Master Stroke

Photo: Glenn Matsumura

If you go to a Stanford men’s swim meet this year and observe carefully, you will see all the Cardinal swimmers dressed in sleek Nike-issue sweat suits. All, that is, except for one member of the team who wears red sweatpants that date to the Johnson administration. At a meet some time ago, a Nike representative noticed. He approached coach Skip Kenney and demanded an explanation. Here it is, in long form.

The first thing you need to know about Skip Kenney, the 63-year-old coach of the Stanford men’s swim team, is that he never swam competitively. Since he arrived at Stanford in 1979, Kenney has won seven NCAA titles, coached 100 different All-Americans, served on three Olympic staffs and won an astonishing 25 Pac-10 titles in a row. A generation-spanning community of swimmers and former swimmers would all “lie down in traffic for him,” according to one, Adam Messner, ’01. But he has never swum a 3000 for time, never churned out 100 kicks on 90-second intervals, never spent so much as an hour with his face in the water, staring at the black line. “I can’t even imagine,” he says.

The second thing you need to know about Kenney is that, while he never swam, he did have an indelible experience in his youth that he draws from daily on the pool deck. Between 1965 and 1966, he spent 13 months with the Marines in Vietnam, including four months as a sniper. He says surviving war and being a successful competitive swimmer have more in common than you might think. “Whether you are racing or in combat, for you to be at your best, your mind takes over and your body follows,” Kenney says. “Your expectations rise.”

In athletics as in the military, moreover, team unity, good leadership and the expert deployment of resources can make the difference between success and disaster. Kenney, who is described by one former swimmer as more a general manager than a coach, has great resources at his disposal. There is his longtime assistant and former swimmer, Ted Knapp, ’81, who handles much of the team’s recruiting and outside-the-pool training. There are the team captains who filter much of the team business and expectations to the other swimmers. There are the nutritionists, stretching gurus and stroke technicians Kenney frequently consults for advice. His best resource, however, may be the vast network of alumni he keeps in touch with by e-mail. “I rely on the alums for some of the decisions we make on the team,” Kenney says. “Think of it: most of them were in swimming for 18 years. And the last four of those years they were surrounded by all this other great talent. Why waste all that knowledge and experience?”

Because he doesn’t know any better, Kenney doesn’t consider swimming an individual sport. Everyone who swims at Stanford is there for one reason: to win a team championship. “If you want to win an individual championship, you go to USC or Michigan,” says Brian Retterer, ’94, “because, truthfully, you are going to get much better individual attention there.”

Until the Duke lacrosse scandal last summer forced coaches everywhere to come up with detailed lists to govern team conduct, Kenney’s program had few rules and just one overriding philosophy: make the team better because you are on it. “I think the thing Skip does best is bring together a group of talented people and create an environment where they can get the most out of each other,” says Ray Carey, ’95, MA ’96.

Team chemistry is so important to Kenney that if his current swimmers aren’t high on a visiting recruit, the guy probably won’t get a scholarship offer no matter how talented he is. Traditions that reinforce the team-first ethos abound. Consider the Pants. During the 1979-80 season, Kenney found three pairs of sweatpants from the 1967 NCAA championship team. In 1982 one pair ended up warming the legs of swimmer Mike Reynolds, ’86, MS ’87, who decided at the end of the year to will the Pants to the guy with the best team spirit. And thus they have been passed on, year after year, untouched, so far as Kenney knows, by laundry detergent. Gloves that once belonged to Chas Morton, ’93, are bequeathed to the swimmer who makes the biggest leap in performance from dual-meet season to championship season. “Whether you are wearing the Pants or the Gloves, or you’re the best in the weight room, or best at recruiting, or best at a certain event, the best at cracking a joke, we want everyone to feel like they are contributing,” Knapp says.

ALL-STAR LINEUP: Kenney has coached several swimmers who have gone on to success in international competition.
Dave Bottom, ’85
(former American record holder)
Ray CareY, ’95, MA ’96
(1996 U.S. Olympian)
Kurt Grote, ’95, md ’02
(1996 Olympic gold medalist)
Joe Hudepohl , ’97
(Two-time Olympic gold and bronze medalist)
Jeff Kostoff, ’88
(1984 and 1988 U.S. Olympian, former American record holder)
Peter Marshall, ’04
(World record holder)
John Moffet, ’86
(1980 and 1984 U.S. Olympian, former world record holder)
Pablo Morales, ’87
(three-time Olympic gold medalist and former world record holder)
Jay Mortenson , ’89
(1988 U.S. Olympic gold medalist)
Anthony Mosse, ’88
(1988 Olympic bronze medalist)
Sean Murphy, ’88, ms ’89
(1988 Canadian Olympian)
Eddie Parenti, ’94, ms ’96
(1992 and 1996
Canadian Olympian)
Jason Plummer, ’92
(1988 Australian Olympian)
Brian Retterer, ’94
(former American record holder)
Markus Rogan, ’04
(Two-time Austrian Olympian, a world record holder, and silver medalist in 2004)
Jeff Rouse, ’92
(1992 and 1996 Olympic gold medalist, world record holder)
John Simons, ’83
(1980 U.S. Olympian)
Dave Sims, ’84
(1980 U.S. Olympian)
Derek Weatherford, ’94
record holder)
Tom Wilkens, ’98
(2000 U.S. Olympian)

