Belch: Streaks are hard on athletes

March 5, 2010, 12:41 a.m.

Nothing lasts forever.

Winning streaks in sports are really hard to start, and even harder to continue.

The Stanford men’s swimming and diving team is going for 29 straight Pac-10 swimming titles this weekend. It’s a pretty incredible streak, one that has spanned decades of athletes, Olympians and teams. Head coach Skip Kenney has been through every single one. It is a streak that has defined Stanford men’s swimming since the 1980s.

These streaks are hard on the current athletes, though. No athlete wants to be on the team that loses the streak. Inside every current athlete is a little bit of the former athletes who paved the way and allowed the current group to have a chance to extend the streak. No athlete wants to be associated with the end of dominance. Truth be told, every swimmer in that pool this weekend wearing a Stanford cap wants to come home with No. 29.

When I was in high school, we had not lost to our rival in football in 14 years. In fact, our rival was built after my high school, so it had never beaten us in football, ever. We had shirts with the word “Never” on them as a tribute to the fact that we had never lost to them. But nothing lasts forever.

I was on the team that lost to our rivals for the first time. They were ecstatic to break the losing streak, even going so far as to rush our home field when the clock hit zeroes. The players felt ashamed, embarrassed and disappointed to be forever remembered as the team that lost, the team that ended “never.” The team that lost the streak that so many teams before us had built up and maintained.

But we got over it. And it really wasn’t the end of the world. The streak was great, but it was bound to end at some point. The players and coaches accepted this faster than we all would have thought because we understood how accomplished we were in the previous 14 years. We came back the next week to focus on winning the next game. We ended up winning the San Diego city championship that year. Some of us had forgotten about the broken streak by that point.

Arkansas track and field won 12 straight NCAA indoor track and field championships from 1984-1995. Connecticut women’s basketball won 70 games in a row a few years ago. UCLA basketball won 14 Pac-10 titles in a row, back when John Wooden was the coach. They also won 88 straight games from 1971-1974, including four NCAA Tournament titles. Besides being amazing, successful and record-breaking streaks, these all have something in common—all of them eventually came to an end.

It’s really hard in sports to keep up winning streaks, especially when the athletes are getting bigger, faster and stronger; and especially when every team and player starts gunning for you.

A team cannot keep up perfection forever because at some point, the magic of the streak just doesn’t continue. Something will happen. Or maybe it will just face a better team and will be outperformed on that day. Championship winning streaks are even harder, as a team has to peak at the same time of the year, every year, continually fielding teams that are better than everyone else’s best.

Some teams would drop everything to win one title. Winning 28, like the Cardinal has done, is beyond impressive. It is a record that probably will never be touched again. But unfortunately, one day it will end.

Stanford has done well enough the past 28 years to claim the Pac-10 title every year. They have fended off highly ranked teams and fast swimmers to come out on top. They have even won when they weren’t heavily favored. This year is no different, as the team is the underdog to No. 1 Arizona and will be up against a tough Cal squad, as well. Whichever team wins the Pac-10 this weekend will deserve it because it had the fastest swimmers and depth across multiple events. For 28 years, Stanford has had the best combination of those factors. However, year 29 is a new year. Stanford has the talent to win No. 29. Other teams have the talent to take back the podium spot where Stanford has stood the past 28 years. You can be sure nothing would be sweeter to other schools than to take the title away from the Cardinal.

Do I want the men’s swim team to win this weekend? Of course. Do I think the streak is great? Absolutely. Do the swimmers want to win this weekend and make it 29? Is that even a question? But if they do not come out on top, and they break their streak, it’s going to be OKAY. I would tell the athletes not to dwell on it, no matter how disappointed they were. Be more disappointed about individual performances and the current team’s performance than the larger streak. Don’t compare yourself to the Stanford teams and athletes of the past—the last 28 years mean nothing, and it is this year that matters.

The streak hasn’t continued because the Card has been swimming for the teams and athletes in the past. All 28 teams have swum for themselves, in the present, trying to touch that wall before the person in the lane next to them did. That is what made this streak, and that is what will keep it going. If it continues for 10 more years, then that is great, and just further etches this team’s legacy in stone. If it doesn’t, then it is not the end of the world. Stanford swimming and these athletes will live on far beyond this streak.

While the mentality of an athlete is never to think of the end of success, it’s a little hard to think that whatever win streak you are on can continue without end. Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh had an unstoppable 112-match, two-year winning streak going until they lost in 2008. After the game, May-Treanor simply said, “It happens.”

Nothing lasts forever.

The streak for men’s swimming is remarkable and record-defying. I hope it continues this weekend. But if it doesn’t, I will tip my hat and say well done. The next time they swim, they can start a new one.

Danny Belch is going through his extensive hat collection to find the best one to tip. Assist him in his quest for headgear at [email protected].

Login or create an account