How a small school swims to major dynasty
GAMBIER, OHIO — When coach Jim Steen sailed into Kenyon College's swim practice on a chilly day last February, he had one thing in mind: He was going to kick someone out. It didn't matter who. The team was stuck in a malaise, and that had to change.
It happened that one of the captains, Brian Kirkvold, was slacking that day. So out he went. "Don't come back until you can do that set perfectly," Steen yelled in his raspy-as-a-frog voice. Just days before the important conference meet, he had shaken up Kirkvold - and the team.
The tactic is quintessential Steen. For 24 years, as head swim coach at this tiny liberal arts college in the knobby hills of central Ohio, he has plotted and planned to get the best out of his swimmers. And it has worked, brilliantly.
Last week the women's team won its 16th national championship in a row.
Starting tomorrow in Minneapolis, the men's team will vie for its 20th consecutive national title - aiming to prolong what is already one of the greatest winning streaks in all of sport.
Twenty years on top. At its peak, UCLA won seven consecutive basketball titles from 1967 to 1973. The storied Boston Celtics won eight straight championships in the '60s. The New York Yankees' reign at the top - the longest in baseball - lasted just five years.
Granted, this is Division III college swimming, but that doesn't matter to Steen. In fact, it goes to the heart of his philosophy: "If you can do your best against the best, that's all I ask," he says. He rarely talks about winning. Doing their best is all that counts.
But to do their best - especially with "The Streak" looming over them - Steen says he and his swimmers must constantly fight the ultimate enemy: complacency.
To avoid it, he says, "I provoke them, in the best sense of the word." But Steen also teaches his swimmers they have a choice in how to respond to everything he - and life - throws at them. They can see things as "a threat or as a challenge."
When he kicked Kirkvold out of practice, the senior from Minneapolis struggled to see it as a challenge - not a threat. But his final swimming season was at stake. The next day he couldn't make the required times. Steen told him to take the weekend off. "I'm not trying sabotage your season," Steen explained to Kirkvold. "I'm trying to resurrect it."
But two more times Kirkvold failed to make the times. Then Steen made a deal: If Kirkvold performed well at the conference meet, he would be back on the team. He did better than he ever had. And tomorrow he'll be in the water in his hometown, helping the team as it goes for No. 20.
But Steen isn't a kind of poolside dictator. Current and former swimmers attest to his ability to motivate each person differently, in a way each one will respond to.
He keeps exceptionally close tabs on each team member. He knows each swimmer's best time to the hundredth of a second and even remembers split times of those under him 10 years ago. He expects his athletes to pay close attention to every detail, too - every stroke, every turn, every lap.
For himself, Steen stays focused and fights complacency by tinkering with his style. Each season has a new theme - with new tools.
Three years ago, for instance, he invented the "power reel" - a box that sits on the edge of the pool and has a long wire that extends the length of the lane. Swimmers strap themselves onto the end of the wire and, like fish being reeled toward a boat, are propelled at championship speed through the water. It helps them set their pace.
Steen's constant changing is part of staying "alive," as he puts it. "Are we a bunch of exceptional people here at Kenyon?" he says. "No, we're just among the living."
It's an attitude alumni say prepares them well for life after swimming. Heading into the last meet of his career, senior captain John Newland believes he'll be prepared for life because he knows he has to work hard now for a payoff later: "It's delayed gratification."
After one practice last week, Steen's swimmers gathered around him, water and sweat dripping from their noses and elbows.
He told them that after swimming more than 1.5 million yards this season, they were "consummately prepared" to do their best at nationals. "And how many times in life," he asked, "do you get the opportunity to be totally prepared to put in the best performance of your lives?"