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Chen: Appreciating the Cardinal Dynasty

They say that all roads lead to Omaha in college baseball.

Well, Omaha certainly was a busy destination during the past week—and not just for college baseball. Last Monday night, while South Carolina and Arizona were duking it out at TD Ameritrade Park in Game 2 of the College World Series final, Olympic stars Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte were battling stroke for stroke right across the street at the Qwest Center in the 400-meter individual medley race of the U.S. Swimming Olympic Trials.

Baseball and swimming are two sports that couldn’t possibly be more different from each other. Give baseball players a typical swim workout and most of them would probably drown. Put swimmers at the plate and most of them would probably swing the bat the wrong way. If you’re not convinced, just imagine C.C. Sabathia wearing a Speedo or Michael Phelps trying to pitch a slider.

But on that Monday night in Omaha, it wasn’t the difference between the two sports that mattered. It was the outcomes that counted. The results of both the South Carolina-Arizona finale and the Phelps-Lochte showdown shared the same important lesson for all athletes, teams, coaches and fans: In sports, staying dominant at the highest level might be the single hardest task to accomplish.

South Carolina arrived in Omaha seeking an improbable third consecutive national title. The Gamecocks were only the sixth team in college baseball history to have won back-to-back national championships. Their recent historic postseason campaigns saw them setting records for the most consecutive postseason wins with 22 and the most consecutive College World Series wins with 12. Taking home a third national title would have cemented the team’s status as one of the most dominant dynasties in college baseball history.

But Arizona, carried by both its lights-out pitching and explosive hitting, dashed South Carolina’s hopes with a two-game sweep to clinch its first CWS title in almost 30 years.

In a similar story, Michael Phelps headed into the 2012 Olympic trials as arguably the greatest Olympian of all time. His iconic, jaw-dropping eight Olympic gold medals in Beijing four years ago went down as one of the greatest performances in sports history. Of course, there were talks before the race about how Phelps hadn’t been training seriously until a year and a half ago. But regardless of the circumstances, you probably wouldn’t want to bet against Phelps in anything that has to do with water.

Ryan Lochte clearly had other things in mind. It seemed only fitting that Lochte beat Phelps in the 400 individual medley by the same exact margin that Phelps beat Lochte four years ago in the same event and in the same pool. Granted, Phelps bounced back by beating Lochte later in the trials, but the aura of invincibility surrounding Phelps was shredded.

It’s not that South Carolina and Phelps should be criticized for failing to maintain their dominance. It’s the exact opposite. Both the Gamecocks and Phelps should be appreciated for staying dominant as long as they have been. Regardless of what happened last week, neither South Carolina’s storied postseason success nor Phelps’s historic performances will be forgotten.

We all love the upset stories in sports. The U.S. hockey team’s magical victory over the Soviet Union in the 1980 Miracle on Ice. George Mason’s incredible March Madness run in 2006. Fresno State’s improbable CWS title in 2008. Chelsea’s tremendous upset over heavily favored Barcelona and Bayern Munich to claim the Champions League title just a couple months ago. Those will always be unforgettable moments.

But as sports fans, we should also appreciate the teams that have stayed dominant for absurd lengths of time. In many ways, those dynasties defied the odds just as much as the Cinderella teams did. The Boston Celtics claiming 11 NBA titles in 13 seasons. The UCLA basketball team amassing 10 NCAA championships over the span of 12 years. The New York Yankees winning 11 World Series in 16 years. The North Carolina women’s soccer team collecting 16 national titles over 19 seasons. Those were no easy feats. One injury, one unlucky bounce or one-tenth of a second could have all shattered those teams’ legendary dominance.

So why does all of this matter, especially when most of these dynasties are long gone? It matters because a special kind of dynasty in sports is happening right now in front of our eyes, right here at Stanford. Last week, the day after South Carolina was swept by Arizona, the day after Phelps was beaten by Lochte, Stanford was awarded the Directors’ Cup, given annually to the top overall collegiate athletics program, for the 18th consecutive year.

Sure, the Directors’ Cup might not be as prestigious as the Lombardi Trophy or the Stanley Cup. But in a way, it means just as much, if not more. The fact that the Cardinal has won this award every time except for the cup’s inaugural year in 1993 speaks volumes about the overall dominance of the Stanford athletics program.

The Cardinal has maintained an incredibly high level of performance for a long period of time. To do that, all the pieces have to come together: motivated student-athletes, world-class coaches, talented recruits and countless other factors. And that’s just for one sport.

Even in a year where our baseball team might have performed below our own high expectations, our top two women’s tennis players also happened to be the top two collegiate players in the nation. And that just might be the best thing about Stanford athletics. There’s always a great level of overall consistency. There’s always something to be excited about.

Stanford’s current reign over intercollegiate sports might not grab national headlines every week, but the 18 Directors’ Cups that we have shows that, if nothing else, the longevity of Stanford dominance is undeniable.

Here’s to the Cardinal dynasty.

 George Chen is beginning a columnist dynasty of his own with this piece. Cheer him on to (at least) 18 in a row at gchen15@stanford.edu.

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.