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Yale Marks 50th Anniversary of Historic Streak

Bob Kiphuth.
Bob Kiphuth.

Bulldogs' String of 201 Straight Ended Feb. 4, 1961

NEW HAVEN, Conn. - As statistics go, it is a staggering one: from 1945-1961, the Yale men's swimming and diving team did not lose a single dual meet. By the time the Bulldogs dropped a meet to Navy on February 4, 1961 -- 50 years ago today -- they had won 201 consecutive dual meets over 17 seasons. Amongst the winningest teams in college sports history, legendary coach Bob Kiphuth's squad took home 16 straight Eastern Intercollegiate Swim League (the conference in which all Ivy League teams compete, though it predates the Ivy League by some 18 years) titles in those 17 years, and racked up two of the program's four national championships in that span. Kiphuth, a five-time U.S. Olympic team coach himself, was a mentor to several Olympians, some of whom would go on to medal multiple times. But perhaps greater than that, Kiphuth and his swimmers established a standard of excellence matched by few collegiate sports programs in history, and one that endures as a standard for all of Yale athletics to this day.

Perhaps as impressive as the streak itself are its origins. Kiphuth's ascension to the helm of Yale swimming in 1918 was certainly not the ceremonious passing of the torch one might expect for the appointment of a man who would eventually take his place in the upper echelon of collegiate coaching history. Kiphuth was a 27-year old physical education instructor who had never coached swimming before when, on a fateful day in 1918, Yale's swim coach was too ill to coach, and Kiphuth was forced to step up and lead practice.

He never looked back. Having not been a swimmer himself, Kiphuth had no loyalty to traditional training methods, and therefore grew in fame for his emphasis on dry-land training. His strategy seemed to work, as Yale swimming became the preeminent program in the nation in a few short years, attracting swimmers not only from around the nation, but across the globe.

One of those international imports was John Marshall '53, an Australian whom Kiphuth found at the 1948 summer Olympics in London, where Marshall took the silver medal in the 1500-meter freestyle behind future teammate Jimmy McLane '53. Upon arriving at Yale, Marshall set 19 world records -- 15 in just one month -- and would set nine more in his career. The New South Wales native would go on to compete in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki and the 1956 games in Melbourne. Just weeks after competing in the newly-established 200-fly at those games on his home turf, Marshall died tragically in a car accident, a three-time Olympian, two-time medalist, and 28-time world record setter.

McLane, the man who bested Marshall in London, was another legend who grew under Kiphuth's tutelage. McLane medaled in all three of his events at those London games, earning gold in both the 1500-meter freestyle and 800-meter freestyle relay, as well as silver in the 400-meter freestyle.  Featured in Life magazine as the "best long-distance swimmer in the U.S." at 15 years old in 1946, the Akron, Ohio, native would amass 21 national individual titles and three Pan-American game gold medals to go along with his Olympic hardware.

The list of legendary swimmers who found their stroke under Kiphuth goes on and on. There was Allen Stack '48, the man who revolutionized the backstroke and broke six world records (and 22 American ones) from 1948-1951. There was Allan Ford '45W, the first man to swim the 100-yard freestyle in under 50 seconds, and Wayne Moore '53, a Nichols, Conn., native who went on to win gold in the 800 freestyle relay at the Helsinki games.

But even as swimmers came and went, the brilliance of Yale swimming and diving endured in a time where swimming was a major part of the American sports fan's consciousness. As Sports Illustrated reported in 1953, in the midst of the streak, hundreds of fans would come out simply to watch the Elis' domination, and the fact that magazines like SI and TIME (which featured Kiphuth and the Bulldogs multiple times during the streak) recognized what was happening in New Haven is perhaps as clear an indication as any of just how impressive the achievements of Kiphuth and his Bulldogs were to their contemporaries.

All the recognition was well-deserved. When the Yale squad, depleted by World War II, dropped that dual meet to Army in 1945 that would mark its last loss in 17 years, it did so with a streak of 175 wins already under its belt. Between 1924 and 1937, Kiphuth led the Elis to 175 consecutive wins, meaning that "the streak" whose 50th anniversary occurs today only became the program's longest with a 57-29 win over Columbia in 1959, 14 years after it began.

Such dominance of the collegiate swimming scene has yet to be equaled since Kiphuth's era, and though even Yale swimming and diving has been unable to maintain the unparalleled success that Kiphuth saw, the legacy of the legendary coach and his team lives on. Testaments to the memory of those Yale teams that combined for one of the most impressive streaks in sports history from 1948-1961 can be found not only in the championship banners that hang in the confines of the aptly-named Robert J.H. Kiphuth Memorial Exhibition pool at Yale's Payne Whitney Gym, but in the chills one gets upon entering the facility where so much history was made.

Kiphuth's legacy has been memorialized in the Kiphuth Leadership Academy, a program designed to take Kiphuth's unique approach to coaching and student-athlete leadership and use it to help today's Yale student-athletes uphold the values and standards of success that Kiphuth's teams -- particularly those of the streak -- embodied so completely. So while the tangible, statistical achievements of the Yale swim team that was undefeated for 17 straight seasons may never be equaled and are now half a century old, the effect of those teams on the nation's largest Division I athletic program can still be felt today by all Yale student-athletes, a fittingly lasting legacy for a program whose excellence, itself, was so enduring.

Report by Chelsea Janes '12, Yale Sports Publicity