Sports Nut

Requiem for a Swim Coach

Poolside with Doc Counsilman, 1920-2004.

Revolutionizing sport through science

There’s a telephone number in Bloomington, Ind., that I have not forgotten in 43 years. It is the telephone number of my college swim coach, Doc Counsilman. When I dialed it the other day, Doc’s wife, Marge, told me he did not have much time left in his battle with Parkinson’s disease. Then an old teammate and friend called last week to tell me that Doc had passed away. His death came as a stab.

Doc was the greatest swim coach of all time. If that doesn’t move you, then consider him among history’s greatest coaches in any sport. From 1957 to 1990, as coach at Indiana University, his teams won 23 Big Ten titles, six consecutive NCAA titles, and seven AAU outdoor national championships. (He lost a chance at more NCAA crowns because of Indiana’s recruiting violations in other sports.) Doc coached the U.S. Olympic men’s teams in 1964 (winning 9 of 11 gold medals) and 1976 (winning 12 of 13). In his career at IU, he trained 48 Olympians from 10 nations who won 46 medals, 26 of them gold. In the early 1960s, my Indiana teammates held anywhere between two-thirds to four-fifths of all men’s world records.

Doc had a star-crossed life before he entered coaching. During World War II, he piloted a B-24 on 32 missions, one of which ended with a crash landing in Yugoslavia. Crashing a B-24 was no easy matter: The heavy bomber tended to catch the ground nose-first, causing the plane to flip. On Doc’s fated flight, enemy fire destroyed landing gear and hit a compartment, leaving the crew one parachute short. Doc ordered his crew to leap, leaving him at the controls. They refused. So Doc ordered the crew to run to the back of the plane at the last minute, hoping the weight distribution would prevent it from cartwheeling. As his disabled bomber approached the Yugoslav fields, Doc rang a bell. The crew scurried to the tail. All of them survived, and Doc received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

I wonder if Doc issued orders in the Army the way he did at the pool. “Hurt, pain, agony,” he would sing as we chugged across the water. But he always broke the agony with a quip—”Reach down in the bread basket, and come up with the cookies”—or a quote from Shakespeare—”Screw your courage to the sticking-place.”

Doc would enunciate these commands through a crooked mouth, his large hand often pulling on his chin as he thought out some philosophical observation or Solomonic asseveration. Doc’s Ph.D. was in physiology, and he attacked the sport with the breadth of his scientific learning. In the early 1960s, he had us pulling through the water with bent arms—the orthodoxy of the time favored straight arms—because of his fondness for Bernoulli’s Principle. Doc later innovated interval training, weight training, pace clocks, and the biokinetic bench, a contraption suitably esoteric for the Great White Ph.D.

He was an unusual candidate for genius. Raised in a crummy neighborhood in St. Louis in the 1930s—his father was a carnival worker, his mother what we now call a single parent—he graduated 113th from a high-school class of 116. But he discovered books in college, and in adulthood his house was filled with the appurtenances of a man of science: technical papers, instruments, tanks filled with fish and reptiles. When we trained at the indoor pool, opera lilted from the public-address system. When we traveled, he would have a museum to direct us to. (We kidded him about keeping his art books hidden in his bedroom; he never flaunted his artistic interests.) Again and again, he steered conversations back to science. He directed me to Robert Ardrey’s The Territorial Imperative and Desmond Morris’ The Naked Ape, hoping, I suspect, he might lure me to science; but I remained obtuse.

Another of Doc’s bequests to his swimmers was a lifelong respect for fitness. He had become a national champion breaststroker at Ohio State after the war and, before that, a national YMCA handball champion. Decades later, at age 58, he became the oldest man to swim the English Channel.

The dominance Doc’s swimmers had over the sport will never again be duplicated. In the early 1960s, he revolutionized the mechanics of every stroke. At the 1964 Olympic Trials, Indiana University swimmers stood on seven of the eight starting blocks in the breaststroke. (That was my stroke; alas, I was the team’s eighth-stringer.) Doc insisted on strict amateurism. His IU teams had none of the wealth that so-called amateur sports have today. He complained of the drift of college sports into gaudy show biz and away from the ancients’ ideal of a healthy mind in a healthy body.

At the 1962 summer nationals, where his swimmers took practically every title, I recall the frustration of ABC’s Jim McKay asking each champion as the cameras whirred, “To what do you attribute your victory?” Tommy Stock, our world-record holder in the backstroke, replied, “Superior coaching.” His teammates repeated the mantra. McKay looked despondent—this was not riveting television. But what else can you say when you’re coached by Doc Counsilman?