Set on a wooded hillside on the campus of Ohio's picturesque Kenyon College, Shaffer Pool is a strange little building with a peaked glass roof that is better suited for nurturing buttercups than butterflyers. And, in fact, it is nicknamed the Greenhouse. The unique swimming pool was built in 1935 at a cost of $35,000, and its roof now leaks when it rains or snows. Worse, some of its 1,300 panes of glass usually shatter in high winds. The pool sizzles on warm days and is costly to heat in winter.
The Greenhouse has other drawbacks. It originally was equipped with two diving boards, but because the water is no more than nine feet deep at any point, too shallow for safety, the three-meter board was removed years ago, leaving just a one-meter board. The 25-yard pool is only 30 feet wide, with the result that swimmers, squeezed at meets into six narrow and choppy lanes, all but lock arms as they race. Kenyon swimmers convert the pool to four wider lanes for workouts, but the water is still crowded and turbulent; a few weeks ago freestyler Steve Penn collided with a teammate while swimming laps and broke a thumb. Because of the glass roof, the sound of all those churned-up waves reverberates like the roar of the ocean. When the pool is filled to capacity—meaning 150 spectators—even a conversational buzz can be deafening as well as disconcerting.
For all that, Kenyon Coach Jim Steen manages to find kind words to say about the pool. Of course, he has to raise his voice to make himself heard over the din. "The pool is grossly inadequate," he shouted the other afternoon as his swimmers sloshed through a workout. "I said, inadequate. But it's got character. The guys can see the sky and trees, which is—I said sky and trees—which is especially pleasant for the backstrokers. And after weathering the rough water here, when we get into a good pool, we fly."
He said, fly. Next week Steen's team will temporarily quit noisy, crowded, inadequate Shaffer Pool, pile into minibuses and head north across central Ohio's rolling farmland on an 80-mile trip to Oberlin College near Cleveland. The occasion is the three-day Ohio Athletic Conference championships, in which Kenyon's Lords will take on host Oberlin, Denison, Wooster, and any other of the 14 conference members that show up. That most of these schools generally do so is a tribute to the resiliency of the human spirit. Barring a cataclysmic upheaval, Kenyon will easily win its 26th straight OAC championship, extending what is already one of the longest collegiate-conference win streaks in history. And the school will again provide what has become an annual reminder that you don't always need multimillion-dollar facilities to excel in college sports.
February 19, 1979
Kenyon's swimmers also will prove that a small, select, private liberal-arts college needn't be left completely out in the athletic cold. Founded in 1824 to train Episcopal clergymen, Kenyon occupies a hilly campus sheltered by ancient oaks and maples and adorned by Gothic buildings and broad lawns. For most of its history, Kenyon was an all-male, church-affiliated school of some 400 students. It aspired to academic excellence, and to judge by the quality of its graduates, that aspiration was fulfilled. Alumni include a President, Rutherford B. Hayes, a couple of Supreme Court Justices, poet Robert Lowell and novelist E. L. Doctorow. Not to mention Bill Veeck, who spent a year on campus in the early '30s.
In recent years, Kenyon has gone coed, loosened its ties with the church and expanded enrollment to 1,450. Today, Kenyon's men and women walk beneath the spires and arched doorways in T shirts reading KENYON IS NOT NEAR UGANDA. Actually the campus, located in the sleepy hamlet of Gambier, is not near much of anything. The closest movie house, McDonald's and Burger King are 35 miles away. But Kenyon is very much in the intellectual mainstream, especially with the return of The Kenyon Review, the famed literary quarterly with which the school was long identified. The highbrow publication died in 1970 for financial reasons but was recently revived amid a flurry of press conferences and high expectations. Kenyon is also excited over its new 400-seat theater. It opened last fall with a play directed by another old grad, Paul Newman ('49), who scooted around campus in a blue Datsun for several weeks.
As a rule Kenyon doesn't fare all that well in sports. The OAC forbids athletic scholarships and off-campus recruiting and its members all compete in the NCAA's Division III. OAC schools are all private and more or less selective but by reputation, Oberlin and Kenyon have the most exacting academic and admission standards. Given this, it is not surprising that Kenyon defers to conference rivals in most sports. Thus, Baldwin-Wallace is the OAC power in football, Wittenberg in basketball, Marietta in baseball and Mount Union in track.
But swimming, well, that one belongs to Kenyon. The Lords win the OAC swimming championship and that's simply how it's been for 25 years. It doesn't matter that Kenyon hasn't hosted the OACs since 120-odd competitors somehow shoehorned themselves into the Greenhouse for the 1959 meet. Or that it has had five coaches during the quarter century of the streak. Or that in certain earlier years, another school, Denison, may actually have been stronger. In 1965, Denison beat Kenyon in a dual meet and was favored to snap the Lords' conference streak at 11. But in the championships Kenyon came up with unexpectedly strong performances and won 238[5/6] to 227½. In 1974, with the streak at 20, Denison again was favored and was leading after 16 of the 18 events. The Big Red collapsed in the last two events and Kenyon won 453-435.
