Character and Community
Whenever she faces a rough patch in life, Dr. Katherine ("Katie") Varda Schwab '99 summons her "Kenyon Ladies Superpowers," a gift bestowed on her by swim coach Jim Steen. She has channeled her "inner coach" to help her get through medical school, OB/GYN residency, triathlons, pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood. "Whether it's a mental or physical feat, I put on my Kenyon swimsuit and virtual goggles," she wrote recently in a letter to Steen. "Sometimes I even stretch my shoulders."
Given the lasting impression Steen left on her, Schwab was eager to fly from Seattle to join about seventy other alumnae swimmers from all over the country for a reunion weekend October 16-17 honoring Steen's retirement from coaching the Ladies after thirty-four years and twenty-seven NCAA Division III national championships. (Steen remains as the men's team coach.) Until Jessen Book '01 took over this year, Steen "was the only coach this team had known and the women agreed that we had to do something to celebrate what he started," said Kris Kennard Caldwell '84 P'09,'12, director of donor relations and a member of Steen's first women's national championship team.
The reunion began with dozens of women surprising Steen on the pool deck during Friday's practice at the Kenyon Athletic Center. As each of the women paraded toward him, Steen responded with "one stunned expression after another," Caldwell said. The remainder of the weekend included meals, mementos, tributes, rallies, retrospectives, tours, socializing, and even swimming in alumnae heats at Saturday's intra-squad scrimmage. As starter and referee, Steen promised not to disqualify anyone who was making "forward progress."
"It was so great to see so many of the Ladies from so many different generations together at once," Steen said. "They made thirty-four years seem like yesterday. They were like family for my wife and me and later my daughter, and it was nice to know that they feel so strongly about the program to return for this important transitional moment."
The weekend evoked plenty of laughs—"the kind of deep belly laughs you just don't have every day," Caldwell said—and a few tears. The surprise appearance by the women Friday momentarily silenced Steen, who is rarely at as loss for words. "For a minute or two, he got a little teary-eyed and I have never seen that in him before," Schwab said.
During a banquet Saturday in Peirce Hall, women representing different eras expressed in their own words a unanimous sense of gratitude for their personal and professional growth under Steen. Not only could they swim faster, they left Kenyon ready to tackle the world. "I never did anything hard until I joined the swim team," said Jenny Luker '78 P'09, a mother and coach in Marblehead, Massachusetts, who advanced from a non-swimmer in high school to a national championship qualifier at Kenyon.
Steen's knack for helping the women realize their potential in and out of the pool punctuated many of the stories. Several recalled his insistence that members of the vanquished 1981 team remain to witness the other teams receive their awards. "He wanted us to see what success looked like," said the Kenyon women's first All-American swimmer, Kathleen Singer Litchfield '81, a mother and educator near Boulder, Colorado, who was a senior on that team.
Gwynn Evans Harrison '94 left a successful career as a coach at James Madison University to raise her two children in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where she is a PTA member and a Sunday school teacher. "I am trying to be the best mom I can be," she said, "drawing on my background, strengths, and work ethic as a former Kenyon swimmer under Coach Steen."
Mary Schwendener-Holt '85, a licensed psychologist in Richmond, Indiana, summarized the Steen legacy in two words: character and community. "I want to thank you for helping me to believe in myself and for building a community of strong, positive women," she wrote in a letter to Steen. "I draw on [your] lessons a lot—whether I'm starting a business, raising two teenagers, or working with a tough client."
Whenever the demands of her schedule as a health care professional, wife, and mother start to overwhelm her, Schwendener-Holt draws on her inner coach. "I put on my old Kenyon sweatshirt," she said, "sit in my office, and feel this current of power go through me. I hear this community that cheered for me from '81 to '85 cheering for me again."
—Dennis Fiely, photographs by Amelia Ann Photography