Some traditions, such as singing the Marines’ Hymn on the Marines’ birthday to get out of practice, come and go—“We’d circle that day on our calendar,” Retterer says. Others, such as the team’s annual run around campus in swimsuits (a date many women in the Stanford community circle on their calendars), remain strong. Every New Year’s Day the team goes to a Veterans Administration hospital to watch football games with the patients, seeking out in particular the World War II vets, who are Kenney’s heroes.

Upperclassmen become big brothers to freshmen, and special expertise is shared by current team members and alums who show up at Kenney’s request to demonstrate, say, breaststroke pulls or backstroke turns. “Inevitably after practice you will see at least one swimmer helping someone else,” says Jay Mortenson, ’89. “‘I do my turn this way; I’ve struggled with that; help me with this.’ You are expected to help and you are encouraged to ask for help. When you help someone like that, you gain an emotional stake in his progress.”

Another effect: Stanford swimmers get the details down. “As a team they do the little things in short-course swimming, like starts and turns and the underwater aspects, really well,” says former USC coach Mark Schubert, who is currently the head coach and general manager of USA Swimming. “They are one of the best short-course teams in the country.”

Because he never swam and can’t draw on years of hard, chlorine-soaked experience, Kenney does much of his coaching by intuition. “Let’s say a painter goes like this and puts a splash of color there on his canvas,” Kenney says. “And you say, ‘Why did you put that there?’ Well, he’s not quite sure; he just knows he needs that there for the finish. I think that’s how I coach. I’m not sure why we do things. I just think, ‘This needs to be here today.’”

Thus Kenney might walk into the locker room at the Avery Aquatics Center on a random Wednesday just as his swimmers are privately grumbling about how tired they are. He might have them sit on the mats for 30 minutes discussing world events or he might read a story from Marine Sniper, the nonfiction account of legendary Vietnam soldier Carlos Hathcock. These interludes serve at least three purposes. First, they give his exhausted swimmers a half-hour break they weren’t expecting. “No one can read his athletes like Skip can,” Messner says. Second, swimmers learn to be prepared for anything. “You always had to be ready for the unexpected,” Retterer notes. “He might read to us or he might say, ‘put your suits on, we’re doing an 800 warm-up and then we’re doing five 100s all out.’ You never knew what was coming. So at international competitions, things don’t throw Stanford guys off. You show up and warm-up got shortened by 20 minutes, so what?” Finally, Kenney’s timeouts give perspective. “He would tell us stories about how he was on the front line in Vietnam, basically waiting to get picked off,” says Rick Gould, ’90, MBA ’95. “We’d think about it and joke about it, and say, hey, if this guy can be in this position and be bait for a sniper, then we can go off and finish this workout and get better. This is easy stuff compared to what he was going through.”

Kenney doesn’t talk about Vietnam with his swimmers as much as he used to, but he still credits the experience with opening his eyes to the possibilities of a disciplined and determined mind and body. “We were there for 13 months,” he says of his combat tour. “We were sleep-deprived. We were drinking water out of the rice paddy. We were eating C-rations from World War II. It couldn’t have been any worse, but nobody got sick. Can you imagine sitting in an ambush and some guy sneezing or coughing? Your own people would shoot you. When your life is on the line, your mind is free. I saw, wow, this really looks like it could apply to athletics because athletes just don’t know what their bodies can do.”

At the time, he didn’t imagine he would someday apply those lessons to swimming, something he had done only to cool off on hot days in his native Fresno. He had played football and basketball at Fresno High, and he had done some competitive diving at Fresno City College. “I always knew I’d grow up to be a coach,” he says. “But I didn’t know if I wanted to coach football or baseball or basketball. I mean, what else was there?”

After he was discharged from the Marines in 1967, Kenney worked toward a degree in PE at Long Beach State while teaching Red Cross swimming on the side. One day the mother of one of his students talked him into coaching the community swim team at Redondo Beach. “I didn’t have a clue what I was doing,” Kenney says. “I thought you could stay in shape with jumping jacks and push-ups and just show up at the meets.”

Desperate for guidance, he picked the brain of Long Beach State swim coach Don Gambril, who was in the midst of a legendary career that would include coaching stints on five Olympic teams. “He was really a pest, coming in to ask questions all the time,” Gambril recalls. “But I appreciated his interest and enthusiasm. He was trying so hard to learn.”

