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M. Swimming: The legacy of Skip Kenney

Seven NCAA titles. 72 NCAA individual champions. A 243-40 overall regular season record. 31 consecutive Pac-10/Pac-12 championships in one of the most competitive and talent-filled conferences in the nation.

The list goes on.

Men's swimming head coach Skip Kenney (above) announced his retirement after 33 seasons at the helm and unparalleled success for the Cardinal. (Richard C. Ersted/Stanfordphoto.com)

Most collegiate swim programs have never come close to reaching these record-breaking heights. These kinds of achievements could take an elite program more than a century to earn. But the Stanford men’s swimming and diving program has amassed these prestigious accomplishments in just the past 33 years.

And all of it has come under the helm of head coach Skip Kenney.

Last week, Kenney officially announced his retirement after coaching the Cardinal for 33 years.

“Thirty-three years, age 70 and an Olympic year. Three pretty good reasons for retiring,” Kenney said. “The last couple years were just a little more difficult, so it was a good warning sign. Now my goal is to drive Route 66. It’s something that people in my age group either have done or look forward to doing. So that’s my first goal.”

Kenney ended his career as a three-time Olympic Coach, six-time NCAA Coach of the Year and 20-time Pac-10 Coach of the Year. The coaching legend was also inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 2004 and the American Swim Coaches Hall of Fame shortly the following year.

But for Kenney, his prestigious career isn’t mainly about the numbers or the accolades; it’s about the swimmers he’s coached and the relationships that he’s built with them.

“It’s been a heck of a run,” Kenney said. “My proudest accomplishment is helping kids build team chemistry and teaching them how to contribute. For a team to be successful it takes a lot of good athletes and a lot of good leadership from those athletes. I think it’s hard for a 20-year-old to be leader on a team because you’re among your peers. It takes someone a lot of confidence to handle that. And Stanford is just an unbelievable place. The guys here made it easy for me to come to morning practice and to be enthusiastic about it.”

The coach’s close relationships with many of his swimmers have gone far beyond the pool and even far beyond Stanford.

“I have a real respect for [the swimmers I’ve coached],” Kenney said. “I respect that they’re Stanford grads and successful in the business world. They’ve carried their experiences as athletes into the real world.”

Given Kenney’s reputation as one of the greatest swim coaches in the world, his background in the sport is a bit surprising.

“I never swam competitively and I don’t know if I could’ve,” Kenney said. “When I first started coaching, I went to more clinics and talks than anyone else. I think a lot of swim coaches don’t hear anything at these things because they’ve already heard all of it. But I was writing down things as fast as I could and I learned a lot from them.”

What Kenney lacked in personal swimming experience he made up for with his other unique experiences that not many coaches have. Kenney served in the Marines and was in combat in Vietnam for over a year, spending four months of his time as a sniper.

“Leadership,” Kenney said. “That’s what I learned from my experience [as a Marine]. In combat, you see things that make you realize that the human body is amazing. It can do amazing things if you let it. That’s what I’ve tried to apply to some of the guys at Stanford. You can start out as a walk-on, but end up an Olympian.”

Kenney wasn’t exactly handed a powerhouse when he took over in 1979. During his first stint as head coach, Stanford went 3-6 in the regular season and could only muster a sixth-place finish at Pac-10’s.

“First year at Pac-10’s, we didn’t win a single event,” Kenney said. “So my goal for the second year was to just win one event at Pac-10’s. And we won exactly one event. So I said, ‘Well, here we go.’”

That proved to be the only launching point that the Cardinal needed. In the following season, Kenney led the team to a Pac-10 title along with a third-place finish at NCAA. Under his steady guidance, Stanford would see a national title three-peat twice, from 1984-1987 and 1991-1994. Kenney won his final NCAA title in the 1997-1998 season, making him responsible for seven of Stanford’s eight national titles.

Kenney will continue coaching until the 2012 Olympic trials in July, which means that he will still hold his annual summer swim camp for age-group swimmers. Of the 32 swimmers on the Stanford team, 31 will be competing at the Trials, battling for an all-coveted spot on the U.S. Olympic team. Despite announcing his retirement just a couple months before the trials, Kenney notes that his swimmers are still very focused on preparing for the big meet.

It might be best to understand Kenney’s extraordinary impact on his swimmers by hearing a swimmer’s perspective. Kenney shared with The Daily an email he received from Adam Messner, who swam for Stanford from 1997-2001 and captained the team his senior year. Messner finished his impressive collegiate career as a two-time national champion in the 200 butterfly.

“Your motivational speech before our 1998 NCAA win is something I will always remember,” wrote Messner. “You spoke about how all the work was done, how we needed to take the fight to Auburn in their backyard. At the meet and many others, I wanted to swim through a brick wall for the team and for you, because you gave me the confidence that it had to be done and more importantly, that I could.

“At times, when I made selfish or stupid decisions, you would set me straight on how my decisions might ‘feel good’ at the time, but that the aftermath could affect the team,” Messner continued. “That type of team-first mentality is something that makes even more sense now that I am a Dad and a business owner. It’s still hard to live by, but I can more clearly see that being selfish works for a little while, but you’ll never feel truly fulfilled only pleasing your self. Skip, you helped build that self-awareness in me at Stanford and this still helping me in my life today.”

Maybe this is what makes Kenney a legendary coach, distinguishing him from the many other great coaches across the country. You can count championships. But there is no number that can adequately quantify the special relationships that Kenney has built with his athletes. He has influenced the daily lives of hundreds of swimmers long after they’ve left the pool. Like with Messner, Kenney has taught them life lessons that are still significant decades later.

In a few months, there will be a new head coach standing on deck at the Avery Aquatic Center, writing workouts and timing swimmers as they log God-knows-how-many yards at 7 a.m. practices. For the first time in 33 years, that person won’t be Coach Kenney anymore. While his impact on the program and the swimmers he’s coached is here to stay, you might just find Kenney himself enjoying his retirement, cruising down Route 66.

About George Chen

George Chen is a senior staff writer at The Stanford Daily who writes football, football and more football. Previously he worked at The Daily as the President and Editor in Chief, Executive Editor, Managing Editor of Sports, the football beat reporter and a sports desk editor. George also co-authored The Daily's recent book documenting the rise of Stanford football, "Rags to Roses." He is a senior from Painted Post, NY majoring in Biology. To contact him, please email at gchen15@stanford.edu.
  • JN

    Very well-written article about a great coach who puts swimmers first and titles second. His legacy is incomparable. Skip will be sorely missed

  • guest

    Great and  thoroughly researched article about outstanding achievements of couch, Kenny