Dr. James E. ‘Doc’ Counsilman (USA)
Honor Coach (1976)
FOR THE RECORD: OLYMPIC GAMES: U.S. Olympic Head Coach: 21 gold (1964, 1976); PAN AMERICAN GAMES: 11 gold; Captain & NCAA champion swimmer on Ohio State’s National Championship Teams: 1946, 1947; Assistant Coach: University of Illinois (1948), University of Iowa (1948-1952; Coach: Cortland State (1952-1958); Indiana University (beginning 1958); 15 consecutive Big Ten Crowns (1961-1976); 6 consecutive NCAA team titles (1968-1972); 15 undefeated dual meet seasons in 19 yrs.; Records through 1974: WORLD RECORDS: 52; PAN AMERICAN RECORDS: 8; NCAA RECORDS (106 individual); AMERICAN RECORDS: 154; AAU RECORDS: (79 Indoor; 60 Outdoor); President of American Swim Coaches Association; Founding President of the ISHOF; Author of The Science of Swimming.
Six times a “Doc” Counsilman, Indiana swimmer, has been named “World Swimmer of the Year”. His book, “The Science of Swimming”, is THE text beside which all other swim books are judged. An innovator and motivator, Counsilman has been the gospel from the scientific swimming application of stroke films, interval training, isotonic exercise, Bernoulli’s Principle and hypoxic conditioning on down through the psychological lift of “hurt, pain, agony” and jelly beans; whatever specific new approach will stimulate coaches and motivate their swimmers to work harder this year. His leadership, prestige and persuasion were critical factors in the emergence of both the American Swimming Coaches Association and the International Swimming Hall of Fame. Not bad for a swimmer who started at the East St. Louis YMCA.
A GIANT HAS FALLEN
By Cecil Colwin
COACH James Edward ‘Doc’ Counsilman of Indiana University, passed away in Bloomington, Indiana, on the 4th January, 2004, after many years of suffering the torments of Parkinson’s disease. Doc was recognized world-wide as one of the great coaches in swimming history and also as the pre-eminent visionary in the history of swimming. True, others have made major discoveries, but taking the science of competitive swimming, from the birth of the sport, to the time of Counsilman, at ‘Doc’ contributed was much the better half. His life’s work will leave an indelible mark on the sport.
A list of swimmers who swam for Doc reads like a who’s who of swimming greats: Mark Spitz, Jim Montgomery, Gary Hall, John Kinsella, Mike Troy, Charles Hickcox, Don McKenzie, Chet Jastremski, Tom Stock, George Breen, Mike Stamm, Alan Somers, Ted Stickles, Larry Schulhof, John Murphy, and many others.
Doc’s swimmers gloried in hard, intelligent work, and they attached a stigma to those who didn’t pull their weight. Doc was a born master of group dynamics; he used positive thinking, ritual, ceremony, and tradition to bond swimmers into tough, enthusiastic, successful teams. But, above all, Doc was a fine inspirational coach, as sensitive to the aspirations and emotions of the swimmers as a photographic plate is to light.
There is insufficient space to list all the fine achievements of individual Indiana swimmers. There were many all-time ‘firsts’, the most notable of all being Mark Spitz’s seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and Jim Montgomery’s 100 meter Olympic freestyle win in Montreal, 1976, when he became the first swimmer in history to crack 50 seconds for the distance.
Doc’s coaching philosophy was influenced in several ways by the late Ernst Vornbrock who aimed to help swimmers achieve their full academic, athletic, and social potential. “Maturity in coaching is important; not only should the coach be aware of one’s own basic needs, but also of those of the team, and when the two coincide, the coach usually has a very sound philosophy.”
Doc warned about getting caught in the trap of seeking to develop champions only. “You don’t have to sacrifice the rest of the team to develop the exceptional few”, he often said. “Develop a state of mind that concerns itself with everyone on the team. Then you will have more than your fair share of champions, and fewer champions will have a distorted idea of their own importance.”
