Forbes Carlile, Innovative Coach Who Studied Science of Swimming, Dies at 95
Article published in NY Times by Frank Litzky on August 2nd, 2016
Forbes Carlile, the Australian whose innovative ideas about sports physiology made him one of the world’s best-known swimming coaches and authorities on the sport, died on Tuesday in Sydney. He was 95.
The Australian Olympic Committee announced his death on its website.
Carlile, whose coaching career reached back to the 1940s, was credited with producing a sparkling string of Olympic swimmers for Australia, among them Shane Gould, who at 15 became a national hero when she won three gold medals as well as a silver and a bronze at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.
Carlile’s coaching methods shook swimming traditionalists. He believed swimmers should start high-level competition at a young age, a radical notion at the time. “It is better to be a has-been than a never-was,” he said.
Pupils like Gould and Jenny Turrall gave credence to his theories. From April to December 1971, Gould, at 14 and 15 years old, broke world records in all five women’s freestyle distances recognized at the time, from 100 to 1,500 meters.
From August 1973 to August 1974, Turrall, also at 14 and 15, broke the world record for the 1,500-meter freestyle five times. She looked like a human windmill in the water, churning it with 62 arm strokes for every 50-meter lap.
Until Carlile’s time, swimmers used six leg kicks for every two arm strokes. Carlile introduced a two-beat kick that saved energy. Although many other coaches ridiculed it, Gould and Turrall showed how effective it could be.
In Carlile’s early years of coaching, many other coaches believed hot baths or showers before a race would drain a swimmer. Carlile put himself through tests and found that after an eight-minute shower in water as hot as he could stand, his times improved by 1.5 percent.
He then persuaded 16 Olympic prospects to alternate swims with and without hot showers and found that 13 of them swam an average of 1 percent faster after one. For a 100-meter race, that meant almost a second, and in top competition it almost always meant the difference between first and second place. Of his four swimmers who went to the 1948 London Olympics and heated themselves up, three swam personal-best times.
By the mid-1940s, Carlile had encouraged other Australian coaches to use interval training — alternating between activities requiring different rates of speed and levels of exertion. He advocated year-round training that emphasized long-distance workouts rather than repeating shorter distances. He championed the concept — new then but standard now — of tapering training in the two or three weeks before a major competition.
Carlile also made many contributions to the science of training swimmers. He and his wife, Ursula Carlile, also a celebrated coach, conducted tests showing that significant changes in a cardiogram could be a sign of a breakdown under training stress.
His 1963 book, “Forbes Carlile on Swimming,” is widely considered the first modern study of competitive swimming. It was translated into six languages, including Chinese.
Enter your email address
Receive occasional updates and special offers for The New York Times’s products and services.
Innovations and discoveries aside, he insisted that the most important assets of a swimmer were physical and not mental.
“A swimmer has got to have attributes — body build, the right type of muscles,” he said. “You use psychological techniques, yes, but they are mostly intuitive. They’re not programmed. Physiological and anatomic makeup are primary in a young swimmer. Psychology is secondary.
“Swimming is an endurance-type sport. If you don’t have it physically, psychology doesn’t matter.”
Carlile was born on June 3, 1921, in Melbourne. He was not a particularly good student, he once said, citing a grammar school spelling test in which he scored 3 out of 50. At the private high school he attended, he was a good swimmer, rugby player and rifleman but an undistinguished mile runner.
At the University of Sydney, he planned to study medicine but, he later said, changed his mind as a freshman when he became sick watching film of an operation. He eventually studied human physiology under Frank Cotton, who collaborated with Carlile on research into the science of swimming.
Carlile was a swimming coach for Australia at the 1948 London Olympics. Four years later, in Helsinki, he became the first Australian to compete in the modern Olympic pentathlon: cross-country running, equestrianism, swimming, shooting and fencing. Out of 52 competitors, he finished 25th.
He was also on the Olympic staff for the 1956 Games in Melbourne, where Murray Rose and Dawn Fraser helped Australia win eight gold medals. From 1962 to 1964, he was the head coach of the Dutch national and Olympic swimming teams, and in 1973 he served as the Australian head coach at the first world championships.
Carlile was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 1976.
He and his wife produced technical films on swimming and ran swimming schools in Sydney (where the pupils were as young as 2 months old) as well as swimming clinics all over the world. She survives him. The Carliles did not have children.
As vice president of the World Swimming Coaches Association, Carlile led a movement, starting in 1995, to expel China from international swimming because of the many positive findings there of the use of anabolic steroids. While China escaped a ban, its incidence of drug violations dropped significantly.
Carlile became a lecturer in human physiology at the University of Sydney and was an outspoken writer and commentator.
“Mellow he is not,” Coles Phinizy wrote in Sports Illustrated in 1975. “He is the same Carlile, still up there on the barricades he helped to erect defying the established order, catching brickbats and waving the flag of tomorrow.
“He is a challenging target. He is a rare and curious bird, at times prominent as a peacock, but never an easy mark.”
A version of this article appears in print on August 3, 2016, on page B13 of the New York edition with the headline: Forbes Carlile, Science-Minded Coach Who Changed Swimming, Is Dead at 95. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe