In Stern and Lewis, Amherst’s Idea Proven Sound
By Amro El-Adle '13, Managing Sports Editor

It is surprisingly easy to walk past Kendra Stern. The same holds true for William Henry Lewis.

Neither is slight — their physiques figure prominently, in fact. She sports a 5’11” frame draped in lean muscle and sprinkled with freckles, while his is a sturdy, 177-pound all-purpose chassis of the same height. Ironically, they both have reputations built principally on their abilities to keep others from passing them.

Stern, one of the greatest swimmers to come through Amherst, is a little tougher to pass when she intends to attract notice, nowadays at least, as she is the fastest 100m- and 200m- freestyle swimmer (ever) in Div. III. In passing by the football team picture from 1901 hanging in the hallways of Alumni Gymnasium, one would likely overlook many of the dimensions that shaped Lewis’s time at the College.

And yet, passing by the Art History and Spanish double major, or the Harvard Law-trained ex-Assistant Attorney General of the United States, a second glance is rarely in the works. An indisposed ego, and a certain rigor that comes with age in the case of Lewis, facilitate that tendency, but the National Collegiate Scouting Association’s (NCSA) recent collegiate power rankings could merit that double take.

Life in the Fast Lane

Kendra Stern takes two showers on most mornings. There’s the shower she takes in her dorm, and then, some time around 8:30, she’s back at it at the gym. For 90 minutes before that second shower, Stern is working. As a senior who opted to write an honors thesis in art history, she does a lot of that. But from 7 to 8:30, her focus is on the task at hand — dry-land training.

For the most part, dry-land training comprises a large portion of the training regiment for swimmers during the off-season, as building core strength is a team priority. Stern, however, subscribes to a slightly different set of priorities. She swims, often alone, during the offseason, in addition to keeping up with her dry-lands workload — a more robust setup for what, by any measure, should be an extraordinary season.

After a quick recharge at breakfast, Stern spends her next few hours ferrying between her classes and Frost. An early bird, Stern also moonlights as a docent at the Mead for a couple of afternoons each week. At each step of the way, her focus is intact.

Her unparalleled work ethic derives not from choice, but experience. “Coming in [as a first-year], I really didn’t have any expectations because I came from a completely different swimming background,” she explained. “Amherst was a lot more structured than I was used to… I think that’s where the difference comes from.”

A structured schedule means deadlines — and besting times, as the rest of the NESCAC has learned over the past few years, is something of a specialty for Stern. Her swimming coach, Nick Nichols, pointed to her ability to stay on top of things as her main coping mechanism: “Even when she’s sick, it’s okay, because she’s two weeks ahead of everybody else.”

After she’s pinballed around campus in the early afternoon, Stern comes back to Pratt Pool for a swim session around four, this one also lasting about 90 minutes. “She’ll swim about 3.75 miles in the morning at a pulse rate of 170, 180, 190 even. Then she’ll come back and do it again in the afternoon,” said Nichols. During the regular season, Stern often swims in the same lane as the men’s team: “She gets pushed more in practice,” Nichols continued. “To get where she wants to go, she needs to train with the men.”

Three showers into her day, Stern treks back to Valentine for a quick dinner with friends before her final foray into the library. There, the ESPN Academic all-American Second Team honoree pours what’s left of her energy into her work. “But I have to give myself time to decompress before I fall asleep,” she said. Her preferred form of decompression? “Glee.”

That oscillation between swimming, academics and the occasional episode of “Glee” seems to provide the periodic changes of pace that help her maintain intensity, a point that Nichols emphasized: “Kendra has a foot in both worlds. Certainly she’s an Olympic trials level swimmer. She’s a full-ride athlete at any Div. I school just on her swimming. Of course, she would also qualify for a merit-based scholarship as well.”

For Stern, each world is a break from the other — where there is no rest for the weary, she simply redefines rest. Asked how she plans to manage her swimming and writing a thesis come winter, the 10-time National Champion replied with a response many Amherst seniors become fond of around this time of year: “To be determined. I think I’ll be pretty tired most of the time, but it’s just a matter of being as productive as possible.”

When she graduates this May, Kendra Stern will have options. She could conceivably continue to swim, and would in all likelihood have a chance to compete in the U.S. Olympic Trials. Not many Amherst alumni have left the College to try out for an Olympic team, but Stern certainly could. With a thesis and two degrees in hand, however, even an Olympic team may seem mundane.

The “Full-minded Man”

Standing at just under six feet, W.H. Lewis did not appear to be a physically overpowering football player. In fact, he was an average-sized lineman for his time, and an undersized center at Harvard, when he eventually played there. But, endowed with a sharp mind, an equally acerbic tongue and quick feet, he made a career of out-maneuvering his opponents.

Chosen by the members of his class to present the class oration in 1892, he described his Amherst education as follows: “The aim has been to develop the full-minded man rather than the narrow-contracted specialist.”

And full-minded he was. According to “Black Men of Amherst,” a book written by Harold Wade Jr., he captained the Jeff football team in his senior year at the College. His reputation bursting at the seams, he was recruited to play for both Harvard and Yale as a graduate student.

As the first “roving lineman” that football had ever known, Lewis continued to enjoy success at Harvard Law, where he established another first as the Crimson’s first African-American captain. While later coaching at Harvard, Walter Camp, often recognized as the father of football, invited him to write a chapter for his book, after Lewis introduced the idea of a “neutral zone,” where the current line of scrimmage stands, to help control the violence of football at that stage. Camp also later named Lewis to his all-time all-American team, for his efforts in revolutionizing the game.

For good measure, Lewis parlayed his L.L.B and Amherst connections into a series of local and federal governmental positions. He was eventually named an assistant Attorney General by President Taft.

The Intensity of the Experience

Stern and Lewis stand in sharp contrast to the caricatures of Div. III athletes implicit in the relegation of Amherst athletes to a third division. Perhaps the only contrast more jarring than that iss when Stern and Lewis are foregrounded against a backdrop of investigations of illicit contact between agents as well as coaches, and the high school students they try to recruit swirl at blockbuster Div. I programs around the country.

“I think that every coach in our entire spectrum would tell you that I’m at Amherst because what we do here is so important in teaching and coaching — because I value this over what the Div. I experience means,” explains Athletic Director Suzanne Coffey. “And the Div. I experience, to a lot of us, looks like a win-at-all-costs, win-today-or-your-gone-tomorrow experience.”

That distinction, which clearly defines the boundaries between conferences like the NESCAC and the SEC, or even the Ivy League, is the keystone of the Amherst experience. Not only are Amherst coaches restricted to contacting a recruit by phone, e-mail or mail, they cannot offer that recruit scholarship money — even the financial aid for the recruit is determined outside of the athletics department.

The NESCAC also bars non-traditional seasons for each of the conference sports — football is only played in the spring, and baseball only in the fall, among a litany of other examples. Athletics at Amherst exist in the confines of a liberal-arts education. “At the end of the day, it is really about teaching,” continued Coffey. “It’s about teaching in this different, co-curricular realm.” Steeped in that tradition since its founding, it is no surprise that Amherst recently topped institutions like Williams, Harvard and Stanford in the NCSA’s collegiate power rankings of schools, which were based on academics and athletics.

Nearly one in three students at Amherst play a varsity sport, and four in five participate in club/intramural sports, according to the Athletics department. And why? In the words of W.H. Lewis: “No man is fully educated who neglects the body.,” he said. “The field of physical education is Amherst’s own… Sound mind in a sound body was only a theory until Amherst made it fact. Scholarship was a weakling until she made it giant…[Honest athletics] give one that supreme thing — self-reliance.”

Issue 07, Submitted 2010-10-27 16:57:25