The idea of hiring an assistant with no competitive swimming experience “had never, ever occurred to me,” Gambril says, yet he offered Kenney a job as an age-group coach for $100 a month. Among the things Kenney lacked, besides experience and knowledge, was a deep-seated reverence for the stopwatch. “I can’t remember times,” Kenney says. “We would go to these meets and we’d win most of the races. I’d come back and Gambril would ask how we did. I’d say, ‘We did great, we won the team trophy.’ Then Gambril would ask, ‘Well, what were the times?’ I thought that was like asking how fast you ran with the football from the 40 to the end zone. Who cares, as long as he got to the end zone!”

But, of course, times do matter. Kenney keeps a whiteboard in the locker room and asks his swimmers to write lifetime best sets on it as they accomplish them. “I want them to see how everyone else is doing,” he says. “The breaststrokers are here, the freestylers are over there, they don’t know what everyone else is doing. They can look at the board and say, ‘Wow, Jason, great job tonight!’ But really it’s there so I can see how we’re doing. If there’s a bunch of stuff written at the end of the week, then I know we’re on the right track.”

When Gambril got the Harvard job in 1971, Kenney joined him in Cambridge, though not for long. “I hated the East,” Kenney says. “It was freezing, and nobody wanted to be good.” After one year, he set out on his own, coaching for four years at the Houston Dad’s Club—where he first coached Knapp as a young teenager—and then three more at the Cincinnati Marlins, where he coached five Olympians, including Kim Carlisle, ’83.

After Jim Gaughran, who had coached Stanford’s 1967 NCAA title team, retired in 1979, new Stanford athletic director Andy Geiger made Kenney his first hire. “When he hired me, Andy said, ‘If you can win Pac-10s and home dual meets, you’ll really help me with fund raising,’” says Kenney. “So I said to Andy when he was out here a few months ago, ‘We’re still winning them for you, Andy!’”

The dynasty was birthed when Kenney landed, in his second recruiting class, highly touted backstroker Dave Bottom, “the guy who changed everything,” he says. “He had two older brothers who were both Olympians and who had both gone to USC. He had a high-profile name, and he was darn good in his own right. For him to go to Stanford made everybody go, ‘whoa.’”

In 1982, Bottom’s freshman year, Stanford won the Pac-10s for the first time and finished third at the NCAAs, six spots better than the previous year. In 1985, Bottom’s senior year, the team won the first of three straight NCAA titles among the seven won under Kenney. (Since 1982, the Cardinal has finished no lower than fourth in the national championships.) With the NCAA title the annual goal, the Pac-10 championship is almost secondary. That makes the 25-year winning streak even more remarkable. Like the Pants, the Streak is older than anyone on the current team. It’s almost twice as long as the streak of 13 straight men’s basketball titles won by UCLA between 1967 and 1979. When Stanford surpassed that mark in 1995, former Bruins coach John Wooden came to the pool to make the presentation. Unlike Wooden’s teams of the late ’60s and early ’70s, however, the Cardinal is not always the most talented team in a perennially powerful conference.

“I think if (winning the title) happens once or twice, it could be an accident; if it happens year after year after year, it’s good coaching,” says USC’s Schubert.

The Streak is a product of good coaching and all the collateral benefits that come with it: team unity, team effort, loyalty. In the weeks leading up to the Pac-10 meet, alums send e-mail pep talks to the team. There will be locker-room speeches by upperclassmen and by Kenney and someone will talk about “standing on the shoulders” of the guys who came before. It has been observed that Kenney does a great job channeling George C. Scott in the opening monologue of Patton. (“He’s not that hard-core but he is that motivating,” Messner says.) In the end, keeping the Streak alive may come down to small details. “When you look at a tenth of a second here, four-tenths of a second here, a personal best time here, you start adding it up and the meet changes and you win instead of lose,” Carey says. “When you get to the point where a string of tenths of seconds matter, it’s not about the physical, it’s about the emotional and the mental. It’s about can you dig into yourself a little deeper. And it is easier to do that if you have 25 people and 25 years pushing you.”

Senior captain Ben Wildman-Tobriner agrees. “The alums’ e-mails and the reminders of what has come before—it’s all extremely motivating,” he says. “It’s hard for any of us on the current team to appreciate what it means to have won a conference championship for a quarter of a century. But none of us want to be part of the team that breaks the Streak.”

After all, he adds, “Tradition is what Stanford swimming is all about.”

That’s what Kenney told the Nike rep when asked about those ratty sweatpants with no logo. “That’s one thing we can’t change,” he said. “You can put the swoosh on them if you have to, but we aren’t getting rid of the Pants.”

KELLI ANDERSON, ’84, is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated. She lives in Sonoma, Calif.