Dynasty of dynasties: St. X swimming & diving
BY MIKE FIELDS
LOUISVILLE — St. Xavier’s swimming and diving program is the greatest dynasty in the history of Kentucky high school sports. Its state championship numbers are as overwhelming as a tsunami: 52 team, 146 individual and 75 relay titles.
The Tigers will be going for their 29th team title in a row when the KHSAA Swimming and Diving Championships are held at the University of Louisville’s Ralph Wright Natatorium this weekend. If they win, they will tie the boys’ national record for consecutive state titles shared by Honolulu (Hawaii) Punahou (1958-86) and Jacksonville (Fla.) Bolles (1988-2016).
The Carmel (Ind.) girls set the overall record with their 30th in a row last year.
St. X Coach Todd Larkin said the secret to the Tigers’ sustained dominance is they don’t let past successes adversely affect present pursuits.
“Our students respect the tradition — you can’t really avoid talking about the streaks or numerology that surround this program — but they have the perspective that centers on this year’s team. Having them create their own identity is very important, and understanding that the team that won 5 years ago or the team that won 10 years ago isn’t going to help you today.”
Larkin, in his eighth year as St. X coach, has his athletes take ownership of the program, which is why there are “standards” instead of “rules.”
It’s a coaching philosophy he borrowed from Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski. “A rule is what a coach says you’re going to do,” Larkin said. “A standard is the boys giving input and holding each other accountable, like showing up on time for workouts. Standards promote teamwork, rather than a coach becoming a dictator.'”
St. X senior Keefer Barnum, who last year set a state record in the 100 breaststroke and was part of a state-record medley relay, said the Tigers hit the restart button every season.
“Every year is new because we have seniors leave and freshmen come in. It’s a challenge to get to know everybody and get in the swing of things. Different people mean different strengths and different weaknesses. But we do always have the same intensity.”
As for the program’s championship tradition, Barnum considers it “a positive thing. It’s great for motivation. Nothing is given to us, though. We can’t just walk in there and expect to win. We have to work for it. At state, it’s all about racing. Your past times aren’t going to get you anything. You have to perform at the meet.”
Larkin doesn’t talk to his team a lot about winning.
“Instead we talk a lot about our foundation, we talk a lot about details, we talk a lot about role-playing. If your program is based only on winning, you have a pretty shallow program. Although the state championship is important to these boys, it’s more important they feel invested in the program, and realize their contribution is more than just winning that one meet.”
St. X’s 52 swimming titles in 70 years is a testament to the school’s level of commitment to a sport that may not get a lot of attention elsewhere in the state.
“We’re in a unique position,” Larkin said. “There’s a lot of equality here among all the sports. At some schools, swimming, being a non-revenue sport, might get pushed aside. Here, we’re kind of on the front porch of the institution. The school appreciates the boys’ hard work in the classroom and in the water, and how they represent the school.
“It’s like that with all the sports. We don’t limit our students. In the last few years we’ve had an Olympic swimmer, with Clark Burckle (who competed in the 2012 Olympic Games in London), and in golf we’ve had Justin Thomas make it on the PGA Tour.
“We’re not here to squash any dreams. There are very few who make it that far, but there are some who do, and some have come out of this school.”
St. X was a swimming powerhouse from 1947 through the early 1980s, but it ratcheted up its title drive when Marty O’Toole became coach in 1989. He led the Tigers to 20 state championships in 20 years.
The program got a huge boost when the school got its own pool on campus in 1990. It’s located just upstairs from a state-of-the-art weight room.
Larkin, a St. X grad, was a veteran coach at nationally regarded Lakeside Swim Club in Louisville before he took over at St. X.
The Tigers never won a state title when he was on the swim team from 1983-86, but he’s 7-for-7 as coach.
In preparing for his eighth state meet as coach, Larkin is more excited than nervous for his 21 competitors (19 swimmers, 2 divers).
But St. X’s swimming alumni are anxious, especially those who’ve been a part of the remarkable 28-year title streak.
Take Van Stoutt. As an 18-year-old senior, he won two events for the St. X team that began the championship run in 1989. Now he’s a 46-year-old businessman, and his son Hudson is a freshman swimmer at St. X.
“No way I could’ve predicted that all these years later the streak would still be going and that I’d have a son swimming there. That’s pretty special.
“I’ve told him that if the streak comes to an end while he’s there, he’ll be in big trouble,” Stoutt said with a laugh. “It’s been an exciting run, and I think they’re primed to win some more.”
While Barnum is focused on trying to win here and now, he also appreciates the string of state titles St. X has put together.
“I definitely take pride it that,” he said. “It is kind of cool to think about 28 in a row. Wow! That’s older than I am!”
Follow these topics: FieldsColumn