Doc readily admits that he learned a great deal from the talented swimmers he coached. “For example, Mark Spitz taught me a lot”, he says. “Great swimmers usually have an innate sense of how they function. They seem to know instinctively how hard they need to work, and when they need to ease off. There’s no need for the slave-driver approach to coaching. By respecting the swimmer’s perceptions about his swimming, and by good communication, a coach can develop the sensitivity to understand the swimmer’s basic needs.”
For over 20 years, about 18,000 kids attended Doc’s annual swim stroke clinics. where he taught his assistants the importance of a positive approach to stroke instruction, and how important it was not to jump in with criticisms of a young swimmer’s stroke,but rather to praise the good points about it.
The success of Indiana’s swimming teams became a tradition in the Hoosier State, and twice the team was given a dinner by the governor of Indiana. And, if this were not enough, once a year Marge Counsilman invited the team home for lasagna.
Doc’s “Jelly Bean Day” was another traditional occasion. Once a season, every swimmer was timed for 800 meters, using his particular competitive stroke. A pound of jelly beans was awarded to every swimmer making standard times. This became such a tradition that the stands were half-filled with spectators, and the results were published in the local newspaper.
Before the advent of Counsilman, swimming coaches hadn’t taken sports science seriously. Most scientists weren’t good at explaining themselves; their work was generally thought to be ‘too technical’, and of little practical value. Frustrated, they withdrew into esoteric language, referring to the public as ‘laymen,’ and developing obscure terms from which a naive, secret-society feeling of superiority was derived.
Counsilman, however, wrote simply as well as accurately. He understood the sport, had an intuitive feel for it, and was immensely creative. He was a former national champion, a successful coach, and trained in scientific investigation by the best in the field. He was one of the few who knew how to ask the right questions.
The word went out that ‘Counsilman’s stuff really worked.’ Coaches started to read his papers on interval training. They learned how to control work-rest ratios and develop a swimmer’s speed and endurance. Then, when Counsilman published his work that first explained how the laws of physics govern stroke mechanics, they read that too, applied it, and found that their swimmers swam more efficiently.
In short, “Doc” directed his mind to a methodical and unrelenting analysis of swimming techniques in a manner never before attempted. The quality that set “Doc” apart was perhaps the persistence of his curiosity about the world. Throughout his career his keen, enquiring mind spent hours extracting information from the data and forming workable concepts.
The result was that his swimming teams improved, and so did the teams of those coaches around the world who adopted his concepts. They knew that Counsilman was one of them, a scientist but also a coach, and a great one at that. He was twice American Olympic Coach (1964 and 1976). The 1964 team won all but two gold medals and over half of all medals; the 1976 team won all but one gold medal and three-fourths of all medals. At one time or another, his swimmers set world records in every single men’s event, a record unequaled by any other team. When ‘Doc’ retired in 1990, his teams’ win/loss record at Indiana was 286-36-1, and his swimmers had won seven long course national team championships.
James Edward Counsilman was born of German-American parents in Birmingham, Alabama, on the 28th December, 1920, the younger son of Joseph and Ottilia Counsilman. He was two years old when his parents separated, and his mother returned with Jim and his brother, Joe (3 1/2), to her home town of St Louis, Missouri.
The small Counsilman family arrived in St Louis, poor and desperate, destined to face years of hardship and privation. But Ottilia Counsilman, a staunch member of the Missouri Lutheran Synod, was a woman of strong principles, great drive, and indomitable spirit. She faced hardship with self-sacrifice, and cheerful, perennial optimism, encouraging her two sons by saying: ‘God helps those who help themselves.’
James Counsilman always had an implacable curiosity, and was fascinated by all kinds of swimming motions in nature. As a boy, he loved to watch fish slip through water, and he caught snakes and put them in water to see them swim. The outcome of their interest in animals was that Joe became a veterinary surgeon, and Jim became the coach/scientist who uncovered many of the secrets of human swimming.
