Counsilman, James Edward (“Doc”)
Counsilman, James Edward (“Doc”)
(b. 28 December 1920 in Birmingham, Alabama; d. 4 January 2004 in Bloomington, Indiana), swimming coach who led the Indiana University men’s swimming team to twenty consecutive Big Ten Conference titles and six straight National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championships and twice coached the U.S. men’s Olympic swimming team.
Counsilman was the son of Joseph Walter Counsilman, a circus barker, and Ottilia Lena (Schamburg) Counsilman, who ran hospital boarding houses; the couple was separated. In 1926 Joseph took his two sons to St. Louis. Ottilia moved there later and brought her two sons back into her household.
At the age of fourteen Counsilman began swimming at St. Louis fish hatcheries. He graduated from Ben Blewitt High School in St. Louis, where he participated in football, basketball, track and field, baseball, and diving. Counsilman worked as a telephone lineman and swam at the downtown branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association. The coach Ernie Vornbrock taught Counsilman swimming basics and prepared him for the 200-meter breaststroke race at the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) national swimming championships in St. Louis in August 1941. After losing the race, Counsilman entered Ohio State University on an athletic scholarship in the fall of 1941 to swim under the coach Mike Peppe. Counsilman won the national AAU title in the 200-meter breaststroke in 1942.
In 1943 Counsilman entered the U.S. Air Force and served as a B-29 bomber pilot in the European theater of operations. His plane was shot down in Yugoslavia, but friendly forces rescued and sheltered the crew until the men could be transported out of the country. Counsilman was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal.
Counsilman married Marjorie E. Scrafford on 15 June 1943, and the couple had four children. After returning to Ohio State in 1945 Counsilman won the Big Ten Conference and national AAU titles in the 200-meter breaststroke in 1946 and 1947. He was captain of the Ohio State Buckeyes swim team, which won two NCAA championships.
After receiving a BS degree from Ohio State in 1947, Counsilman earned an MS degree in science from the University of Illinois at Urbana in 1948 and a PhD in human performance from the University of Iowa in 1951. He assisted the head swimming coach at the two latter schools. Counsilman taught physical education and from 1952 to 1957 served as head swimming coach at the State University of New York at Cortland. His Cortland swimming teams won four conference titles and compiled a dual-meet record of 35–5, a dual meet being one between two clubs or schools. Counsilman wrote numerous articles on swimming as a science that were published in prominent athletics journals.
Counsilman joined the Indiana University faculty as assistant professor of physical education in 1957 and was promoted to professor in 1966. He coached men’s swimming at Indiana from 1957 to 1990, turning a program not known for swimming into an intercollegiate dynasty rivaled perhaps only by the basketball dynasty of John Wooden of the University of California, Los Angeles. Counsilman’s swimmers developed camaraderie on long trips to conference and national meets. The coach used various games during workouts to help his athletes reduce tension and refocus on their training.
From 1957 to 1990 Counsilman’s Indiana Hoosiers established a dual-meet record of 287 wins, twenty-six losses, and one tie. The swimmers won 110 consecutive dual meets in their home pool, twenty straight Big Ten Conference titles from 1961 to 1980, additional Big Ten Conference crowns from 1983 through 1985, and six straight NCAA championships from 1968 to 1973. Under Counsilman, Indiana finished in second place five times and third place three times at the NCAA championships.
Counsilman’s Indiana swimmers who won numerous NCAA and AAU titles and forty-one Olympic gold medals included Frank McKinney, Mike Troy, Chet Jastremski, Charlie Hickox, Mark Spitz, Gary Hall, John Kinsella, Mike Stamm, and Jim Montgomery. Spitz won a record seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany. He also won the Sullivan Award, given annually to America’s outstanding amateur athlete. Kinsella also received the Sullivan Award, and Spitz, Hall, and Hickox were named Swimming World swimmers of the year.
Counsilman coached the U.S. men’s swimming team in the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, and the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, Canada. At the 1964 games Counsilman’s squad won four of the seven gold medals and eleven of the twenty-one medals awarded in individual competition. At the 1976 games Counsilman’s aggregate captured twenty-six of the thirty-three medals awarded in individual events. American swimmers won twelve of the thirteen gold medals, establishing world records in eleven events and sweeping five events.
Counsilman was selected coach of the year by many organizations, presided over the American Swimming Coaches Association, and was inducted in 1976 into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, of which he was founding president. In 1981 the International Swimming Federation gave Counsilman a certificate of merit for his worldwide contributions to the sport. Counsilman also became the first coach to win the R. Max Ritter Award from United States Aquatic Sports for his national and international achievements. Counsilman trained swimmers in exercise physiology and influenced the development of pace clocks, pool line markers, and pool design, most notably the $21.5 million Indiana University Natatorium in Indianapolis, Indiana. Swimming records were set in twenty-nine of thirty-four events at the 1982 National Sports Festival at that facility, attesting to Counsilman’s talents as a pool designer and engineer.
Counsilman wrote three definitive swimming books. The Science of Swimming (1968), which described Counsilman’s motion studies of championship swimmers, changed competitive swimming techniques. Using the eighteenth-century fluid principle theories of the Swiss scientist Daniel Bernoulli, Counsilman concluded that a propeller-like sculling stroke was more efficient than a stroke in which the swimmer pulled straight back. Counsilman updated that work in The New Science of Swimming (1994) and wrote The Complete Book of Swimming (1977) and the Competitive Swimming Manual for Coaches and Swimmers (1977). He adapted to swimming wind sprints and other interval training methods previously used only in track and field.
In November 1979, at the age of fifty-eight, Counsilman captured the world’s attention by becoming the oldest person to swim the English Channel. The next November he braved icy waters and treacherous rip currents to swim in San Francisco Bay from Alcatraz Island to the mainland. Arthritis and Parkinson’s disease slowed Counsilman in the 1980s, and he retired as physical education professor and swimming coach in 1990. He died in his sleep of complications of Parkinson’s disease. His body was cremated and the ashes interred at Clear Creek Cemetery in Bloomington. Counsilman’s legacy is training forty-eight Olympic athletes and numerous Indiana University swimmers. Indiana University established the Counsilman Center for the Study of Swimming in his honor.
Counsilman’s records are on file at the Counsilman Center for the Study of Swimming, Bloomington, Indiana. For summaries of Counsilman’s career and swimming innovations, see Merrell Noden, “So Long, Doc,” Sports Illustrated (2 Apr. 1990): 14; and the Washington Post (11 Aug. 1999). Obituaries are in the Indianapolis Star and New York Times (both 5 Jan. 2004).
David L. Porter