A few months ago, my older son, Bridger, asked me if I wanted to go with him to see the NCAA Division III National Swimming and Diving Championships, which were going to be in Shenandoah, Tx. One of the high school swimmers he coached last year was now swimming at Denison University. He wanted to see his protege swim. I said yes.
Unfortunately, his former swimmer failed to make the qualifying time for Nationals. Bridger bailed on me. Sandy and I decided to go anyway.
I graduated from Kenyon College, at which I got a great education and had a special swimming experience. Kenyon is a D3 school, though there was no such thing when I swam for Kenyon. At that time, the NCAA wasn’t divided into Div. I, II, and III schools. There were only College and University divisions.
Kenyon has a proud swimming tradition, having won more NCAA Individual and Team National Swimming Championships than any other school in NCAA history in any sport. The Kenyon men had won 31 consecutive D3 Men’s National Championships until 2011 when (while Kenyon’s best swimmer, Zach Turk, was studying abroad for a year) Denison beat them by one point. Denison, Kenyon’s staunch rival, which lives 30 miles down the road from Kenyon and is coached by a former D3 National Champion Kenyon swimmer, Gregg Parini, beat Kenyon out again last year. Since then, Kenyon’s, legendary coach, Jim Steen, retired and Jess Book, another former Kenyon swimmer, who had taken over the reigns of Kenyon’s 23-time Women’s National Champion team from Coach Steen three years earlier, took over the men’s team as well.
My first year out of Kenyon, I went back to D3s with the team to help out. Later, I would make frequent trips to Kenyon to play sports psychologist for the team. My connection stayed strong, but, since that first return trip, the only other time I’ve been to D3s since I swam with Kenyon, was the last time D3s were in Houston. That year, the Kenyon men crushed everyone. Denison was second.
When Bridger, who got me deciding to go, dropped out, I had my doubts about going. Although I had communicated with Jess via phone and a few emails, I didn’t have the connection I had with Jim Steen, with whom I had been friends since our freshmen year when we swam for rival schools in college; Jim at Ohio Wesleyan, me at Kenyon. I still hadn’t met Jess in person.
While Kenyon’s streak was alive, and especially when D3s were within driving distance for most Kenyan swimming grads, there were scores of alums supporting the teams at D3s. I didn’t expect to see many this year with the streak gone, the event so far from Ohio, a new coach, and Denison favored to win. I wavered, but when it came right down to it. I decided to go. I’m so glad I did.
I have fun every day. But, I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun at a swim meet in which I wasn’t swimming.
It started when I walked into the Conroe ISD Natatorium inShenandoah. I walked up to the desk to pick up my media credentials for this sold out event. When the woman at the desk asked me who I was with and I told her Austin Fit Magazine, she got all excited. She proceeded to tell me that she was the one with whom I had emailed back and forth on my quest to get media credentials. She told me all about her daughter’s swimming, was incredibly friendly, and was truly helpful. A great way to start my foray into the past, present, and future.
I walked onto the deck, getting the lay of the land, looking for the Kenyon coach to introduce myself, and for the Denison coach to see this old friend.
Before I could get to the area where the Kenyon team was stationed, I had stopped to see if I could pick Jess out of the crowd. I was standing alone, looking around, when Ann Goodman James, the Colorado College coach, tapped me on the shoulder to say, “Hi.” She had been the Texas Tech women’s coach when I coached at UT. Later, she had me in to work with her team under my sports psychologist hat.
Jessseemed busy with warm-ups, as did Denison’s coach, Gregg Parini. I walked on to say hello to Jon Lederhouse, the Wheaton College coach. Jon was a freshman when I was a volunteer coach at Wheaton my first year out of college. (Later, Jon became a 2-time 100 backstroke D3 national champion.) Jon gave me a wonderful greeting and couldn’t wait to introduce Sandy, who had just caught up with me on deck, and I to his team. Jon went on and on about us, while we reveled in meeting his swimmers.
After our visit with Jon and his team, I caught up with Gregg. Man, it was nice to see him.
The meet continued to go like that. Every time I moved along the deck, a coach, whose team I had worked with, or against whom I swam masters, stopped me to say, “hi,” and to catch up. Including Dave Hauck, the retired coach at St. Olaf’s, and his son Dave, the current St. Olaf’s coach, who Sandy and I both know from Masters.
I had a great visit with George Kennedy, who runs a consistently strong program at Johns Hopkins, his assistant coaches, and some of his swimmers. I had also worked with George’s team.
I met a bunch of coaches and some of their swimmers. Sandy and I even had lunch with a group of diving coaches, one of whom coaches the divers at both Tufts and MIT.
