life to the fullest, and being all you can be.
At the poolside celebration in St. Peters as the Lords made good on their "Drive for 25," Steen allowed himself to enjoy the moment. But there were also times, both then and during the awards ceremony, when the smile left his face. In those moments of reflection, he was clearly thinking what he predicted he would be thinking at such an historic moment in his career:
"This will do . . . for now."
Ladies Blaze Own Path to Greatness
When you've won the Super Bowl of your sport twenty times in the last twenty-one seasons, it's inconceivable that you could play second fiddle to anyone, particularly in a place as small as Gambier, Ohio. And yet, such is life for the Kenyon Ladies, who must have an inkling of how the Chrysler Building feels about the Empire State, Gehrig about Ruth, Pippen about Jordan.
Or do they?
"It's true that the men have gotten a disproportionate share of the attention this year because of the 'Drive for 25' thing," says coach Jim Steen. "But with the exception of the 2001 nationals, the Kenyon women have been almost as dominant as the men."
Statistics bear him out.
From 1980 to 2004, the period of their twenty-five-title streak, the Lords' average margin of victory at nationals was a hefty 221.3. But the Kenyon women weren't far behind. Between 1984 and 2004, the period of the Ladies' dominance, the average point differential in Kenyon's favor--even taking into account the 588-572 loss to Denison in 2001--was 189.1.
"I don't think we've ever felt like second fiddles," says Carla Ainsworth '95, "because from day one of fall practice Kenyon swimmers think of themselves as one big team. We're together every day at practice. Men and women swim in the same lanes. And Jim Steen is looking for people--not men or women, but people--who want to do great things."
Ainsworth epitomizes greatness-a magna cum laude graduate with a double major in chemistry and history, who captained the Ladies during her senior year, served as senior class president, and is now a physician in Seattle. When she finished her career at Kenyon, she owned the National Collegiate Athletic Association's (NCAA) all-time, all-sports, all-divisions, all-genders record of twenty-six national titles, an achievement that will be difficult for any member of the Lords to match or break. Current senior Marc Courtney-Brooks just became the NCAA leader on the men's side, having won six titles at the 2004 nationals, for a career total of twenty-three.
In the 1970s, after Title IX mandated that women be given more-or-less equal opportunities with men to participate in intercollegiate sports, women's swimming was just a club sport at Kenyon. Taught by volunteer coaches, the women competed in the fall so as not to get in the way of the men's varsity.
That was still the case when Jim Steen was hired in 1975. He began that season with just eight women swimmers, six of whom had never swum competitively. In 1976, the Ladies made their debut as a varsity team. These were the pre-NCAA days, when the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) was still administering women's collegiate sports.
"My freshman year, 1980-81, was the year women's swimming became a winter sport," says Kris Caldwell '84, the director of donor relations in Kenyon's develoment office. "Meaning the men had to share Jim and the Greenhouse with us. Getting to train with the men was a big deal to us."
Steen took eight women to the AIAW nationals in 1981, and it was a rude awakening.
"We finished twenty-sixth," says Caldwell. "But we stayed for the awards ceremony because we knew what we wanted to achieve."
In 1982, the AIAW and the NCAAs each held national championships. Kenyon went to the NCAAs and finished second. Two years later, the Ladies stood atop the NCAA victory platform. With the exception of the Denison victory in 2001, they have been a fixture there ever since.
Katrina Singer Litchfield '81 got the Kenyon women's program off the ground, earning the women's team's first All-American honors as a sophomore in 1979. But it was the inimitable Patty Abt '87 who really put the Ladies on the map.
"Patty Abt personified style-or rather she set her own," says Steen. "She was six feet tall, she wore twelve rings in her ear, she posed nude in art class, and she introduced the one component that was missing from women's swimming: power."
Abt pumped iron with training partner and close friend Jim Born '86, who outdoes even their coach in listing Patty's strengths: "She could run like a gazelle, dance like no one you've ever seen, paint, write poetry, talk you weary, and drive you nuts."
Abt didn't take up competitive swimming until high school, which may explain why her competitive fire still burned white-hot when she got to Kenyon as a freshman in the fall of 1983. At the 1984 nationals at Emory University, she won all three sprints-50, 100, and 200 free--and a legend was born.
Mary Schwendener-Holt '85 had the unique perspective of rejoining the Kenyon team after a year of academic study at Michigan. She was astonished that one woman-one first-year woman-could have worked such a sea change.
"Watching Patty in action was an epiphany," says Schwendener-Holt, now a psychology professor at Earlham College. "Here was someone of my own gender doing things I had never seen done before."