Becomes A Swimmer
Together with ‘Baron’, a black Labrador Retriever, the two brothers spent their boyhood rambling the 1400 acres of nearby Forest Park. One day, they were wading in the park’s fish hatchery when Jim stepped into a hole and nearly drowned. He decided to teach himself how to swim, and within a year he won a place on his high school swim team. He also became a fine high school track and field athlete, covering 440 yards in 54 seconds, and leaping 5’10” in the high jump. He had wanted to be a diver, but he broke his ankle so decided to focus on swimming. Now keenly interested in swimming, he read the autobiography of Captain Matthew Webb, first man to swim the Channel. Webb’s feats inspired Jim.
He developed into a fine swimmer and a national champion. He went on to become one of the great figures in the history of the sport. And, like Matthew Webb, he accomplished his own ‘first’ when he became, at 58, the oldest man to swim the Channel.
Ernst Vornbrock – A Profound Influence
In 1938, at Maplewood, Missouri, Jim Counsilman won his first important swimming race, and caught the attention of Ernst Vornbrock, the coach at the St. Louis Downtown YMCA. Vornbrock came into Jim’s life at the right time. His mother had toiled hard and long to support her family, the two boys had always been trouble-free and dependable, but the influence of a
strong male figure was never more needed. By comparison with his school friends, Jim was at a disadvantage. Vornbrock saw this, and soon took a keen interest in the young man, in whom he discerned the character and talent that leads to success.
Vornbrock became a big influence in Jim Counsilman’s life; so much so that, 30 years later, Jim was to dedicate his epoch-making book, “The Science of Swimming,” to “My coach, the late Ernst Vornbrock.” Vornbrock helped Jim to improve his self-image, and discover the potential that lay within him. A year before meeting Vornbrock, Jim had graduated 113th in a class of 116, and was in the depths of despair. He had shown promise in mathematics, an indication of conceptual ability, but his teachers overlooked his strong points instead of using them as positive reinforcement. This failure to perceive his innate ability, resulted in Jim never thinking of himself as smart.
But Vornbrock was devoted ‘to helping kids improve their self-esteem, and become better adjusted.’ A highly intuitive person, Vornbrock treated Jim like his own son and taught him to think positively, and to ‘always finish what you start’. Vornbrock introduced him to classical music, and the arts in general, and even allowed him access to his collection of classical records with the result that Counsilman developed a life-long appreciation of classical music; Puccini’s operas,”Turandot” and “Madam Butterfly” becoming his favorites.
The Depression Years
Jim Counsilman graduated from high school in 1937 in the middle of the Great Depression. Jim had inherited his mother’s tremendous drive, and he found employment wherever he could get it; one week he would work as a packer for Singer sewing machines, while the next week might find him climbing poles and wiring up domestic telephones for $20 a week. During this time he continued to attend workouts, walking two miles there and two miles back again, to both early morning and evening practices.
In 1941, the United States national outdoor championships were held in Doc’s hometown of St.Louis which was fortunate because he couldn’t have afforded the travel to travel elsewhere. Jim finished second in the 200 meters breaststroke event. He swam the distance by alternating between orthodox breaststroke and the hybrid ‘butterfly-breaststroke’, a combination of butterfly arm-action and breaststroke kick.
At the meet, Coach Vornbrock introduced Jim to Mike Peppe, coach of the Ohio State University. There were no scholarships in those days, but Mike Peppe took an interest in Jim, and found him a job as an elevator operator in the Statehouse (State of Ohio governmental building), where he earned 40 cents an hour, which bought a full meal in those days. In addition, Peppe arranged for Jim to share a room with the great Hawaian swimmer Keo Nakama in the University’s International House.
Counsilman enrolled in a B. A. course, majoring in forestry, but later switched to a science degree in physical education. In April, 1942, he competed in the national short course championships, in Columbus, Ohio, and won the 220 yards breaststroke event, setting a new National AAU record in the process.
In June 1942, Coach Hal Minto invited Doc to train with him at Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, to prepare for the national long course championships. He was not to know that the pool was filled with artesian well water , and that it was ‘as cold as ice’. Neither did he know that, at Cuyahoga Falls, he was to meet Marjorie Scrafford, his future wife and life-long companion for 60 years.