At one point, I decided to head up into the stands to join the Kenyon parents and alumni in cheering on the team. I didn’t expect a large showing of alumni, but neither would I have ever guessed that there wouldn’t be any there. There were, however, plenty of Kenyon parental units.
I slid into a vacant seat in the middle of the Kenyon area and one of the parents asked me which swimmer was mine. I told her I didn’t have any kids on the team; rather, that I swam for Kenyon about 100 years ago.
As I looked around and introduced myself to one Kenyon parent after another, many of them, having caught my name as I threw it to them, asked me if I was Kierston Bell’s dad. “No,” came my curveball, “but I do have a daughter named Kirsten Bell”
The parents were extremely friendly. (We had this instant common bond: Kenyon swimming. And, we had a shared purpose: cheering Kenyon on to victory.) We talked about where they were from, their children’s swimming history (I knew a lot of their children’s club coaches), and the Kenyon experience. When their kids swam, their parents exuded tremendous excitement and joy. The positive energy was incredible. Of course, it didn’t hurt that most of the Kenyon swimmers were swimming extremely well (big drops at conference Champs and then again at Nationals is a strong Kenyon tradition) or that Kenyon men were in the lead and the women were in the hunt. Maybe, just maybe, – looking more probable all of the time – Kenyon was going to reclaim its crown and restore proper order to the Universe.
I was already having a blast. But, then came that night’s medley relay finals. The Kenyon women, who had qualified 2nd, took the lead with a great backstroke leg and never looked back.
I don’t tend to get very visibly excited or to cheer that much watching swimming races. I’m more of the quite, inner-enjoyment type. And, just as I don’t tend to show my excitement or tend to get caught up in a crowd, I can’t put words to how exciting it was for me to be in the middle of this group of familial supporters, who seemed to inherit the Kenyon tradition of incredible support for swimming; swelling with the thrill of the race, the mystery of the impending results, and their vicarious whiff of victory. What I may have liked best about their enjoyment and excitement, was that it seemed to be devoid of pride and, instead, filled with admiration.
At Kenyon, swimming is the sport. When we had home meets at Schaefer Pool, a unique glass covered pool we called “The Greenhouse,” the modest-sized (to say the least) balcony would be filled to more-than-capacity and, even in the midst of a frigid Ohio winter, students, faculty, and administration would line the outside of the pool, peering in through the glass, cheering on the home team.
When I swam at Kenyon, we won our 14th, 15th, 16th, and 17th consecutive Ohio Athletic Conference Championships. (Kenyon swimmers went on to win 43 Conference Championships in a row before Denison stole their crown.) Because we had a very small pool (Now, Kenyon has one of the most beautiful pools in the world.) and no hotels or motels (only the Village Inn) in the sprawling metropolis of Gambier, Ohio; we never hosted the Conference Championships. I’ll never forget showing up for warm-up for Conference Champs at Denison only to be greeted by about 600 cheering Kenyon students, faculty, and staff, waiting out in the cold to buy their admission to watch us swim. Oh, yes, the Kenyon student body was a total of about 800 strong back then.
I don’t know which was more exciting and fun, watching and cheering-on the women’s 4 x 100 medley relay or the following act, the men’s 4 x 100 medley relay. We were all still buzzing (inside and out) about the women, when the men took the stage.
The men trailed the whole race, but were never out of it. When Ian Stewart-Bates hit the water and broke out with his arms motoring and legs boiling water, all of a sudden, it looked like they had a chance, as did a couple of other teams; none of which could hold off Stewart-Bates, who split a 43.1 to put the first finger on the finish pad. The Kenyon parents went crazy. Even this mild-mannered, usually contained, ancient alum was whistling, cheering, and waving a purple and white pom-pom the Kenyon assistant athletic director had thrust into my hand.
I’ve coached at every level: summer league, club teams, high school, NCAA Div. I and D3, masters, and as a U.S. National Coach. I’ve watched my own children swim, and watched my wife as she vied for a spot on the Olympic team in the greatest comeback swimming had ever seen. As a sports psychologist, I accompanied teams to National Championships, Olympic Trials, Pan Am Games, Pan Pacific Games, Commonwealth Games, World Championships, and watched and cheered many of the athletes I’ve worked with from a score of different countries at the Olympics.
It had been 43 years since I had swam for Kenyon. I had just met the coach, just met the parents with whom I was standing in the stands after jumping out of my seat, and although I had met a few, didn’t know any of the Kenyon swimmers. But, I don’t remember ever getting so physically excited yelling and cheering as much as I did watching these two relays. Maybe it was anticipation of the increasingly-more-promising prospect of watching the Universe restored to its proper order. And maybe it was just that I had nothing to do with it, no professional investment, no personal ties, no ego involvement, just the joy of D3 competition and some invisible, deeply-buried special feeling in my heart. Who knows? I had just inexplicably sprung out of character and got swallowed by the moment.