In the pool, that meant sweeping the 50 and 100 free all four years Abt was in school. Out of the pool, it meant . . . well, almost anything.
"Long before Madonna was vogueing, Patty was posing," says Steen, who is referring not to what she did in life-drawing class but to the body language Abt exhibited whenever the spirit moved her. Perpetually buff in body and spirit, she would strike a pose at any given moment. "Mind you, this was not an attention-getting act," says Steen. "It was a method of spontaneously off-loading excessive amounts of kinetic energy. The woman operated at full-throttle in all aspects of her life, and she was used to getting her way."
By the time Abt graduated in 1987, on the heels of back-to-back landslide national meets where Kenyon's victory margin was more than 300 points, the Ladies were on their way. When Sports Illustrated came to Gambier in 1990 to do a story on Kenyon swimming, the Ladies got equal time with the men. At that point, both teams had impressive NCAA streaks going (Lords: eleven; Ladies: seven), but the Ladies' average victory margin was considerably higher than the Lords' (204.4 to 134).
In 1991, the NCAA saluted the ten-year anniversary of its sponsorship of women's sports with a series of awards. Patty Abt, now four years out of school and working as a freelance artist in her hometown of Canton, New York, was honored as the athlete who had done the most to define a decade of women's collegiate swimming. Abt finished her remarkable career with twenty-three national titles, a record until Carla Ainsworth came along. She also set an astonishing twenty-one NCAA records, the best of which have stood the test of time.
"Carla spent her entire career trying to erase Patty's 50 free record," says Steen. "She finally bettered it as a senior in 1995, but only by .01 second."
Abt and Ainsworth are only a small part of the story. Amy Heasley '88, who was as quiet as Abt was loud, came out of the blocks with virtually the same gusto. At one point, she won seventeen consecutive NCAA events, and she finished her career with twenty-two national titles, one shy of Abt. Now Amy Heasley Williams, she is in her second tour of duty as an assistant coach at Kenyon.
And then of course there is Ashley Rowatt '03, who was named the NCAA Woman of the Year last November-the first Division III athlete to win the prestigious award in its thirteen-year history. Rebecca (Becky) Little '91, another Lady standout, was a finalist for the award in 1991.
Starting with her fabulous freshman year, Patty Abt deserves credit for jump-starting Kenyon's streak of seventeen straight national women's titles a year earlier than expected. As Steen points out, the Ladies' first NCAA championship in 1984 could conceivably have gotten away, if not for the in-your-face attitude Abt used to inspire herself and her teammates. The setting was Emory, at the close of the second day of the '84 nationals, and only five points separated Kenyon from Pomona-Pitzer and Hamline.
"In one of my great motivating moments," says Steen, "I called the Ladies together in a hotel room that night, reviewed with them how far we'd come in the last six months, and reminded them that if we finished second or third at nationals we were still making progress. After all, we were on a five-year plan to win the NCAAs and this was only year four. I thought everyone was ultra-focused on what I was saying, when a conspicuous snicker arose from the periphery of the room. I looked up and saw Patty Abt, who fixed her stare on me and then blurted out: "That's bullshit, ya big dork-we're gonna win this thing tomorrow!"
The Ladies did just that, thanks to a 1-2 finish in the 100 free, where their outspoken freshman set her third individual NCAA record of the 1984 meet.
The rest, you might say, is herstory.
A Tale of Three Pools
When the Kenyon Center for Fitness, Recreation, and Athletics opens in the fall of 2005, the College's swimming program will have a facility as superb as its history. But for today's alumni, the glory of Kenyon swimming will forever be associated with two older pools-cramped, inadequate, and happily left behind, but full of championship
In the beginning there was the Greenhouse, a glass-roofed steam chamber that made up in personality what it lacked in space and design. The official name was the Shaffer Pool, and it was housed in the hillside building that is now devoted to the Bolton Dance Studio. (The glass panes that inspired the building's nickname have long since been replaced by normal roofing.) Constructed with a donation from Charles Shaffer of the Class of 1883, the building opened in 1936 and served Kenyon swimmers until the Ernst Center was built in 1981.
"The Greenhouse was one of a kind, that's for sure!" laughs former Dean of Students Tom Edwards, noting that diehard swimming fans would crawl onto the glass roof for a bird's-eye view of home meets. When Sports Illustrated sent writer Jerry Kirshenbaum to Gambier in 1979 to do a feature story on the men's team, Kirshenbaum was so struck by the idiosyncrasies of the pool that he based the entire beginning of his story on it.
