Counsilman, James Edward ("Doc")

views updated

COUNSILMAN, James Edward ("Doc")

(b. 28 December 1920 in Birmingham, Alabama), two-time coach of the U.S. Men's Olympic Swimming Team who led the Indiana University men's swim team to six consecutive National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championships and also authored an influential book based on motion studies that changed competitive swimming techniques.

Given his career as one of swimming's most successful coaches, it is surprising that Counsilman did not begin to swim competitively until he was almost twenty years old. Born in Birmingham to Joseph and Ottilia (Schamburg) Counsilman, the future coach attended high school in St. Louis, where he was an all-around athlete in football, basketball, track, and baseball. In addition to these activities, he also participated on his high school diving team. Employed as a telephone lineman after graduation, Counsilman took up swimming as a recreational pursuit at a local branch of the Young Men's Christian Association. However, after gaining the attention of the coach Ernie Vornbrock, Counsilman began to train in earnest as a competitive swimmer with the goal of entering the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) competition to be held in St. Louis in August 1941.

Although Counsilman did not win his event, the 200-meter breaststroke, at the competition, his progress under Vornbrock earned him an offer of an athletic scholarship at Ohio State University (OSU) with the swim coach Mike Peppe. Entering college in the fall of 1941, Counsilman took the national AAU title for the 200-meter breaststroke in 1942 as part of the OSU team. His college career was interrupted, however, for military service in 1943; as a B-24 bomber pilot for the U.S. Army Air Forces in the European theater, his plane once ran out of fuel over Yugoslavia. Fortunately, the crew was rescued by friendly forces, who sheltered them until they could be ferried out of the country. Counsilman received the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal with cluster for his military service.

At the conclusion of World War II, Counsilman resumed his studies at OSU and gained another national title in the 200-meter breaststroke event, and the OSU men's swim team earned two NCAA championships during his undergraduate days as the team's captain. Counsilman also started a family with his wife, the former Marjorie Scrafford; they were married on 15 June 1943 and the couple eventually had four children. Completing a B.S. degree in 1947, Counsilman and his family spent a year at the University of Illinois, where he earned an M.S. degree in science in 1948 while working as an assistant swimming coach. Continuing his studies at Iowa State University, Counsilman then pursued his doctorate in human performance, which he finished in 1951. From 1952 to 1957 Counsilman rose through the ranks at the State University of New York at Cortland (then Cortland State Teachers College), earning the rank of professor in his final year there. He was also a prolific author in leading athletic journals, publishing numerous articles that explored swimming as a science.

In 1957 Counsilman accepted a position as an assistant professor and coach of the men's swim team at Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington. Although the school's swimming program was not known as a strong one, Counsilman quickly built it into a national powerhouse. One of the key concepts behind his coaching style was building a sense of camaraderie among his athletes; in the early days at IU, he accomplished this on some of the long road trips that Counsilman and the team took to national meets. The coach also used various games during workout sessions to help his athletes release tension and refocus on their training.

In light of his reputation for team-building skills, Counsilman was appointed as the coach of the U.S. Olympic Men's Swimming Team for the 1964 games in Osaka, Japan. Of the twenty-one medals awarded in seven individual competitions, Counsilman's team won eleven, including four of seven gold medals. In addition, the U.S. team swept all three team events. With his team winning well over half the medals awarded in swimming events, Counsilman returned to IU as an Olympic hero. Further enhancing his reputation, Counsilman published the first edition of The Science of Swimming (1968), based on his motion studies of championship swimmers. Counsilman invoked the eighteenth-century fluid principle theories of the Swiss scientist Daniel Bernoulli to conclude that a propeller-like sculling stroke was more efficient than a stroke that went straight back. Based on his coaching experience, he also opened Counsilman, Hunsaker, and Associates, an aquatic design and consulting firm, in 1970.

While leading the IU men's swimming team to six straight NCAA championships from 1968 to 1973, Counsilman also trained Olympic athletes, including Mark Spitz and John Kinsella. In 1976 he served again as the U.S. Olympic Men's Swimming Team coach; the team astounded the swimming world by taking twenty-six of the thirty-three medals awarded for individual events and both gold medals for team events. U.S. swimmers took every gold medal in the swimming competition except one; in five events, they swept the field. Of the thirteen swimming events, the U.S. team set eleven new world records. Also in 1976 he was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

In 1979 Counsilman took up a new challenge: swimming the English Channel. His completion of this daunting task at the age of fifty-eight made him the oldest person to accomplish the feat. In the next decade, however, Counsilman faced other challenges; in addition to suffering from arthritis, the coach was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in the 1980s. Admitting that his health problems were slowing him down, Counsilman retired as a professor of physical education and swimming coach from IU in 1990. In his retirement, Counsilman updated his classic book, which appeared as The New Science of Swimming in 1994, and he continued to work as a consultant on aquatic projects.

In all, Counsilman trained forty-eight Olympic athletes and served as a mentor to generations of swimmers at IU and elsewhere. In recognition of his contributions, IU established the Counsilman Center for the Science of Swimming. With his pioneering scientific studies and warm regard within the swimming community, Counsilman is assured a legacy as one of the leading coaches in the sport's history.

Counsilman authored three books on swimming: The Science of Swimming (1968), with the second edition retitled as The New Science of Swimming (1994); The Complete Book of Swimming (1977); and Competitive Swimming Manual for Coaches and Swimmers (1977). Profiles of Counsilman's career appeared in Sports Illustrated (4 Apr. 1990), and Swim Magazine (July/Aug. 1996). Anecdotes from athletes trained by the coach were posted on the Indiana University website (31 Aug. 2001), <>. Counsilman's innovations in the science of swimming were reviewed in an essay by Kim McDonald, Washington Post (11 Aug. 1999).

Timothy Borden