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IU’s legendary swim coach to be featured in WTIU special

By Ann Wesley

Swimmers (left to right) Don McKenzie, Mark Spitz, Charlie Hickox and the coach, Doc Counsilman.
Photo courtesy of IU Archives

For the record…

Charlie Hickox: Swimming 1967-69...won eight Big Ten, eight NCAA, two Pan-American and six AAU titles...won three gold medals and a silver in 1968 Olympics, setting three records...won two Balfour Awards...held four national records.

Don McKenzie: Won swimming letters in 1968 and 1969...was on two Big Ten first-place medley relay teams...NCAA champion in 1969 in 100 breaststroke and was on NCAA championship medley relay team in 1969...won gold medals in 1968 Olympics in the 100 breaststroke and the 400 medley relay...held Big Ten record in both the 100 and 200 one time held one world record, five American records and two Olympic records.

Mark Spitz: Swimming 1969-72...won 13 Big Ten, eight NCAA and 12 AAU championships...won record seven gold medals in 1972 Olympics and two golds in 1968 Olympics...twice world Swimmer of the Year...Balfour Award winner 1971-72...Gimbel Award winner 1972.

In 1972, Mark Spitz was the talk of the Olympic Games in Munich.

An IU student in Bloomington, Spitz was expected to make history by winning a record number of swimming events, and the Bloomington Herald-Telephone sent Bob Hammel to cover the action.

Full of excitement at his first Olympics, Hammel checked in at the media center to find that only 25 reporters would be picked to witness Spitz’s events. Hammel was terrified he wouldn’t have a story to send to his editors. But he soon found out there was someone bigger than Spitz at the games. Before announcing the lottery winners, an official declared that permanent passes would be issued to four newspapers: The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and the Bloomington Herald-Telephone. While other reporters were surprised at the fourth paper selected, Hammel knew it wasn’t the paper’s reputation that got him a seat—it was the IU swim coach, James “Doc” Counsilman.

Counsilman is widely regarded as the greatest swimming coach of all time and is credited as well with revolutionizing the sport. “He was,” said Spitz, “the architect of the Ten Commandments of swimming.”

He also was the IU men’s coach from 1957 to 1990 and now is the subject of a WTIU film, Doc Counsilman: Making Waves. The story, narrated by Bloomington’s Dick Bishop, recounts Counsilman’s youth, his success at Ohio State University and his military career—in which he flew B-24 bombers on 33 missions and was shot down over Yugoslavia in World War II. Viewers also will learn about his unprecedented coaching success, his family life and the philosophies that drove him.

Throughout his career and afterwards, Counsilman has been compared to the greatest coaches of almost every sport. But Bob Knight, IU’s former basketball coach, went one step further, saying, “Doc’s legacy is very simply this: he is one of the greatest coaches who ever coached any sport, anywhere, in any era.”

Doc counsilman swimming the English Channel.
Photo courtesy of IU Archive
‘The Science of Swimming’ is still considered the bible of swimming instruction. It was the start of Counsilman’s serious research in biomechanics and led to six inventions of swimming apparatus that are considered staples in the sport today, including pacer clocks, the isokinetic swim bench and anti-wave lane markers.

To be coached by Counsilman was nearly a guarantee of success. In his 33 years at IU, his teams won 230 dual meets and lost only 11. They won 20 consecutive Big Ten Championships, six NCAA Championships, 72 individual NCAA titles, 272 Big Ten individual titles, and 47 Olympic medals (27 gold). He was twice coach of the U.S. Olympic team.

It was Counsilman who in the 1960s began to challenge the mechanics of swimming. His study led him to write The Science of Swimming, now considered the bible of swimming instruction. It was the start of his serious research in biomechanics that led to six inventions of swimming apparatus that are considered staples in the sport today, including pacer clocks, the isokinetic swim bench and anti-wave lane markers.

”He set a standard for swimming,” said Jim Montgomery, who swam at IU from 1973-1977 and won three gold medals in the 1976 Olympics. “He changed the world of swimming—not just biomechanically, but, I think, with his books, and his influence on hundreds of men that swam for him at Indiana and a lot of coaches out there.”

At 58, Doc jumped back in the water and swam the English Channel, becoming the oldest person to do so at the time. Counsilman said he did it to teach people a lesson.

“Doc said that older people sell themselves short, both physically and intellectually,” recalled Dave Hennessey, a Counsilman student in the 1950s. “He wanted to show how much an older person is capable of accomplishing. That message sustained me for years.”

The WTIU film,'Doc Counsilman: Making Waves' includes home movies that have never been aired publicly.

Doc Counsilman: Making Waves includes interviews from his swimmers, colleagues, family and friends. His fatherly relationship with his teams is shown through never-before-seen home movies while his coaching techniques are illustrated with movies he took underwater during training sessions. The program will air Sunday, June 1, at 8:30 p.m. and Saturday, June 7, at 4 p.m.

For more on Counsilman, go this archival HP Web site: “Counsilman Center at IUB studies science of swimming.”

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Publication date: May 16, 2003
Copyright 2000, The Trustees of Indiana University