Taking a Look at Division III Schools

By Keith Bell – August 1, 2013

I graduated from Kenyon College. In addition to getting a great education, I swam.

Kenyon has a proud swimming tradition, having won more NCAA Individual and Team National Swimming Championships than any other school in NCAA history in any sport. The Kenyon men, the Lords, had won 31 consecutive Division III (D3) Men's National Swimming Championships when, in 2011 (with Kenyon's best swimmer, Zach Turk, studying abroad for a year), Denison University beat Kenyon by one point. In 2012, Denison, Kenyon's staunch rival, which lives 30 miles down the road in Granville, Ohio, and is coached by a former D3 National Champion Kenyon swimmer, Gregg Parini, beat Kenyon again. Since then, Kenyon's legendary coach, Jim Steen, retired and Jess Book, coach of the women’s team, the Ladies ( 23-time National Champions), for three years and another former Kenyon swimmer, took over the men's team as well.

My first year out of Kenyon, I went back to D3s with the team to help out. Later, I would make frequent trips to Kenyon to play sports psychologist for the team. My connection stayed strong, but, since that first return trip and up until this year, the only other time I've been to D3 Nationals since I swam with Kenyon was the last time D3s were in Houston. That year, Kenyon crushed everyone. Denison finished second.

At Kenyon, swimming is the sport. When we had home meets at Schaefer Pool, a unique glass covered pool we called “The Greenhouse,” the modest-sized (to say the least) balcony would be filled to more-than-capacity and, even in the midst of a frigid Ohio winter, students, faculty, and administration would line the outside of the pool, peering in through the glass, cheering on the home team.

I'll never forget showing up for warm-up for Conference Champs at Denison only to be greeted by about 600 cheering Kenyon students, faculty, and staff, who were waiting out in the cold to buy their admission to watch us swim. Oh, yes—the Kenyon student body was a total of about 800 strong back then.

A few months ago, I went to watch the 2013 D3s in Shenandoah, Texas. I can't remember the last time I had so much fun at a swim meet in which I wasn't swimming. I loved watching all the swimmers, coaches, parents, and friends get into the D3 experience. There's something special about it.

The D3 swimmers are not the fastest swimmers in the world, though every one of them swims faster than about 99.999+ percent of the population of the world. They're generally not as tall, powerful, or athletically gifted as most of the D1 swimmers. Most D3 swimmers couldn't make the team at most of the top D1 schools.

There are no athletic scholarships at D3 schools. These are genuine student-athletes. At D3s, I spied many of them busily keeping up with their studies in between events, even during the finals. And, though I saw some anticipatory anxiety and a bit of the inevitable disappointment of those who didn't swim up to their expectations, mostly, I observed the joy of competing as they attacked their races with everything they had.

I don't have many regrets, if any, in life. If I do have any regrets however, it may be that it never occurred to me to walk down the hill and walk on to the Kenyon baseball team when swimming season was over. I love baseball and was, perhaps, better at it than I was at swimming. But after I had won a slew of state championships in swimming, my swimming coach convinced my parents that I should drop baseball and concentrate on my swimming.

I'm pretty sure I never would have made The Show, but Kenyon would have afforded me the opportunity to play a game I love at the collegiate level. D3 schools are like that.

Then again, who knows what might have been? When I was a senior at Kenyon, there was a freshman on the team named John Davis. Though John had swum on his high school team, one would never have known it.

When John was a freshman, Bill Koller and I, both seniors, were co-captains of the team. Being a D3 school and a winter sport, we weren't permitted to practice under the direction of our coach until November 1. So Bill and I led practices.

A couple of days per week in our preseason conditioning activities, we played water polo. After the first day of water polo, I had five (yes, count them: five) team members approach me separately to ask if John was going to be okay. They were worried that he was going to drown. That's how good a swimmer he was.

Even as the season progressed, as William F. Buckley might have advised us, we had to “maintain a modicum of imperturbability” when John swam in our lane. We passed him so often, he said it seemed as though he was stuck in a revolving door.

John wouldn't have been permitted to walk on at most D1 schools, especially those vying for a national championship. And, even if he managed to get a look, he wouldn't have been around long enough for a cup of energy drink. But Kenyon is a D3 School. John, clearly unable to walk and chew gum at the same time, showing no speed, exhibiting little-to-no promise, and clogging up the lane; was allowed to play with us every day. And, though few of us seemed to notice, he showed up for all the practices and played hard.

In those days, there was no 18-man limit for conference or national championships. So John got to go to our Conference Championships and, somehow, when no one was looking, John, riding a wave of enormous improvements, snuck into 12th place (then, the last qualifier for the consolation finals) and scored one point for the team.

The next year, John qualified for the National Championships. He spent the rest of his college days as one of the preeminent distance freestylers in the D3 nation. Ah, nowhere else but D3 schools.

As I walked the deck at the 2013 NCAA Division III Swimming and Diving Championships, I watched swimmers of all sizes and shapes (though all in good shape), reveling in the experience of competing at the highest level of non-scholarship collegiate athletics. I got to talk with many of them and to hear about the memories of a lifetime they were building; memories they never would have formed had they chosen to get an education at Division I schools.

Then, of course, for me, there was the Kenyon experience. There are hardly any constants in today's what-seems-like changing-at-near-the-speed-of-light world. For me, I know my wife is, has been, and always will be there for me; I don't know of much else on which I can count. The stars just aren't perfectly aligned very often. There isn't much that comes close to telling us the Universe is in its proper order, besides, of course, Kenyon College winning the D3s—a crown they reclaimed this year. Beyond that, we can only hope. Go Yankees!


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