Wooster has since supplanted Denison as Kenyon's chief pursuer, but the Lords don't experience many close calls anymore. In 1976, Jim Steen's first year as coach, Kenyon extended its streak to 23 by winning 11 of 18 events to defeat Wooster 622-327. The 295-point margin remains an OAC record. In 1977, the Lords again won 11 events and beat Wooster by 239½ points as Steen kept two of his best swimmers out of the OAC meet to save them for the Division III national championships. Last year, Kenyon took seven events and beat Wooster by 207 points as Steen saved three men for the nationals.
Under the circumstances, the Lords can probably be excused for taking No. 26 for granted. They have six of last year's nine Division III All-Americas back, as well as a strong crop of freshmen. Ducking into his closet-size office and shutting the door so that he could talk without hollering, Steen said, "If anything, we're getting stronger. This is the best team Kenyon has had." Just then the pool's scoreboard clock stopped at zero, the cue for Kenyon's swimmers to engage in a favorite pre-OAC meet ritual. As the clock resumed ticking off the seconds, they could be heard chanting, "One...two...three...." On they went to 26, this year's magic number.
Such behavior may seem slightly presumptuous, but the fact is that Steen's men, like most swimmers, are a conservative breed, which is why they gravitate toward schools with proved records. After all, when you train three or four hours a day, as swimmers do, you're not about to attend just any old school, right? The result is that swimming, at least on the conference level, abounds in dynasties. When Kenyon won its 17th straight OAC title in 1970, it surpassed Yale's straight league championships from 1946 to 1961. Since then, Southern Methodist has also eclipsed Yale's mark and now has won 22 straight Southwest Conference titles. Indiana has amassed 18 consecutive Big Ten championships, North Carolina State has reigned for eight years in the Atlantic Coast Conference and Southern Cal and Tennessee have won the Pac-10 and Southeastern Conference, respectively, seven years running. So it goes in swimming, success begetting success ad infinitum.
In building the longest streak of all, Kenyon has enjoyed an embarrassment of small-college riches. Its present team consists of 23 swimmers from 10 states, the best being Captain Tim Bridgham, a senior from Rockville, Md. who has won the national Division III title in the 100-yard backstroke the last two years. Bridgham didn't compete in the OAC meet either year; he's one of the stars Steen kept out. Ohioans Tim Glasser and Steve Penn also sat out last year's conference meet and won national titles—Glasser in the 100 butterfly and Penn as a member of an 800-yard freestyle relay team that also included Bridgham and Glasser. So who does swim in the conference meet? Steve Counsell, a sophomore from Ann Arbor, Mich., for one. All Counsell did at last year's OAC championships was win three individual events and compete on a relay team that won a fourth.
Kenyon's obvious overkill proves that it is possible for a lot of relatively big fish to crowd into the same small pond. Some of Kenyon's current swimmers could have competed at major schools as walk-ons, but few, if any, would have commanded athletic scholarships. In taking the Division III route, they figured, in the best tradition of their sport, they might as well go with a winner. Swimming, for the most part, is an upper-middle-class activity, and neither Kenyon's stiff academic requirements nor $4,040 tuition proved any great deterrent. Besides, financial aid is available on a need basis and 10 swimmers currently receive such assistance. Most of Steen's swimmers are at least B-average students, and Penn, a junior who majors in chemistry, has better than a straight A average, having received a couple of A-pluses.
"Academics come first at Kenyon," says Steen. "Since our guys don't get athletic scholarships, you can't force them to swim. If they have an exam, they simply miss practice."
"In Division I there's a lot more pressure," says freshman Andy Sappey, a distance freestyler from Warren, Ohio. "Here we do it because we love it."
What keeps Kenyon swimmers loving it is the sort of success best exemplified by Bridgham. In high school, Bridgham's best time in his 100 backstroke specialty was 57.5, not fast enough to attract big-time recruiters. Improving steadily at Kenyon, he won the Division III nationals last year with a 53.49. John Naber's Division I record is 49.36, but Bridgham refused to let that melancholy fact bother him as he nursed a Coke on a snowy evening in the warmth of the Pirates' Cove, one of Gambier's two restaurants.
"I came to Kenyon because the swimming program seemed right for me," Bridgham said. "The streak interested me, and the goals I could shoot for here were realistic ones. I could have gone to some place like Ohio State and been, say, fourth best in my event. Maybe I would have gone faster. But maybe I would have gotten discouraged and quit. I'm damn glad I came here."
The streak that helped attract Bridgham began almost offhandedly. It started under Bob Bartels, an ex-Ohio State swimmer who was all of 24 when he took over as Kenyon's coach for the 1952-53 season. Kenyon had dominated OAC swimming a decade earlier but lately had been an also-ran. It continued to be one just a bit longer, placing third in the OAC in Bartels' first season, behind Wooster and Oberlin. That was in the spring of 1953. But Kenyon College was beaten in the Ohio Athletic Conference championships for the last time.