After winning the national 200 meters title at New London, Connecticut, in August, 1942, Doc and Marjorie started dating. Then he returned to Ohio State, only to be called up for military service in early March 1943, a week before the Big 10 Conference Meet. Although Doc wasn’t to compete in the Big 10 for the first time until 1946, when the war was over, Jim was not about to delay his marriage, and he and ‘Marge’ were wed on June 15th 1943. Jim left for Europe on active service in January, 1945.
The U.S. Army Air Corps
Doc signed up in the U.S. Army Air Corps, and scored in the 99th percentile on the I. Q. tests. Although not talkative about his actual military service, it is on record that, between January and May,1945, when the war in Europe ended, Doc flew 32 missions as a B-24 bomber pilot and was awarded the Air Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster. While bombing the railroad marshalling yards in Innsbruck, his plane’s landing gear was shot out, and he flew the plane over the Alps to crash land near Zagreb in Yugoslavia, saving the lives of his crew. For his courage Jim Counsilman was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
First Coaching Experience
Discharged from the Army Air Corps in August 1945, Jim returned to his studies at Ohio State, and was appointed captain of the championship-winning swimming team in 1946 and 1947. In 1946, he won the Big Ten Conference 200 yards breaststroke title, and took second in the same event to Charles Keating in the NCAA championships.
In those days swimmers were allowed to coach while still competing, and Mike Peppe, impressed by Jim’s personality and knowledge, asked him to be his assistant. The former bomber pilot made a strong, mature leader to whom the swimmers reacted with enthusiasm. And he kept a log, just as he had done in the Air Corps. He recorded every workout, from the day he started coaching. Years later, he was to say: “The most valuable research I ever did was contained in the daily training log of every workout I set in my career.”
In 1946 the Ohio State team, which had a number of great Hawaiian swimmers on its roster, went to Hawaii for the summer to train under the legendary coach, Soichi Sakamoto. Sakamoto taught Doc that swimmers could train much harder than most people thought they could; in fact, every aspect of the Hawaiian experience made a great impression on him.
Later Doc was to say: “Sakamoto trained the swimmers hard, but he was a kind, gentle person, and he never screamed or hollered. If you did something that he didn’t like, he would become quiet, but he was not vengeful or vindictive. Sakamoto never won a place as a coach on a United States Team.He wasn’t a politician, and he was never really recognized, even when he had the majority of swimmers on the team. At least, he should have been selected as the distance coach.”
Counsilman graduated from Ohio State in 1947, then went to the University of Illinois to study for a master’s degree under Professor Thomas Kirk Cureton, regarded as “the father of swimming research.” Cureton’s pioneering research made prolific contributions to understanding physical fitness. He was one of the first to undertake the physiological measuring of champion swimmers. Cureton was known for his ability to make students think. He challenged them, stimulated their curiosity, and their desire to investigate, saying:”If you end up upsetting tradition, why that’s fine”.
Doc admired Tom Cureton for his original thinking, and not being afraid to upset tradition. He respected Cureton’s individualism and drive. Cureton taught him how to apply the laws of physics to human movement; how not to be afraid to try new methods, and make radical changes. Over the years, Doc’s ‘s mind ranged far and wide, speculating over unsolved problems in the new field of competitive swimming.
Doc’s main focus in preparing his master’s thesis, was on “A Cinematographic Analysis of the Butterfly-Breaststroke”, which included a comparison between the breaststroke whip and wedge kick actions. In this study, he pioneered the use of the motion camera as a scientific instrument for analyzing swimming techniques.
Doc discovered that underwater photography, to be successful, required plenty of light and clear water, and Jim found the ideal venue at Silver Springs, Florida, where he obtained the use of a specially made underwater tank. Among the first subjects in his underwater studies were such great swimmers as Adolph Kiefer, 1936 Olympic backstroke champion, Wally Ris, 1948 Olympic 100 meter freestyle champion, Keith Carter, national butterfly champion, Bowen Stassforth, 1952 Olympic silver medalist in the 200 m. butterfly, and George Breen, 1500 m. Olympic bronze medalist, 1956.
