When Abby Brethauer ’02 went to the home of  legendary Kenyon swimming coach Jim Steen during the semester break of her senior year, she was fighting mad. Brethauer was a co-captain and Steen — who had won 37 NCAA Division III team championships at Kenyon by that point — was on sabbatical. She felt abandoned and frustrated at a time when she wasn’t performing well in the pool after returning from a semester abroad and an injury.

The difficult conversation that followed, during which Steen offered some straight talk about what the swimmer needed to do to get back on track, changed the trajectory of her life. Every detail remains etched in her memory.

 “I can just picture it,” Brethauer said. “I can picture the time of day. I know what the sun was doing. I picture everything about it.”

Having someone tell her what she needed to hear in a way that she needed to hear it — even if she didn’t want to — was a lesson that she keeps returning to in her personal and professional life.

“I think about that conversation so often in my coaching career, in my life,” said Brethauer, who took the helm of Princeton University’s women’s swimming and diving team in August. “It saved my season — and therefore it saved my (swim) career, and therefore it probably saved my coaching career. Because I think if I had ended the way that I had started my senior year, I would’ve been so dejected and angry at the sport that I don’t know that I would’ve gone into coaching.”

Instead, Brethauer used that moment to jump-start a successful senior year and a professional journey into coaching that included eight years as head coach at University of Mary Washington. Along the way, she joined a legion of teammates from across the years who have turned their swimming experiences at Kenyon into a career.

No sport at Kenyon — or anywhere else, for that matter — has matched swimming in its success. Since 1975, the year Steen joined the program, the men’s team has claimed 34 NCAA titles; the women have 24. That far outpaces any other team at any college or university in any sport in Division III.

And while it’s not unusual for an elite athletics program to breed outstanding coaches, the breadth and magnitude of the ripples that Kenyon has sent across the swimming world are remarkable. From YMCAs and top club teams to college squads and the Olympics, Kenyon alumni are making a splash.

Their legacy goes beyond even those of long-time Division I powerhouses like Texas, Auburn and Georgia, according to Michael J. Stott, a staff writer at Swimming World, the oldest continuing magazine devoted to competitive swimming.

“In terms of the broadest reaches of impact that a school has had on swimming, I think you should probably start with Jim Steen and go out,” he said. “The tentacles are so far-reaching and they go so far underground that it’s really unbelievable.”

A legacy of success

In Division III swimming, the stats tell an unparalleled story: Since 1983, no swimming and diving team that hasn’t been coached by Steen (affectionately known as “Coachman”) or one of his former athletes or assistants has won a men’s or women’s title. And on the men’s side, the domination extends even further, back to 1979.

Gregg Parini ’82 — a member of Steen’s first three NCAA championship teams and the coach’s first individual NCAA champion — has five men’s team titles and two women’s championships at nearby rival Denison University in Granville, where he has worked since 1987. 

His team was the one that broke the Kenyon men’s 31-year winning streak — which started with Parini as a college sophomore — by a single point in 2011. And his women’s team, the 2023 national champions, stopped the Kenyon women’s win streak at 17 in 2001.

“Jim pushed me to be my best as a swimmer and has contributed immensely to my development as a coach.” Parini told the Alumni Bulletin in 2011.

At Emory University in Atlanta, Jon Howell ’90 — an 11-time NCAA event champion while at Kenyon — retooled teams that had been ranked near the bottom to win three men’s titles, and 12 women’s championships that at one point numbered 10 in a row. A former assistant coach at his alma mater, he also holds a national title from his time as  interim coach at Kenyon when Steen was on sabbatical for the 1995-96 season.

Steen’s teams won the bulk of the rest — 50 titles over a 36-year career characterized by passion and data-driven innovation — with his successor, Jessen Book ’01, winning Kenyon’s three most recent men’s titles from 2013-2015 and a women’s title in 2022.

“People always ask what the secret is. I don’t think there’s any secret to it,” Howell said in an interview from Atlanta, where he’s been head coach for 25 years. “People always felt like Jim (Steen) had some advantage in some way. People would call, asking how much was our budget or how much our assistant coaches made. They’d always hang up the phone realizing that they already had more than what Kenyon had. Jim made it work because he worked really, really hard. He was committed to it, and he put energy into things that really mattered. And I’ve always tried to do that.”


Changing lanes

Not that these top-tier swimmers left Kenyon expecting to become coaches.

For Howell, a philosophy major, it was a side gig while he was pursuing a master’s degree in art his-tory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After he became an assistant coach there, however, Steen invited him to join his staff in 1993.

It could be overwhelming at times, he said, but it was worth it.

“It was often drinking from a fire hose. There was just a lot of information being thrown at me and a lot that I was trying to do,” Howell said. “And then taking over as the interim head coach, that was amplified because you didn’t want to mess it up.”

At the same time, Steen encouraged Howell to find his own voice — advice he found freeing, especially when he joined Emory in 1998.

