How does one compare “Great Records” across different sports that are seemingly unrelated?  Is a record better defined by one impressive feat that would seem impossible to repeat?  Is it a consistent performance over a single-season? Or is the ultimate in historical achievement longevity -- the ability to excel for an extended period of time?

Regardless of perspective, it’s nearly impossible to argue that what was accomplished by the Kenyon men’s swimming team over the past three decades ranks among the most impressive records in NCAA annals. 

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From 1980 through 2010, no team other than Kenyon stood on top of the podium at the conclusion of the NCAA Division III Men’s Swimming and Diving Championship.  For 31 consecutive years, Kenyon swimmers hoisted the national championship trophy.  So, with the streak on the line going into the final event of the 2011 championship, why would anyone at the Allen Jones Aquatic Center in Knoxville, Tenn., expect to see anything different?

Going into that last event, Kenyon found itself trailing North Coast Athletic Conference rival Denison – the two campuses a mere 28 miles apart – by just nine points. Kenyon was favored to win the 400-yard freestyle relay, but Denison needed only a third-place finish to clinch the title and end the Lords’ run.  Kenyon did, in fact, win by more three seconds. But behind the Lords, Denison managed to out-touch Emory at the wall to finish third by 0.32 seconds.  The result: a 500.5-499.5 victory for Denison, ending the most remarkable string of consecutive championships in any NCAA sport.

Kenyon, which was the runner-up in 1979 – one year before the streak began –was again runner-up by the narrowest of margins.

“The best team won that meet,” said Kenyon head coach Jim Steen who is in his 37th year at Kenyon and has won a total of 50 NCAA championships between men’s and women’s swimming and diving. “Denison was under a lot of pressure at the very end and had an outstanding performance.”

Despite the streak’s end in 2011, the Kenyon swim team’s success is unmatched among all programs in the NCAA. Oklahoma State wrestling with 34 is the only single team with more than 31 championships in a single sport but those championships date back to 1928. The first Division III Men’s Swimming and Diving Championship took place in 1975.  Additionally, there are only 16 athletic programs with more than 31 national titles in all combined sports. 

In addition to the 31 titles by the Lords, the Kenyon women’s swimming and diving team has won 23 national championships all-time. Add in three national championships by the women’s tennis team in the 1990s and Kenyon is tied with Abilene Christian for the fourth-most NCAA Championships (throughout all divisions) for a school with 57; trailing only UCLA, Stanford and Southern California.

Just behind the Lords’ streak of 31 consecutive national championships, the Kenyon women’s swimming and diving team also holds the second-longest streak of national championships in all sports and all divisions with 17 consecutive wins from 1984-2000.

One of the biggest reasons for Kenyon’s team success in the men’s championship has been its domination of the relay events. Since the championship started in 1975, Kenyon has won nearly 74 percent of the relay events (117 of 159) and nearly 80 percent (111 of 139) of the relay events in its 31 championships seasons.

Despite the numbers and the success, Steen has never been one to sit back and reflect on what his teams have accomplished.  He chooses instead to focus on the process of preparing his team for the next challenge.

“It’s nice to be recognized [for the national championships],” he says. “But when you’re involved in it you don’t have the luxury of focusing on the results.”

“We never set out to win 31 [in a row] or even 12 [in a row].  We just happened to do it by focusing on the process.”