Amherst Magazine

Big Fish

Is Kendra Stern ’11 the best student-athlete in Amherst history?

Cover Story

By Justin Long

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Kendra Stern ’11 has another season to solidify herself as Amherst’s greatest student-athlete of all time, but she might not need it.

The “greatest ever” distinction may have been wrapped up last March at the NCAA Division III Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships. Stern was crowned a national champion in two events, bringing her career total to 10. That weekend she won the 200-yard freestyle by nearly three and a half seconds, a margin of victory so dominant that it may as well have been three and a half days.

Winning at Amherst has become as common for Stern as it was for Michael Phelps in the 2008 Summer Olympics. She has won 67 of a possible 71 individual races and is 44-2 in freestyle events. (She was the runner-up in the four races she didn’t win.) Some of her performances are downright comical: as a first-year, she won the 1,000-yard freestyle at MIT by 59 seconds.

Stern didn’t begin swimming competitively until high school—a late start for a swimmer. Amherst head coach Nick Nichols remembers her being “pretty good” in sprint freestyle events at that time. As a sophomore in high school, she didn’t think she was fast enough to swim in college.

But there were always signs to the contrary. Her older sister, Meaghan ’09, recalls Kendra hiking distances farther and faster than Meaghan did at the same age. “I was always two years and a step ahead,” says Meaghan, “so she was quick to try to catch up.”

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Stern at Pratt Pool. Winning has become as common for her as it was for Michael Phelps in 2008.

As a senior at Albuquerque Academy, Meaghan edged out her sister in the 200-yard freestyle at the New Mexico state championships. “I think that was the last time I beat her,” Meaghan says. (It was.) “She came on really strong after that. Something seemed to click, and she just had this fire that was never really as salient before. Our mom told me she thought Kendra might end up faster if I didn’t watch out. That’s when I realized it was crucial she not go to Williams.”

Although a natural desire to separate from her sister initially had Kendra leaning toward Williams, she ultimately felt more comfortable at Amherst. Her first season of collegiate swimming couldn’t have been more successful. She had minor technical flaws when she arrived, but she fixed those and began putting up lifetime bests in dual meets. She won all 19 of her freestyle races, including three at the NCAA Championships. She also helped Amherst win national titles in three relay events.

Kendra’s drastic drops in times were very exciting to Nichols. “Meaghan was the best thing since sliced bread when she got here,” he says, “but Kendra came along and broke her records.” When Kendra set two national records as a first-year, Nichols jokingly asked her whether she was going to stay at Amherst.

“I never considered transferring,” says Kendra, who had friends at Division I schools. “I enjoy swimming, but
I didn’t want it to consume me.”

As a sophomore Stern posted a 22-1 record in individual races and won another two national titles. Her junior year was equally impressive (23-1, two national titles), but the aforementioned win in the 200 last year was her crowning moment. Her time of 1:45.31 would have placed eighth at the 2010 NCAA Division I championships, good enough for All-America status. “That race puts her in the upper echelon of collegiate swimmers at any level,” Nichols says. (Those last two sentences are worth reading again.)

Stern’s mental approach to swimming gives her just as much of an advantage as her 5-foot, 11-inch, muscular frame does. She is the first one in the water to warm up for a meet, and her teammates feed off of her energy. “She has an ‘any­thing is possible’ attitude that I find encouraging and inspiring,” says teammate and former roommate Brooke Bennett ’11.

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Serious before a race, Stern keeps things in perspective after one. Edged out by six one-hundredths of a second in last year’s 500-yard freestyle at the NCAA Championships (by a Williams swimmer), she didn’t dwell. “After I finish a race, I put it behind me,” she says. “I’m more about racing against myself, against the clock.”

This ability to maintain perspective allows Stern to balance swimming with the rest of her life. She is an Academic All-America honoree with an A-minus average. She majors in art history and Spanish and is working on a thesis about early-20th-century American artists in New Mexico. While Division I swimmers were training last summer, Stern spent six weeks away from the pool at Smith College’s Summer Institute in Art Museum Studies. She would like to work for a museum or gallery someday.

It’s difficult to find a student in Amherst’s history who can match Stern’s résumé. After this winter it might be impossible. She is 9-0 in individual races at the NESCAC Championships and 7-2 at the NCAA Championships. She has been named National Swimmer of the Week seven times. Nichols won’t be surprised if her existing times in the 100- and 200-yard freestyles wind up being multi-decade national records. They may never be broken at Amherst. (And remember, she’s not done yet.)

Stern is a big fish in a small pond, but she would be a big fish in a big pond, too. She would out-swim Olympic hopefuls at Division I powerhouses like Stanford. Nichols knows Amherst is lucky to have her. “Her success is beyond my wildest dreams,” he says. “There may never be another kid like her at Amherst.”

“Greatest ever” debates have no right answers. But if you go to a swim meet this year, you might be persuaded to hand the honor to Kendra Stern. Watch her dominate a race, take off her goggles, look up at the board and discreetly celebrate. You won’t have to watch closely to realize she’s in a league of her own.    

Long, co-director of sports information at Amherst, regularly covers sports for Amherst magazine.

Photos by Samuel Masinter '04