Coaching Excellence Leads Indian River Towards 50 Straight National Titles

The year was 1974. Barbara Streisand topped the musical charts with “The Way We Were”, Blazing Saddles was one of two films to gross over $100 million, and Watergate was reaching its salacious conclusion. Sixteen year old phenom Tim Shaw was the male World Swimmer of the Year setting world records in the 200 meter free (1:51.66), 400 meter free (3:54.69), and 1500 meter free (15:31.75).  USA Swimming was six years away from its birth, while AAU dominated the aquatics landscape.

1974 was also significant because it marked the last time Indian River State College (IRSC) lost a National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) national title in men’s swimming.

49 years of excellence. 49 years of dominance. A feat that is unrivaled at any level of any sport in the history of athletics.  

IRSC Men’s Team has not lost a NJCAA National Championship Meet since 1974

  • 49 team titles – all won consecutively 
  • Own 23 of 25 NJCAA National Swimming Records 
  • Own 4 or 4 NJCAA National Diving Records  
  • 464 NJCAA Individual Swimming National Titles*
  • 185 NJCAA Relay National Titles*
  • 46 of 49 titles in the Men’s 200 butterfly
  • 48 NJCAA Individual National Diving Titles
  • 47 NJCAA National Swimmer of the Year honors
  • 34 NJCAA National Swimming Coach of the Year honors
  • 18 NJCAA National Diver of the Year honors
  • 15 NJCAA National Diving Coach of the Year honors

*The data sets are incomplete due to missing final individual and relays results for the 1998, 1987, 1977 championship meets

Now, with the inevitable 50 just weeks away, Head Coach Sion Brinn tries to keep things in perspective, “This a chance at the first championship for our freshman and a second for our sophomores. There are no guarantees.” NJCAA athletes are generally allowed to compete for two seasons in any sport, including swimming, within a specific time frame from their initial full-time enrollment in college.  After completing two years of eligibility, the athlete will either transfer to a four-year university or retiring from the sport. 

The 2023-2024 season marks Brinn’s 11th as head coach and 13th year as a representative of IRSC. A two-time Olympian, Brinn won four individual national championships as a swimmer at IRSC in 1992 and 1993 and was named the NJCAA Swimmer of the year during his sophomore campaign. Each season, Brinn harkens back to the past during team meetings pointing to “The Wall”, a literal walled collection of the champions from decades past. “Every single member on the wall is taking a peek at us. They want us to succeed,” he says, “How are we living up to that tradition set by them? How are we going to maintain this over time?”

“Let it sink in,” he continued, “it’s not all about you – it’s about the 49 years! You get to continue this tradition.”  

While the streak is well known in the swimming community, even for the most die hard swim fans might not realize the rich coaching history of this special place in South Florida. 

IRSC’s championship run started in 1975 under the guidance of Dick Wells, a former FSU swimmer, who grew the team from six swimmers in 1974 to national champions one year later. Wells, whose namesake now lends itself to a neighboring county pool, introduced ASCA Hall-of-Famer Mark Schubert to swimming in Akron, Ohio a decade earlier. Wells departed IRSC in 1977, accepting a coaching job with Martin County Schools (FL), a position he would hold until his retirement in 1994. 

Wells was succeeded by an established coaching legend, Jim Montrella, a two-time Olympic assistant coach (Columbia 72’ & USA 76’) and two-time ASCA Coach of the Year recipient (1969, 1971). Montrella, an eventual ASCA Hall-of-Famer (2005), led the Pioneers to two more championships in 1978 and 1979 as both the head swimming coach and athletic director. After his IRSC run, Montrella departed for the Ohio State University where he led the women’s team to five straight Big Ten titles (1982-86).  Perhaps Montrella’s largest contribution to the sport though was his delivery of the first mass-produced swimming hand paddles which revolutionized swimming in the 1960s and have continued to be a part of workouts 60 years later.

From 1980-1984, Doug Ingram led the Pioneers to five more championships, winning the national coach of the year award after each season. He would depart after the 84’ season in pursuit of the head coaching job at Southern Illinois University, where he would be named to their Hall of Fame in 2016. Ingram’s influence however, much like Montrella, extended well beyond coaching, as he served on the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) for over 25 years, notably contributed to Team USA’s efforts across 14 Olympic Games

Steve Ecklekamp secured two more championships for IRCC before departing to a  prolific 25 year career at Florida Atlantic University, where he coached Bela Zbados to an NCAA championship in the 200 freestyle in 1996.  Richard Bader succeeded Ecklecamp winning three more men’s titles (1986-1989).  Bader, now an assistant AD at Michigan State University (MSU), won the women’s Big Ten Coach of the Year in 1997.    