Titled "It's a Real Campus Haunt," Kirshenbaum's story noted that Kenyon's twenty-five-yard pool was only thirty feet wide (instead of the standard forty-two). When divided into six narrow and choppy lanes for meets, competitors "all but lock arms as they race," said the article. "Kenyon swimmers convert the pool to four wider lanes for workouts, but the water is still crowded and turbulent."
So crowded, in fact, that freestyler Steve Penn '80 collided with a teammate during practice one day and broke his thumb.
As the years went by, the roof began to leak. Snow and ice dripped down on the pool deck, and high winds often shattered some of the 1,300 panes of glass. The Greenhouse was costly to heat in the winter and steamy as a sauna from late spring through early fall. When it was filled to capacity-roughly one hundred and fifty spectators-the noise reverberated like a carnival funhouse.
"The pool is grossly inadequate," Jim Steen told Sports Illustrated. "I said inadequate. But it's got character. The guys can see the sky and trees . . . which is especially pleasant for the backstrokers. And after weathering the rough water here, when we get into a good pool, we fly."
Seven-time NCAA champion Tim Glasser '80 can attest to that. In an interview with Swimming World, Glasser recalled Kenyon's first-ever dual meet with long-time rival Johns Hopkins in 1979.
"Students who couldn't fit inside braved the cold weather outside and stood atop the men's locker room to peer and cheer through the glass roof," said Glasser, who was pitted against the defending national champion in the 1650 freestyle. "I was neck and neck with the Hopkins swimmer at the 800, and at that point I knew there was no way he was going to stay with me over the last 200. Once I started to pull away, the place went wild. The students outside were stomping and banging the windows. When Shaffer rocked, the energy was
Edwards had the same experience beginning a quarter-century earlier. "Visitors didn't like the Greenhouse, but we did quite well in it!" says Edwards, whose teams won ten Ohio Athletic Conference titles during his tenure as coach from 1955 to 1964.
Kenyon's swimming program was well established long before Edwards arrived on the scene from Toledo, where he had been physical-education director for the YMCA. The College's first coach, Paul Snyder, started the program in the 1935-36 school year. After one season, he handed the reins to Charles Imel, who reeled off four consecutive conference titles from 1938 to 1941 and a total of five over a seven-year period before World War II halted college competition for two years. Robert Parmelee took over after the war and won another conference championship in 1948. He was followed by Hobie Billingsley and H.F. Pasini, who each coached a year before giving way to Bob Bartels in 1952-53.
Bartels won the Ohio Athletic Conference championship in 1954, enabling Kenyon to pull within one conference title of eight-time winner Oberlin, and then he left to become head swimming coach at Ohio University.
"When I took over as coach for the 1954-55 season," says Edwards, "I inherited three high school All-Americans-Stan Krok '57, Skip Kurrus '57, and Ted Fitzsimons '57-who had met in prep school at Williston Academy in Massachusetts. Those kids were incredible."
Edwards left coaching in 1964 to concentrate all of his energies on the dean of students position that he had held simultaneously with his swimming responsibilities since 1957. Two Richards, Richard Russell and Richard Sloan, extended Kenyon's conference win streak to twenty-two. When Sloan left for a job at Ohio State in 1975, Steen was hired.
"We swam Miami and Pitt, we competed in the Big 10 Relays, so Jim was familiar with Kenyon swimming," says Edwards. "He came around a lot, and always with his notebook open, asking me questions about training. I said to myself, 'It's obvious this guy is going to be a good coach. He might as well do it at Kenyon.'"
In 1981, on the heels of six more conference championships and Steen's first two NCAA titles, the Ernst Center opened its doors.
"The Ernst Center has gotten us where we are today, but it has size limitations," says Steen. "Given the money we had to work with back in 1980, we had two choices. Build a twenty-five-yard facility with six lanes and a diving well, or a fifty-yard pool-essentially two twenty-five-yard pools stacked end to end. We chose the latter because I have sixty swimmers and it's easier to train them all simultaneously."
But it still takes all day to accomplish.
"In order for the men's and women's teams to get all the pool time they need, I have to run five practices a day," says Steen. "When the new fitness center opens, we'll only need two. Right now, we practice at 6:00 a.m., 7:30 a.m., 9:00 a.m., 2:00 p.m. and 4:15 p.m. When the new facility opens, we'll work out at 6:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. I might actually get to eat dinner on time for a change."