A strong crop of freshmen arrived the next season and Kenyon easily won the conference title in 1954, after which Bartels departed, becoming coach first at Ohio University and then at Ohio State, where he is now a professor of physical education. Looking back on that first of 25 straight triumphs, Bartels admits that it didn't seem epochal at the time. "Whenever you get a turn-around like that," he says, "a fortunate combination of circumstances is responsible. Frankly, we were lucky to get those good freshmen. It was just one of those things."
Bartels' successor, Tom Edwards, built on that foundation to win the next 10 OAC titles. He also produced Kenyon's best modern-day swimmer. Phil Mayher, who in 1962 placed sixth in the 100 backstroke at the NCAA major-college championships. Edwards, a skilled technician, might have gone on to big-time coaching, except that in 1957 he also became Kenyon's dean of students. In 1964, he stepped down as coach, but he is still the dean of students. He also has helped hire subsequent coaches. The first of these, Dick Russell, extended Kenyon's streak to 15 before leaving after the 1968 season for Bucknell, where he has now won eight straight East Coast and Middle Atlantic conference titles. Russell was succeeded by Dick Sloan, who ran Kenyon's streak to 22 before becoming coach at Ohio State in 1976. Last season, Sloan guided the Buckeyes to the runner-up spot in the Big Ten behind Indiana.
Kenyon has enjoyed obvious success in its choice of swim coaches. But Edwards, who has been on campus for 24 of the 25 years that the streak has lasted, feels that in the essential business of recruiting, neither he nor any of the other earlier coaches can match Jim Steen. OAC coaches are free to recruit by phone, and Steen has the gift of gab. Admiringly, Edwards says, "Jim gets prospects on the phone and talks them blind. He numbs them. He stuns them."
The 30-year-old Steen, a onetime Kent State swimmer, has a somewhat frantic manner. "I get pretty absentminded," he allows. That seems to be putting it mildly. At meets, Steen is forever misplacing his stopwatch and lineup card, and managers have to follow him around to pick up after him. The other day, the coach was talking to a swimmer on the phone when he excused himself to answer the doorbell. He never returned to the phone, and the swimmer had to resume the conversation with Steen the next day.
In giddy moments, Steen talks about leading Kenyon to its first national championship. In each of the last two years, the Lords have placed third in Division III behind champion Johns Hopkins. "The streak is good, but we shouldn't become so enamored of it that we lose sight of other goals," Steen says. "I'm afraid we've had a little too much of a conference mentality here."
Last month, two-time national champion Johns Hopkins came to Kenyon for a dual meet with the Lords. Kenyon students filled Shaffer Pool two hours before the opening event, and those who couldn't get in either stood outside and craned to watch through the glass or listened to live meet coverage over WKCO, the campus radio station. The tidings from the Greenhouse were not good as Johns Hopkins won 10 of 13 events, wilting the home team 68-43.
Over the years, Kenyon has lost its share of dual meets only to experience spectacular drops in times at the conference championship. This season, the Lords are 7-3, their other losses coming at the hands of Ohio State and Miami of Ohio, both Division I schools. And Steen says, "If we get our usual drop, things could be different against Hopkins at the nationals."
If not, well, there is the conference meet. By tradition, Kenyon swimmers shave their heads for the OAC championships and wear T shirts imprinted with clever things like 21 COMING OF AGE or 22 CALIBER, depending on which year of the streak it happens to be. The slogan a year ago was 25 OHIO SILVER. Like this year's, the last three meets were held at Oberlin, whose 800-seat pool has contained as many as 400 Kenyon boosters at a time. The throng usually includes 40 or more former Kenyon swimmers who annually journey from far and near to see the Lords extend the streak.
Kenyon's president, Philip H. Jordan Jr., tries to downplay the streak, saying, "Winning is a fine American tradition, and we're proud of our swimming team. But sports is sports at Kenyon, and nobody thinks the esteem of the school rests on athletic achievement. When the streak is broken,"—Jordan says when, not if—"the coach will not be fired." Be that as it may, Kenyon's trustees recently gave the go-ahead to a fund-raising drive for overhaul of the school's athletic facilities, including construction of a new pool. Rivals can only shudder at the prospect of Kenyon dazzling recruits with an up-to-date natatorium.
When the new pool is built, the Greenhouse may be converted into a dance studio. At least until then, Kenyon swimmers are free to follow another streak-related custom, one arising out of their heartfelt belief that Shaffer Pool is, on top of everything else, haunted. Stories persist of eerie voices being heard there at night, of showers and lights flickering off and on and of doors mysteriously swinging open.
And so it is that Kenyon swimmers, returning to their isolated, hilltop campus at the end of each year's conference meet, traditionally pay a midnight visit en masse to their darkened pool. Boldly they climb into the water and shout for several minutes at the "ghost." Nobody knows what a spectral being might make of all those screaming figures with shaved heads splashing about. To mortals, though, it can mean only one thing: Kenyon College has won yet another Ohio Athletic Conference championship.