SI Vault
Jerry Kirshenbaum
February 19, 1979
Kenyon swims in a glass house, but for 25 years no one has had a ghost of a chance of breaking its streak
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February 19, 1979

It's A Real Campus Haunt

Kenyon swims in a glass house, but for 25 years no one has had a ghost of a chance of breaking its streak

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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.

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 227�. 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 239� 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.

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