The Center for Fitness, Recreation, and Athletics (FRA) will be a tremendous asset for the entire campus community, offering spacious, well-equipped facilities for everything from yoga to indoor track. Designed by Graham Gund '63 and his firm, Graham Gund Architects, and replacing both Ernst and the old Wertheimer Fieldhouse, FRA will serve fitness enthusiasts, recreational athletes, intramural players, physical-education classes, and varsity teams. Among other features, the 263,000-square-foot building will have a new Tomsich Arena for basketball and volleyball, a "multi-activity" recreational gym, a competition-quality indoor track, indoor tennis courts, a large weight and fitness room, squash and racquetball courts, multipurpose rooms for aerobics and similar classes-and a new pool for both recreational and team use.
Designed in consultation with Steen, the pool will measure fifty meters by twenty-five yards. The configuration will allow for twenty lanes (each measuring twenty-five yards long) or nine long-course lanes (measuring fifty meters), plus one- and three-meter diving boards. One of the athletic centers that Steen visited in researching top-flight facilities during the planning phase of FRA was the University of Georgia's Ramsey Student Center for Physical Activities. That facility includes the Gabrielson Natatorium, where Steen's friend-and 2000 assistant Olympic swimming coach-Jack Bauerle has built a Division I dynasty.
"Jack has a great building there, and a terrific pool," says Steen, "but I think our pool will be as good as or better than Georgia's."
Of FRA in general, Steen says, "The building has a lot of genius built into it." He notes that the new center will be beautiful as well as functional, making extensive use of glass to bring in light and create a sense of openness. FRA "suits Kenyon to a T because it embodies what an institution competing in Division III is all about-being highly professional in a pure amateur setting."
In 1990, Sports Illustrated wrote another article about Kenyon swimming. Titled "Major Minors," the story, by writer Doug Looney, chronicled the achievements of the Lords and Ladies along with four other teams that were doing big things in minor or small-college sports. Where the 1979 story had called attention to Kenyon's impressive string of conference championships, the new piece took stock of the Lords' and Ladies' national titles-eleven straight for the men, seven straight for the women. With those eighteen NCAA crowns, noted the story, Steen had surpassed all other collegiate programs in the total number of championships won.
And so the glory goes on. Now boasting a total of forty-five NCAA titles, the Kenyon swimming program is recognized as a phenomenon. Nobody knows what the future will bring, but Steen and his student-athletes are excited about the fact that the next chapter of swimming history will take place in a truly phenomenal athletic center.
A center, interestingly enough, that incorporates a good deal of glass.
A Day in the Life of a Swimmer
Taking no chances that they'll be late for their first swimming practice of the day, senior co-captains Fernando Rodriguez and Marc Courtney-Brooks use their TV as an alarm clock.
"It comes on at 5:30 in the morning," says Fernando, "and you can't ignore it because we set the channel to MTV."
With Aerosmith or Kid Rock blaring from the tube, the guys pull on pants and a sweatshirt while still half-asleep.
It's December, cold and dark.
"Yeah, it sucks to get up this early," says Fernando, who hails from Saõ Paolo, Brazil, "but you have to do it if you want to get better."
"Granola," says Fernando.
"Nothing," says Marc, who comes from Columbus, Ohio, and who at this hour of the morning would rather grab a few extra minutes of shut-eye.
Over at Norton Residence Hall, first-year student Matt Jacobssen, who hails from Knoxville, Tennessee, is packing up his book bag because he won't be back to his room until lunch. Marc and Fernando are luckier: they don't have any early-morning classes.
"We're living in the New Apartments, which are about as far from the Ernst Center as you can get, about a mile," says Fernando.
"So we drive," says Marc, who has a 1990 Toyota Camry.
On the way over to Ernst, the guys keep a lookout for teammates Travis Brennion '06 and Andrejs Duda '06, who live in Farr Hall, the Kenyon Bookstore building. Travis and Duda (he goes by his last name) are usually on foot-and not happy about it, particularly if it's winter in Gambier and the snow is deep. Or if it's raining. Or if they're running late. Or . . . well, you get the idea. Travis and Duda usually need a lift.
It's still dark outside when the Lords and Ladies shuffle out of the Ernst Center locker rooms and plop down on the pool deck in swimsuits.
"There isn't much talking," says Fernando. "Some people actually catch a few extra minutes of sleep waiting for Coach."
"It's basically five minutes of zombie-ism before you start doing your laps," says assistant coach Jess Book '01.
Since swimmers are also college students, a natural question arises: Are any of these heavy-lidded people nursing a hangover?
"Not after the season starts," says Marc. "From then on, we're dry."
