March 21, 2010

Judd Spicer, Special to

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. -- The Kenyon College men's swimming and diving team extended the NCAA's longest-ever championship win streak on Saturday, winning their 31st consecutive Division III championship in convincing fashion.

The Lords finished the meet with 696 points. In second on the men's side was Denison University, more than 400 points behind. The Kenyon men closed out their 2009-10 title in style, swimming an NCAA record-setting 2:55.56 in event's last men's competition, the 400 freestyle.

"It's something I've dreamed of - getting this chance to keep this streak going," said senior Blair Withington, who anchored the Lords' 400 win. "To establish our own kind of legacy with the guys I came in with in our class. And we have such a talented group of young guys who have constantly stepped up and improved upon their performances. And they did it here, on the biggest stage.

"Being up on the podium with the rest of my class - I can't be happier. It's awesome."

His teammates agreed.

"It's great. Every year a new team comes in and grows together as a team and we unite as a team," said Kenyon sophomore Zach Turk who was a part of the 400 team and concluded a stellar individual meet with a win in the men's 100 freestyle. "Our whole senior class made Nationals this year, and they're a great group of guys who provided great leadership."

Said Kenyon sophomore Ian Bakk, who won the 200 breaststroke: "It's hard to comprehend, really. But you can catch a glimpse of it when you see all the Kenyon alumni here, cheering us on."

On the women's end, Denison University (Granville, Ohio) had been jockeying with Emory University (Atlanta) throughout the four-day meet, with both schools vying to unseat the three-time defending champion Kenyon. At the end of each of the first three days of the championships, Denison trailed Emory in the team totals by no more than 46 points.

But Saturday offered no waves of respite for the Big Red, as Emory snapped Kenyon's run and grabbed its third title in the last six years, eventually out-pacing Denison by more than 100 points. The Eagles' championship is their first since claiming back-to-back championships in 2005 and 2006.

Last year in Minneapolis, Emory finished second. This year, it claimed an individual win from Anne Culpepper in the 200 backstroke and closed with a splash in the 400 freestyle relay, edging Denison in the night's final event under the direction of senior swimmers Ruth Westby and Lillian Ciardelli.

"It was a team goal for us that we wanted to make it fun and not concentrate on the other teams," Westby said. "We wanted to concentrate on ourselves so we could swim fast. The only person you can control is yourself. We had an idea [about winning], and we had it in the back of our minds, but really our main focuses here were having fun and swimming fast. Winning was a combination of all that."

While Emory and Denison kicked it out for the women's title, the night was also a stellar one for Amherst College (Mass.), as the Lord Jeffs' tallied two individual wins. After sophomore Ryan Lichtenfels took the men's 1,650 freestyle to begin the eve, junior Kendra Stern continued her strong meet with an NCAA record time in the women's 100 freestyle. Stern defended her 2008-09 win, besting her previous record time with a new mark of 48.98.

After Lichtenfels' win in the mile-long race, Williams College freshman Caroline Wilson continued her breakout championships by adding another individual win to her burgeoning pool résumé. Matched lane-to-lane with defending champ and active NCAA record holder Liz Horvat of Emory, Wilson crushed the previous record in the 1,650 event, winning with a new record time of 16:25.21, nearly five seconds better than Horvat's time from 2008-09. To offer a better sense of Wilson's swim: while Horvat finished runner-up to Wilson tonight, the Eagle swimmer was nearly 27 seconds behind the Ephs' freshman phenom.

Also defending in record-setting fashion was Johns Hopkins senior John Thomas, who scored a repeat win in the 200 backstroke, narrowly besting his NCAA record time of 1 minute 46.71 of last year with a new mark of 1:46.62.