The Pioneers are undefeated in the 400 medley relay since 1986.

Then came the most prolific run in junior college coaching history – for the next 13 years, Chris Ip (1990-2002) led the Pioneers to 13 more championships for the men. Additionally, Ip won 13 championships with the women’s team giving him 26 total NJCAA National Championships, the most for any coach in any sport in NJCAA history. Ip, much like current coach Sion Brinn, who he coached as an athlete, is humbled by the run, pointing to a community of swimmers, coaches, and administrators who made it possible. 

“The 50th, if accomplished, will be a true tribute to a vision created in 1974 by President Herman Heise, Coach Dick Wells and the swimmers who took on the challenge to win the first title,” he remarked. “From the college that adapted to the changing landscape of collegiate sports throughout, to all the coaches and student athletes willing to take on the responsibility and commitment to building a program and defending the title, all credit is due.” 

Ip, like Brinn, talks about the importance of “The Wall” towering over the Anne Wilder Swimming Complex watching and motivating current IRSC swimmers as they compete in practice and at meets, “When you step on the pool deck and see the wall of champions, engraved with the names of all the swimmers, it puts the streak into perspective.”  

“The Wall” is a tangible homage to coaches, athletes, and administrators who came before. It encapsulates and represents in real-time a past forged by many and a vision towards a future that demands generational accountability.  

Being a contributor to “The Wall” and the 26 NJCAA Championships, however, is not what Coach Ip wants to be remembered for, instead he wants to be known for “honor[ing] the college, traditions, the team, and the people associated with our program.” He continues, “as someone who was able to adapt to the changing landscape of both swimming and college athletics, leaving the program in a better place.”  

After his time at the River, Coach Ip held the head coaching position at the now defunct Clemson University swimming program for over a decade. Most recently, Ip was the head coach at Brown University (2012-2019).     

Ip’s Coaching National Championships

NJCAA Championship Events National Championship Winners Winning Percentage
Relay Events 57 of 60 events 95%
Freestyle Events 53 of 65 events 81.5%
Backstroke Events 16 of 26 events 61.5%
Breaststroke Events 13 of 26 events 50%
Butterfly Events 21 of 26 events 81.7%
Individual Medley Events 21 of 26 events 81.7%
TOTALS 181 of 229 events 79%

Coach Ip’s long-time assistant and IRSC’s current Athletic Director Scott Kimmelman (2003-2005) was next in line. Under his tutelage, Kimmerlman’s swimmers won 55 of 60 events at the NJCAA Champioship meets, an astounding 91.6% winning percentage.

Today, Kimmelman has been at IRSC for 30 years, 13 as a swimming coach and 17 as the school’s AD devoting his professional life to the betterment of Pioneer athletes both in their sport and in the classroom.  

Much in line with the humility possessed by his coaching predecessors, Kimmelman defers his own individual praise for the streak, instead he likes to think of the collective effort, “I’ve never scored a point. I’ve been paid to give coaches and swimmers opportunities.” His humble compliments then extended to the vision of the current IRSC President Timothy Moore and presidents before him, “I was asked – what do we need to do to get to the next level?” Kimmelman responded, “Full-time meal plans, full-time assistant coaches was my answer.” These requests and others have been supported over many years.   

Kimmelman’s Coaching National Championships

NJCAA Championship Events National Championship Winners Winning Percentage
Relay Events 19 of 20 events 95%
Freestyle Events 14 of 15 events 93.3%
Backstroke Events Perfect 6-0 100%
Breaststroke Events Perfect 6-0 100%
Butterfly Events 5 of 6 events 83.3%
Individual Medley Events 5 of 6 events 83.3%
TOTALS 55 of 60 events  91.6%

As Kimmelman ascended the ranks of IRSC, becoming the athletic director in 2006, his first order of business was hiring former FSU standout athlete and then University of South Carolina assistant Frank Bradley. In his five years with the program (2006-2010), Bradley’s swimmers never lost a relay at the national championships, collecting 25 relay titles and five additional team championships. 

Indian River was a special time in my career and being a small part of the streak is held in very high regard,” remarked Bradley. “The 50 straight titles are mind boggling when you think of how many people are involved in this… to continue to do it year after year on this scale shows the level of support that has come from the leaders of the college at Indian River, great athletic directors and continued respect by the current team.”  