“The reality is that I’m not Jim,” he said. “You look at him and he’s bigger than life, and the thought of replicating that is a bit intimidating. So that kind of opened the door for me to say, ‘OK, let me take what I can from this experience and other experiences I have but also really try to do something that is uniquely Emory.’ ”

Book — who now holds the title of Lords and Ladies Alumni Head Coach, Owls Swimming and Diving, thanks to a gift from the Karl W. Slatoff '92 family — also spent time as an assistant with Steen before eventually taking over the women’s team in 2010 and adding the men in 2012.

An English and biology major who was teaching in Virginia after graduation, Book had no experience coaching. But he just couldn’t stay away.

“I went to watch them compete at the NCAA championships that year, and while I was there, I was just overwhelmed with how much I missed it,” said the former team captain. “I missed the pursuit of excellence, I missed the team, I missed just the level of investment that athletics and Kenyon swimming can create in a person’s life."

Somehow, he managed to talk his way into a position with Steen, whom he called “the greatest coach ever.”

“We were in the same space all the time, so I was always listening, always watching,” he said. “That’s something I’m good at.”

Book describes himself as steady, patient and methodical. While he may not have the outsized persona of Steen — “I do very well with the one-on-ones, the small conversations,” he said — he shares his mentor’s love for tracking data and using that to build off of the past.

“One of the biggest gifts I got from him was the ability to see swimming in numbers,” Book said. “I see things through the same lenses because I wear the glasses that he handed to me.”

There’s one number, though, that he’s not defined by: NCAA titles.

“We will not be defined by whether we win it or not. But we will be defined by the effort we put into building a team that is competitive for a championship,” he said. “If we get fixated on winning alone, then that reduces the experience. It makes it defined by one moment, not by a full year.” 

That sounds a lot like Steen, who said: “If success is strictly focused on beating someone else or winning, I’ve got nothing to offer.”

Something in the (Woodlands) water

If there’s something about Kenyon that predisposes swimmers to be successful coaches, it must be especially concentrated around the Taft Cottages. That’s where Book lived during his senior year, when the Tafts were known as the Woodlands — with two other future swim coaches.

Josh White ’01 spent 15 years at the University of Michigan as assistant and associate swim coach, and Tom Rushton ’01 travels the world coaching superstars of the sport for international competitions. Even the roomie who didn’t make a career in swimming, Brett Holcomb ’01, basically married into the profession when he wed one of Steen’s two daughters, Sarah.

White — who admits to being the messy one of the group — remembers the steady rhythm of life that year, all four going to bed at the same time, all four waking up before dawn, and all four heading out together for swim practice at 6 a.m.

White entered Kenyon with the goal of becoming an engineer. Then, as he approached senior year, he had an epiphany.

“What I kept coming back to was that my favorite part of the day was going to practice,” he said. “I loved being in an environment of supportive people, people working hard together to achieve a common goal.”

As an upperclassman, he set his sights on coaching, taking courses like physiological psychology and the biology of exercise. And through Steen, he met Joel Stager, director of the Counsilman Center for the Science of Swimming at Indiana University (where White was roommates a second time with Rushton, who also went to study there).

A former head coach at Pomona Pitzer College in California, White was part of the coaching staff at Michigan when the team won a Division I national championship, and he coached a number of future Olympians who passed through, including one from Barbados whom he coached at the London 2012 Summer Olympics.

Rushton, the son of two British Olympic swimmers — both of whom became coaches — has taken a global approach to coaching. He now coaches individual elite swimmers, and in the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo, swimmers he worked with brought home a total of six gold medals, seven silver and four bronze.

“In the last four or five years, I’ve coached athletes from, I think, 36 different countries,” he said.

Each of the six athletes he currently coaches has qualified for this year’s Paris Olympics.

“A lot of what I do day-to-day, you can look back and see how it’s evolved from my time as an athlete at Kenyon,” he said.

Part of it is technical — like the color-coded training charts that Steen used — but part is much more nuanced.

“What’s important, and something that I have learned from Coach Steen, is making everyone feel valid and valuable.”

A mentor in the pool — and in life

For Brethauer, the decision to become a coach was about making an impact — like all her coaches had made on her during her Kenyon days.

“I knew pretty early on that I didn’t want to have my own kids,” she said, “and I thought if I can be the person to one person that my coaches were to me, I will have made a difference in the world.”

A self-described “swim nerd,” Matt Kinney ’93 spent hours in Steen’s office as a student discussing the technical aspects of the sport. It was the coach’s gift that he could fuse technical expertise with strong personal relationships to help swimmers accomplish things they never thought they could do.

“He literally pulled me in. I was walking through the office one day and we must’ve talked for three hours about breast stroke and stroke mechanics and some things that he wanted me to work on,” Kinney said. “When he focused that great coaching mind and his motivational skills on you — I mean, there’s nobody better than Coachman was at that.”