It wasn’t even all about Kenyon. Though Kenyon had two men in the finals of the 400 IM chasing critical points, I found myself rooting for Hugh Anderson, a kid from Mary Washington College (a school I didn’t know existed). He swam a gutsy swim; flying out on the first leg of the IM (the, well . . . um, fly) and hung tough on the last lap, finding what little legs he had left to keep from getting caught. I enjoyed watching one of Jon Lederhouse’s swimmers win, even though she beat out a Kenyon woman to win the National Championship.
Some of it was just watching all the swimmers, coaches, parents, and friends get into the D3 experience. There’s something special about it.
The D3 swimmers are not the fastest swimmers in the world, though everyone of them swims faster than about 99.999+ percent of the population of the world. They’re generally not as tall, powerful, or athletically gifted as most of the D1 swimmers, U.S. National Team Swimmers, or Olympians. Most of them couldn’t make the team at most of the top D1 schools. But they’ve taken advantage of the D3 opportunity and earned their opportunity to swim at Nationals.
These are genuinely student-athletes. There are no athletic scholarships in Division III. Many of these swimmers could be found busily keeping up with their studies in between events, even during the finals. And, though I saw the occasional tears, some anticipatory anxiety, and a bit of the inevitable disappointment of those who didn’t swim up to their expectations; mostly I observed the joy of competing as they attacked their races with everything they had.
I don’t have many regrets, if any, in life. I don’t see much point in it. And, I’m happy and feel blessed with my experience of life. If I do have any regrets however, it may be that it never occurred to me to walk down the hill and walk-on to the Kenyon baseball team when swimming season was over. I love baseball, and was perhaps better at it than I was swimming, but after I had won a slew of state championships in swimming, my swimming coach convinced my parents that I should drop baseball and concentrate on my swimming.
I’m pretty sure I never would have made The Show, but Kenyon would have afforded me the opportunity to once again play a game I love – and at the collegiate level no less. D3 schools are like that. It just never occurred to me that I could.
Then again, who knows what might have been? When I was a senior at Kenyon, there was a freshman on the team named John Davis. Though John had swum on his high school team, though one would never have known it.
When John was a freshman, Bill Koller and I, both seniors, were co-captains of the team. Being a D3 school and a winter sport, we weren’t permitted to practice under the direction of our coach until November 1. So Bill and I led practices.
A couple of days per week in our preseason conditioning activities, we played water polo. After the first day of water polo, I had five (yes, count them: five) team members approach me separately to ask if John was going to be okay. They were worried that he was going to drown. That’s how good of a swimmer he was.
Even as the season progressed, as William F. Buckley might have advised us, we had to “maintain a modicum of imperturbability” when John swam in our lane. He told me we passed him so often it seemed as though he was stuck in a revolving door.
John wouldn’t have been permitted to join the team at most D1 schools, especially those vying for a national championship. And, even if he managed to get a look, he wouldn’t have been around long enough for a cup of energy drink. But this was D3. John, clearly unable to walk and chew gum at the same time, showing no speed, exhibiting little-to-no promise, and clogging up the lane, was allowed to play with us every day. And, though few of us seemed to notice, he took advantage of the opportunity. He showed up for all the practices and played hard.
In those days, there was no 18-man limit for conference or national championships. So John got to go to our Conference Championships and, somehow, when no one was looking, John, riding a wave of enormous improvements, snuck into 12th place (then, the last qualifier for the consolation finals) and scored one point for the team.
The next year, John qualified for the National Championships. He spent the rest of his college days as one of the preeminent distance freestylers in the D3 nation. Ah, nowhere else but D3 schools.
As I walked the deck at the 2013 NCAA Division III Swimming and Diving Championships, I watched swimmers of all sizes and shapes (though all in good shape), reveling in the experience of competing at the highest level of non-scholarship collegiate athletics. I got to talk with many of them and to hear about the memories of a lifetime they were building; memories which they likely never would have known had they chosen to get an education at Division I schools.
Then, of course, for me, there was the Kenyon experience. There are hardly any constants in today’s what-seems-like changing-at-near-the-speed-of-light world. For me, I know my wife is, has been, and always will be there for me; but I don’t know of much else on which I can count.. The stars just aren’t perfectly aligned very often. There isn’t much that comes close to telling us the Universe is in its proper order, besides, of course, Kenyon College winning the D3s; a crown they reclaimed this year. Beyond that, we can only hope. – Go Yankees!