March 16, 2010

By Judd Spicer
Special to

MINNEAPOLIS -- Earlier this month, Kenyon College in bucolic Gambier, Ohio was named by Forbes Magazine among the “The World’s Most Beautiful College Campuses.” Chances are strong that the voting wasn’t conducted by opponents of Kenyon’s swimming and diving teams.

Kenyon arrives at Minnesota’s University Aquatic Center for this week’s Division III Swimming and Diving Championships, hosted by Beloit and Wooster colleges, with its men’s program carrying a 30-year run of consecutive national titles. No, that’s not a misprint: Kenyon has won every D-III title since 1980 with coach Jim Steen at the helm for 28 of those championships; Steen took two one-year sabbaticals.

The Kenyon women won 17 consecutive titles between 1984-2000, and 23 of the last 26 championships, including the last three. The storied runs by both programs are the longest consecutive across all NCAA divisions and sports. Given that hardware, it’s no surprise that Steen’s 49 NCAA titles are the most won by any coach.

This is the second consecutive year the event has been held in Minneapolis and the Lords of Kenyon look to continue their run in these northern waters. On the men’s side, Kenyon returns a wealth of swimmers who contributed to its eight wins in individual or relay events last year.

Among them, sophomore Zachary Turk is back to defend his solo victory in the 50-yard freestyle and as a member of Kenyon’s defending champion relays in the 200 freestyle, 400 freestyle, 200 medley relay and 400 medley relay. Kenyon returns three of four swimmers on each of the defending-champion relay teams. Also returning to defend for the Lords is senior Kegan Borland, who goes for a three-peat in the 1,650 freestyle.

Steen has full confidence that the Kenyon men are poised to keep the streak alive. But he admits the Kenyon women will need to compete with extra kick to keep their streak alive.

“The men’s team is loaded with talent from top-to-bottom,” Steen said. “Normally, our teams come to the championships in pretty much the same place. But the women’s team is going to be fashioning a new narrative for themselves.”

Steen has a celebrated skill for treating each student-athlete, along with each annual Kenyon team, as a unique and individual unit. Candor is also one of his many tenets:

“This year is going to be a pretty big difference for our women’s team,” Steen said. “We lost a good senior class and a number of NCAA champions from last year. There have also been some swimmers that had to deal with personal issues, who haven’t been able to complete the season. So this team is somewhat young and inexperienced. I don’t think they’re going to be a contender at the top and that’s unusual for us not to be.”

Should Steen’s prediction of the “unusual” be apt, it will likely be some familiar faces that end Kenyon’s run. In the most recent CSCAA poll, Kenyon ranked No. 2 in the women’s D-III poll, while Emory University (Atlanta, Ga.) ranked No. 1.

Denison University (Granville, Ohio) enters ranked No. 3. During Kenyon’s domination since 1984, only the Denison Big Red or Emory Eagles have unseated the Lords. Perhaps without irony: head coaches of these teams -- Denison’s Gregg Parini and Emory’s Jon Howell -- both swam for Steen at Kenyon during their collegiate swimming careers. In 2001, Parini and Denison ended the 17-year run for the Kenyon women. In 2004 and 2005, Howell (also a former Kenyon coach) led Emory to consecutive titles.

The Kenyon women return just two champions from last season: sophomore Alisa Vereshchagin in the 200 breaststroke and senior Tina Ertel in the 200 individual medley.

For the Big Red, Denison returns at least two members of each of their three relay wins from last year, with senior Olivia Zaleski having competed in all three titles (200 medley, 400 medley, and 400 freestyle) to compliment her individual win in the 100 backstroke.

Top-ranked Emory took five individual and relay titles at the 2009 championships, and return three of the four members from their wins in both the 200 freestyle relay and the 800 freestyle relay. Junior Liz Horvat was a member of that 800 crew and, more notably, returns with a shot at repeating her impressive three individual titles from last winter, which came in the 500 freestyle, the 400 medley, and the 1,650 freestyle.