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Growing Gold

Duncan MacLean • Mar 25, 2017 at 8:30 AM

The summit of any collegiate athlete or coaches career is a national championship trophy, an honor reserved for the best team in the country, saved for the most dedicated squads.

To win one would satisfy even the hungriest coaches. Taking nine straight seems impossible and presiding as the undisputed champ over the course of decades? That is just not done.

Jon Howell, a Grand Haven native and Grand Haven high school swimmer himself, just checked nine-straight NCAA titles off of his list of accomplishments, and officially ended a national stranglehold decades in the making.

Howell’s men’s and women’s swim and dive teams at Emory University swept the Division III National Championship meet last weekend, extending nearly a decade of women’s domination and establishing a new gold standard for the men.

The Lords of Kenyon had won 30 straight national championships from 1980-2010. Since then, in-conference rival Denison has taken three titles, while the Lords claimed the others.

This year, the Eagles of Emory returned the crown to the field, downing the Lords by 54 points with a total score of 438.

The women’s team extended their miraculous run taking the meet by 200 points, outperforming their projected seed score by 150 points.

Howell’s championship journey started long before this season, or even the beginning of his Emory tenure in 1998. Howell has been studying excellence since his time at Grand Haven, through a career as a champion at Kenyon himself, and even through some time away from swimming.

Local roots

After moving to the lakeshore from the Chicago area around the second grade, Howell was quickly introduced to the swimming community, not unlike the careers of countless other youth swimmers.

“My mom was looking for something to get us ingrained in the community and meet some kids over the summer, she threw us in swimming,” Howell said.

The summer social activity introduced Howell to his eventual varsity coach at Grand Haven High School, John Sheers.

Sheers would develop Howell into the cream of the Bucs’ program, eventually taking over the varsity coaching position in Howell’s senior year. Howell served as a rare state qualifier during his tenure at Grand Haven and under Sheer his senior year was able to make a splash in the sprint events.

The attention in high school piqued the interest of two of the country’s premiere swim programs, Ohio State and Kenyon College. Both were intriguing to Howell, but ultimately the Division III atmosphere and the allure of national titles brought Howell to Kenyon.

“It just seemed like the right fit for me, another good swimmer from Grand Haven introduced me to the Ohio State coach, but it was just too big. Kenyon was the right fit for me.”

When he hit campus in 1984, the Lords were just getting into their 30-year tirade. It didn’t take long for Howell to get involved. In his career at Kenyon, he captured three consecutive individual titles in the 50-yard freestyle and enjoyed four team national championships.

The championship culture immediately rubbed off on the young swimmer, proving to influence his impending coaching career.

“It was amazing, there was definitely a culture and a sense of history which I really connected with,” he said. “Jim (Steen) is an incredible coach. Coming from Grand Haven, I had just started swimming sprint freestyle senior year. It was an opportunity to grow.

“I’m a product of all my experiences, that was one that was really instrumental in my development. It is one thing to develop swimmers; it is another to win championships. One thing I got from Kenyon is how to be part of a culture of winning.

Packing up

Following graduation, Howell continued to pursue experiences that would shape him. A stint as a senate campaign manager and curator of an art gallery bred pursuit of a master’s degree in art history, which led to swim coaching on the side.

“I was coaching in North Carolina when Kenyon came through for a meet, that’s when coach Steen asked me to come aboard.”

A one-year jaunt with Kenyon gleaned another national title for Howell and was the final lesson before striking out to build a championship program of his own.

Humble beginnings

Howell took over the Emory head coaching position in 1998; ready to create the kind of sustained success he had experienced during his tenure as a swimmer and coach at Kenyon.

The mens team was coming off a 26th-place finish at nationals and boasted a program record high of ninth. They had finished runner-up in the University Athletic Association (UAA) seven times, but never reached the summit.

On the women’s side, the Eagles finished 26th in the nation the year before, but had been as high as fourth, and had already captured six UAA titles.

With some quality talent but a wide range of commitment and interest levels, the first-year coach set about establishing his culture of excellence.

“I found when I got there, I had a real wide range of abilities and commitment levels,” he said of his inherited program. “There are two ways to approach that, you can say, ‘Here are the standards, if you don’t want to do it, you can leave.’ I ended up committing to people at the level they were committed, came up with a real personal approach and personal training plans.

“The more committed kids succeeded, and it created a culture of kids who wanted to work hard and get better.”

The weeding-out process was not received well initially, with some close to the program nervous about such a winning-first approach.

