INDIANAPOLIS -- After three decades of dominance, the master has yielded to the apprentice.

More than thirty years ago, Denison head coach Gregg Parini swam for Jim Steen at Kenyon. He learned from him. He respected him. He set records for him. He won national championships for him.

Now he’s taking them away.

Denison wins second consecutive title
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Parini was part of Steen’s 1979 national championship team -- the coach’s first. The streak had stretched to three by the time Parini left Kenyon in 1982 armed with a degree, five national records and seven individual national championships.

As Kenyon proceeded to extend its men’s national title streak to 31, the longest in any sport in NCAA history, Parini was busy forging a rival program only 30 miles south. For 23 years, he was unable to overcome his former coach. But last year, Parini ended Steen’s unparalleled run, a mere point deciding the outcome. This year, Parini and the 17 men he brought with him to the Division III Men’s Swimming and Diving Championships in Indianapolis, proved that last year’s victory was no accident.

They conquered the four-day event, topping second-place Kenyon 600-519.

The pupil’s streak was born; the teacher’s now long broken.

“I think the second one is more meaningful for me because I think the second time is harder,” Parini says. “When you go in having won one, I really believe success sows the seeds of complacency. It was very important for us to let go of last year.”

While he allotted time for his swimmers to indulge in the spoils of breaking the unbreakable streak, the celebration was short-lived. On the final day of spring semester in 2011, he gathered his returning swimmers and told them to wash their hands of the accomplishment. The pride should be gone. The contentment should be gone—it was time to go back to work.

His athletes listened, and eleven members of last year’s championship team earned their way to Indianapolis for a chance to defend their crown.

“He really embraced the moment and you could tell how happy he was with it, but the next day he’s already talking about Indianapolis, he’s already focused on the next year,” senior Denison captain Dan Thurston said. “This year we wanted to prove ourselves that it was not a one-time thing, that we are a serious program and we’re always going to be a contender.”

Kenyon and Denison are both members of the North Coast Athletic Conference, and early in Parini’s tenure Kenyon regularly bested them. But the Big Red have traded blows with Kenyon at the conference level over the past decade, and captured their fourth consecutive conference title this year.

“Denison, for a long time, had a bridesmaid mentality,” Parini said. “It took a couple of wins at the conference level before we got comfortable looking at ourselves as capable of competing at the highest level.”

On the pool deck this week, the nation’s top two men’s swim teams were separated by mere feet. The 19 men and women representing Johns Hopkins were the only buffer between the Denison and Kenyon benches. During the meet, Steen and Parini often strode by one another without acknowledgement, each focused on his own chase for the title.

While the two don’t speak much in the heat of competition or away from swimming, they’re more than cordial before meets. Parini often goes as far as to give his former coach a peck on the cheek, which the mentor often returns with a playful slap.

"The way they interact on deck is a neat thing to see,” fourth-year Denison assistant coach Matt Ense said. “I wish I’d have that kind of relationship with my college coach if I was ever on the deck with him.”

When Parini swam for Steen, he says the two weren’t close friends, but that Steen’s mentorship and professional respect were invaluable. From Steen, Parini says he learned how to make adjustments mid-meet, how to stay aware of his team’s ever-changing temperament and how to create a program that gels with the ethos of a school’s community. But he maintains that snapping his former coach’s streak wasn’t bittersweet given that he’s spent far much more time trying to make Denison a champion than he did amassing titles at Kenyon.

“We’re fierce competitors, but I think there’s a lot of respect there,” Parini said. “And I’d like to think there’s mutual respect.”

Even in defeat, there is.

“I certainly feel as good as anyone could feel about losing  -- nobody likes to lose -- by losing to somebody who I respect,” Steen said on the final day of the competition, his eyes dimmer, wearier, than on the first. “And as far as Gregg is concerned, he’s somebody I respect. I’m very proud of him.”

As Steen and Kenyon left the podium on Saturday night, second-place award in tow, they crossed paths with Parini. The coaches held a long embrace, both offering nods of admiration and sincere pats on the back. When they broke, the pupil strode into the spotlight, pumping his fist to the delight of his team on the podium and the hundreds of fans in red.

The teacher ambled back to the benches under the grandstand and watched from the shadows.