Bradley’s Coaching National Championships

NJCAA Championship Events National Championship Winners Winning Percentage
Relay Events Perfect 25-0 100%
Freestyle Events 23 of 25 events 92%
Backstroke Events 8 of 10 events 80%
Breaststroke Events 7 of 10 events 70%
Butterfly Events 7 of 10 events 70%
Individual Medley Events 7 of 10 events 70%
TOTALS 77 of 90 events 85.5%

Ryan Mallam (2011-2013) added three more titles, coaching perhaps the fastest swimmer in NJCAA history South African Olympian Brad Tandy in 2012. During that season, Tandy broke the NJCAA national records in the 50 freestyle  (19.06) and 100 freestyle (42.76) – both records are still intact. His 50 freestyle would have placed him 3rd at the 2012 NCAA Championships, while his 100 would have been a top 8 swim. Tandy would go on to Arizona where he tied for the 2014 NCAA national title in the 50 freestyle with Alabama’s Kristian Gkolomeev (18.95). “IRSC is a special place. It provides opportunities to help unlock one’s full potential,” said Mallam about his time at the River. “I am greatly honored to have had the chance to be a part of a monumental program.”  Mallam went on to associate head coaching jobs at Texas A&M and Arizona State, where he was hired by Coach Bob Bowman.  Most recently, Mallam was hired as head coach of Barton College in Wilson, NC.

Mallam’s Coaching National Championships

NJCAA Championship Events National Championship Winners Winning Percentage
Relay Events Perfect 15-0 100%
Freestyle Events 13 of 15 events 86.6%
Backstroke Events 2 of 6 events 33.3%
Breaststroke Events Perfect 6-0 100%
Butterfly Events 5 of 6 events 83.3%
Individual Medley Events Perfect 6-0 100%
TOTALS 48 of 54 events 88.8%

 

“There are never any guarantees. Nothing will be given to us this year,” said Coach Sion Brinn, the 10th coach in this 50 year run. Brinn, who is on track to eclipse his former IRSC Head Coach Chris Ip, just sees the task at hand. He doesn’t boast about his accomplishments; he only wants this next one for his new freshman and graduating sophomores.  

“Sion is a world traveled Olympian and devoted family man able to divide his time equally with his passions. He is humble and low key until it’s time to race,” remarked Coach Ip.  “His athletes express the same dedication and support for their teammates.”  

Sion is extremely ambitious, and his athletes show that same trait going against any program they face. His program reflects his competitiveness and willingness to uphold the highest level of integrity while enjoying the sport they love.    

Brinn’s Coaching National Championships

NJCAA Championship Events National Championship Winners Winning Percentage
Relay Events 46-4 92%
Freestyle Events 44-11 80%
Backstroke Events 24-4 85.7%
Breaststroke Events 18-10 64.2%
Butterfly Events 25-3 89.2%
Individual Medley Events 24-4 85.7%

The 2024 NJCAA Championships will take place March 6-9 in Ft. Pierce, FL at the home of the IRSC Pioneers.  

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Fredrick
1 month ago

Meet week. Hope twizzler week and movie week went well for all. Shoutout to the clubs kids coached by all those mentioned as well. Those royal/gold roots run deeeeeeeeeep

Coach Healy
1 month ago

The last team to beat Indian River was Alfred State College. NJCAA National Champions 1971-1974, and the runners up in 75. What a phenomenal achievement by IRSC, I wish them well chasing 50!

Frank Leavitt
1 month ago

Bill Barrett swam his freshman year at Indian River 78/79. He held the WR in the 200 IM with the 80 Olympic team, unfortunately the boycotted Moscow games.

RIVERFAN
1 month ago

Thanks for writing about IRSC swimming and diving program. Other people that I would like to add are Dave Marsh (Cal associate head coach) and numerous outstanding diving coaches including former IRSC VP, Dr. Tina Hart & current Dave Suba who coached Michael Wright (head diving coach at U of South Carolina).

CCFanClub
1 month ago

Excellent research and history of IRSC.

John
1 month ago

I wonder if there are results available for NJCAA meets from 1978 to 1981. I swam during those years and would love to see them.

Karen Class 76-78
1 month ago

Would have been nice to add the accomplishments of the womens 45 national titles.

Fredrick
1 month ago

I miss Dan Colella very much. Go River!