At 5:59 or so, Jim Steen and his staff emerge from the coaches' office carrying elaborate printouts of the day's workouts-which are complicated by the fact that the Ernst Center pool isn't big enough for either the Lords or the Ladies, let alone both teams at once. The solution to the space problem is twofold. It involves alternating the use of the pool according to events-sprinters lift weights at 6:00 a.m. while strokers and distance swimmers do their morning laps, then vice versa-and holding practices all day long.
It takes five separate workouts for both teams to get their mileage in, and that's not counting the calisthenics, stretching, yoga, and some plyometrics stuff with a medicine ball that Steen prescribes to keep his swimmers' bodies in peak physical condition.
The 6:00 a.m. workout gets off to a rousing start when a couple of swimmers cannonball into the pool. But from then on, every minute of practice is systematically plotted, timed, evaluated-and painstakingly individualized.
"Every swimmer, even those competing in the same event, has to be treated and trained differently," says Jess Book. "Take, for example, Duda and Russell Hunt '05. They've both broken the varsity record in the 200 IM, but Duda is 6'6" and Russell is 5'10". Duda is a middle-distance stroker who excels because of his proficiency and grace. Russell is a scrapper with great heart and explosive speed. As a result, their training-for the same event-is as different as night and day."
To meet that coaching challenge, Steen keeps extensive practice results and log books, runs annual benchmark tests, and tracks swimmers' blood lactate levels in an effort to create detailed pace charts-down to a tenth of a second, in some cases-for each of his roughly sixty swimmers. He prints a 200-page guidebook every year that includes splits from the previous season and a summary of each swimmer's performance by event, including shaved and unshaved times.
"We're very data driven, very focused scientifically, and we videotape everything," says Steen. "We keep meticulous records and spend countless hours honing skills that eventually result in improvements of minutes, seconds, and even hundredths of seconds. But we also rely on intuitive notions. One of my strengths is being able to connect with people on a fundamental level."
The first 1,000 yards of the morning workout are done at a relatively easy pace and in whatever stroke the swimmer chooses. From there, the pace picks up considerably. By the end of their respective 90-minute shifts, the sprinters will have logged 3,000 yards and the strokers and distance people 5,000 or more.
At 7:30 a.m., when their shift is over, Marc and Fernando hit the weight room. They're done lifting at 8:00. Then it's time to work on their abs. By 8:45 they're headed to Gund Commons for an omelet. By 9:20 they're back home for another hour of sack time.
Fernando, an anthropology major, has an art-history class, Survey of Architecture, at 11:10 a.m. For Marc, an economics student in the Honors Program who is a candidate for an NCAA postgraduate scholarship, the first class of the day is Intensive Introductory Italian at 12:10 p.m., followed an hour later by International Economics. Then he grabs a late lunch at Peirce Hall.
The Lords and Ladies are back in the pool again at either 2:00 or 4:15 p.m., depending on their class schedules. The toughest workouts of the week are usually Tuesday and Thursday; Wednesday is recovery day. Meets are typically scheduled for Friday and Saturday. Sunday is a day for swimmers to rest their bodies and prepare for class on Monday.
"People ask if we would consider switching to Division I because of the quality of our swimming program," says assistant coach Amy Heasley Williams '88, who won twenty-two NCAA titles during her illustrious career at Kenyon. "The answer is no, because of the philosophy of the College. Every swimmer is serious about academics, which makes us even closer as a team. I remember the day Ashley Rowatt '03 presented her honors thesis. It was on protein synthesis in frog embryos-which only a few people on campus understood-but the entire team went to her presentation because they wanted to support Ashley."
By dinner time, with their afternoon workouts completed, Marc and Fernando will have logged approximately 12,000 yards in the pool, more than twice Fernando's daily regimen back in his native Brazil. "It came as a huge shock," says Fernando, who passes the time, lap after lap, by singing-or rather, because it's underwater, by humming to himself.
Marc and Fernando have dinner at Peirce and are usually home by 7:30. "I'm always tired after practice," says Marc. "You don't necessarily want to go to the library, but sometimes you have to."
The two rarely study past 11:00 p.m. "We can't afford to," they say, "because the whole thing starts again at 5:30 the next morning."
A first-year student like Matt Jacobssen is more likely to burn the midnight oil because, as Jess Book says, "If underclassmen aren't studying four hours a day at a place like Kenyon, they're going to get behind."
Jacobssen believes that all the hours he spends in the pool actually make him a better student. "I do a million times better in school when I'm swimming," he says, "because the team provides discipline, commitment, and time-management skills that carry over into academics. When I take a day off from swimming, I'm terribly inefficient in school."
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