Kinney has taken a great deal of that experience into his own career, whether it was as head coach of the University of Mary Washington in Virginia, where his teams won 22 combined conference championships in 12 years, or Carnegie Mellon University, where he’s been since 2007 and where both teams finished in the top 15 in last year’s NCAA Division III championships. 

Brazil native Fernando Martinelli Rodriguez ’04 absorbed — and reflected — Kenyon’s unique swim culture as both a student athlete and a team staff member. Not only was he taken in by the Steen family as an undergraduate, spending Thanksgivings at their home, but he later served as an assistant coach with the team under Book’s tenure.

“When you swim under somebody who’s so passionate about what they do — Jess, and Jim Steen — you fall in love with it. You end up wanting to inspire other people the way you were inspired by them,” said Martinelli Rodriguez, who now is a women’s assistant swim coach at the University of Georgia.

The Kenyon experience

Some former Kenyon athletes say that their time on the team provided an informal master’s degree in swimming, whose lessons they carry with them to this day.

Consider Teresa (Zurick) Fish ’88, a Kenyon Athletics Hall of Famer who was inducted in September, along with Steen. She captured 14 NCAA titles and claimed 27 out of a possible 28 career All-America swimming awards.

As a young coach, she often referenced her own meticulous training notes.

“At Kenyon, I wrote down a lot of my work-outs,” Fish said. “I would get back to my room or to the library, and I’d pull out this little notebook and write down my practices. So when I first started coaching, that was a good resource for me. … I could look back and pull out the work-outs and see what exactly we were doing and why we were doing it.”

It paid off. The head coach at Illinois Wesleyan University since 1995, she led the men’s team to its first conference title the next year and has earned College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin “Coach of the Year” honors 10 times.

Dani Korman ’06, who started as an associate head coach at Kenyon last summer, said she really connected with the idea of embracing and honoring the past, something that’s always been promoted at her alma mater.

“You’re not just swimming for people right now. You’re swimming for the past,” she said.

So it’s not surprising to her that her best friend is a former Kenyon student — and a fellow swim coach — who graduated before Korman started her career on the Hill: Brethauer.

“It just kind of speaks to how there was this deep connection. It didn’t matter when you swam, there was this common bond that you had,” she said.

While Korman met Brethauer when she was being recruited, they became fast friends during the summers when they both coached at swim camps run by Steen. That time inspired Korman to pursue coaching as a profession — as an assistant at Johns Hopkins University, Yale University (twice) and the University of California, Berkeley and as a head coach at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Even though some coaches who have Kenyon roots may now be competitors, their shared his-tory creates a strong sense of mutual respect.

“It’s a pretty strong connection, and we all understand where we come from and why we do what we do,” Martinelli Rodriguez said. “It’s like receiving a very special kind of certification in coaching that only Kenyon coaches have. We know why we all coach and how we coach, so we also know that the athletes of Kenyon-trained coaches will always be taken care of.”

And the future is bright as the Kenyon coaching tree continues to grow.

“There are some pretty remarkable alums out there coaching and involved in the sport. They have really taken what Jim did and kept the ball rolling,” Kinney said. “Now I have four coaches who coached with me that are now head coaches. All of the mini branches that branch out from the direct Kenyon lines add even more layers to this.”

A coda for Coachman

It’s been years since Steen last coached a competitive swimmer, but in many ways he remains the same. For one, the grandfather of five is still fascinated by data and process.

“I still maintain spreadsheets as a means of organizing my life,” he explained, although now they are more likely to track his own personal training program rather than swimming data.  

During the pandemic, he tracked monthly COVID rates around the country to determine the safest places to travel.

And he’s still a firm believer that personal connections have to come first. It was in building these with his swimmers that Steen’s coaching artistry was always best on display — and what he believes made him such a good fit for Kenyon.

“This is a relationship-driven campus,” he said. “At Kenyon, and certainly on our team, the relationships are profound in shaping your competitive character and your personal philosophy and your ultimate expectations.”

Never was this more obvious to him than at the Swimming and Diving Reunion in September, when 400 former team members returned to campus to see Steen, Fish and three other alumni — Sanders “Read” Boon ’03, Agnese (Ozolina) Butler ’04 and Andrejs Duda ’06 — inducted into the Kenyon Athletics Hall of Fame.

“It was so nice to see all of these swimmers back and feeling like it was just yesterday,” he said. “That’s what it’s about: relationships.”

“I remember so much detail of the conversations I had with my swimmers,” he continued, and that includes the sit-down with Brethauer. “Those kinds of moments are fundamental for any expectation of being successful.”

He said he is proud of his former swimmers who have gone into coaching, but he has tried to give them space to develop independently.

“They’re all their own people,” he said. “They’re doing wonderful things with their respective programs. I wish them all the best.”  

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