“There was a group that said, ‘this is not Kenyon, you can’t create a Kenyon here.’ I agreed with them, we had to create an Emory, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take things that worked. Academics were extremely important to students there, so that became a priority.”

In his first year, Howell took both teams to the top of the conference and sling shotted them up the ladder to top-15 finishes at nationals, with the women 12th and the men sixth.

“The program had really good bones in the sense that the women had had some success and both teams had alumni that really cared about the program and wanted it to be successful,” Howell said. “The prior coach (Peter Smith) left the program in good standing.

“We had a couple returning All-Americans, a history of excellence and a real desire to be good.”

With a drive for success and established athleticism, coach Howell had no problem shaping the program into his own, even one to rival his alma mater.

In his seventh season at the helm, the Emory women took their first national championship, going back-to-back in the 2004-2005 and 2005-2006 seasons. A third, fourth and runner-up finish separated their first titles and the current streak. The Emory women have not lost the conference meet since Howell took over.

The men’s team took a little more TLC to get to the top, but those years were not wasted.

“The deceptive thing during that period was, even though we were finishing second or third, we were still improving as a team and doing things we never had done before. We sent kids to Olympic Trials and World Championships. What we created is something really unique and our own.

“It was just a great year for both teams, and it never really gets old because every year is different.”

The title

The men handed Kenyon just their second back-to-back title loss since 1980 with nine national qualifiers and two relay alternate swimmers.

Andrew Wilson led the Eagles with a Midas touch, winning three individual events and fueling all three of his relay teams to first-place finishes. The senior took home gold in the 100- and 200-yard breaststroke, as well as the 200 individual medley.

His 1:50.80 effort in the 200 breaststroke out paced the field by eight seconds.

“Andrew is a special kid,” Howell said. He was one I almost didn’t offer a spot to. He really was not good in high school. He is a product of our program and Division III, he has thrived.”

Behind Wilson’s golden touch the men cruised through Day 1 of the meet, winning three events in the 200 I.M, 50 freestyle and 200 medley relay, while placing three swimmers in the “A” final of the 500 freestyle, taking third, fourth and eighth.

Day 2 of the meet proved an early testing point for the undersized team.

“We thought we could win the first day if we swam well,” Howell said. “We knew the second day was going to be a blood bath.”

The Eagles faced three open events on Day 2 in the 400 I.M, 100 butterfly and 1-meter diving, the few swimmers who did make finals had to capitalize on all their swims.

Two gold-medal finishes in the 200 freestyle relay and the 400 medley relay buoyed the weak day, along with a second and seventh place finish in the 200 freestyle.

“We thought we would go into the third day behind, but we wound up still being ahead,” Howell said. “The reality is we were swimming so well we had a couple people who weren’t supposed to score who snuck into finals. We had some people step up into really key roles.”

After surviving the potential massacre, day three of the four-day saga was a breeze. The 200 butterfly, 100 backstroke, 100 breaststroke and 800 freestyle relay all featured top-four finishes for Emory, setting up a celebratory conclusion on day four.

“The most stressful day was probably the last, because you don’t want to mess it up,” Howell said.

The Eagles would not falter. Emory placed multiple swimmers in all but one final (Wilson’s 200 breaststroke victory) and zoomed to a 2:56.68 400 freestyle relay win, sealing their first national championship in program history.

The women had no such trouble securing their eighth-straight national title and their 10th in the past 13 seasons. Their 200-point margin of victory is the largest they have enjoyed during the run, to the surprise of even those involved.

“On paper, this was not the best team we have had,” Howell said of the 2017 national squad. “It was the first time we didn’t have 18 qualifiers in a while. We didn’t know what to expect with them this year.”

The Emory women shattered expectations, out performing their seed score by 150 points.

The Eagles swept all five relays for the second time in school history and the second-consecutive year, setting four NCAA records in the process.

The relay dominance along with four individual event victories pushed the Eagles far above second place Williams College.

“This was a great group and they really came together in the last bit. They just feed off each other and the history of the program. It is really more the culture and the people we have than their ability.

By all accounts, it was a weekend of the ages for Howell, but for an insatiable winner and man of extreme perspective, the double title is just another chapter in the history book he is writing at Emory.

“I underestimated just how emotional it was for our group and alums when we won it this year. We attract real overachievers who want to be successful and want to win, we have tried for along time to get to that point.

“We have had success obviously, but that is the one thing that eluded us. For them winning this year, there were a lot of people who felt that deeply. There is a lot of history here.

All that history started right here on the lakeshore, with a well meaning mom and caring coach.

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