Doc’s First Olympic Champion
Completing his master’s degree, Doc went to the University of Iowa, on Cureton’s advice, and Cureton drove him there to meet C. H. McCloy and W.W. Tuttle, important names in exercise physiology, a science then only in its infancy. Years later, Doc would say: “Both these men were also good biomechanists. They were great pioneers, and I can’t say enough in their praise. In retrospect, much of the material they were publishing was a bit naive, but, nevertheless, very good for the time.”
While preparing his doctoral dissertation, Doc was assistant coach to David Armbruster. In 1948, Jim coached Iowa swimmer, Walter Ris, to the Olympic 100 meters freeestyle title at the London Olympics. Head coach Armbruster was busy building a boat in his garage; so it was Jim who coached Ris all that summer. Ris’ Olympic victory gave Doc a great deal of confidence.
Counsilman completed his doctorate in August, 1951. His dissertation discussed “The Application of Force in Two Types of Crawl Stroke”, and was a continuation of Louis Alley’s early work on the crawl-stroke. Jim stayed one academic year longer at Iowa, then accepted a post as assistant professor and head swimming coach at The State University of New York (SUNY) at Cortland.
He taught tests, measurements, statistics and physiology, coached the swimming team, and junior varsity soccer. The university administration, anxious to publicize the qualifications of its staff, insisted that personnel of doctoral status should be addressed as “Doctor”. But Jim’s students, somewhat less formally, addressed him as ‘Doc.’ So ‘Doc’ he became, and ‘Doc’ he he has remained–right through into swimming history
Cortland was exclusively a teacher’s college, and not a place where one would expect to find Olympic calibre talent. But one day Doc spotted a freshman with obvious feel for the water. He had also seen him on the soccer field, and Doc knew that the young man had never swum competitively, but Counsilman told him that, with hard work, he could break world records.
Three years later, George Breen won a bronze medal in the Melbourne Olympic Games, and broke three world records in distance freestyle. Breen’s unorthodox two-beat crossover crawl kick was criticised by traditionalists who maintained that the ‘correct’ leg action in crawl swimming was the six-beat kick. In 1957, Doc was the first to describe and explain the two-beat crawl, and it became standard for most distance swimmers.
Doc experimented with weight training. He held a landmark symposium of weight training experts at Cortland State in 1954 that helped to dispel the fallacy that weight training made swimmers ‘muscle-bound’. The Australians were making big strides with new training methods, and it was significant that George Breen, a weight-trained athlete, was one of the few non-Australians to challenge them.
George Breen confirmed what Doc had learned from Coach Sakamoto in Hawaii; namely that swimmers are capable of adapting to large amounts of hard work. At Cortland, Doc soon made his mark. In five years his team won 35 of 40 meets, and four conference titles. Not only did he coach his team to win, but he always encouraged his swimmers to reach for their full potential in all aspects of their lives. Ernst Vornbrock had taught him well.
Home in Indiana
By the late 1950’s, Doc Counsilman’s reputation as a coach and researcher was well established, and, when Coach Robert Royer became ill and had to retire from his post at Indiana University, Frank McKinney urged the university to hire Doc. Doc thrived on being in the thick of competition, and it was natural that he jumped at the chance to enter the big leagues.
Doc came to Bloomington in 1957, and two outstanding swimmers, Frank McKinney and Frank Brunell, came to swim for Doc at Indiana. Soon others followed. Don Watson, coach of the outstanding Hinsdale High School, who had trained under Doc at Iowa, and was a close friend, encouraged swimmers such as John Kinsella, Scott Cordin, John Murphy, and many others, to go to Indiana. From Australia came Coach Don Talbot’s outstanding stars, Kevin Berry and Robert Windle, both of Olympic gold medal fame. The momentum was so great that, at the 1964 Olympic Trials, at Flushing Meadows, New York, seven of the eight finalists in the 200 meters breaststroke, led by the great Chet Jastremski, came from Doc’s team.
Although barred from competing in the NCAA’s from 1961-1963 because of rule infractions by the university football program, Doc kept morale high and the team continued to compete at a high level in the Big Ten and AAU championships. Ted Stickles broke seven world records in the individual medley event during his career, and, in fact, during those years, it was calculated that Indiana teams could have defeated the rest of the world in a head-to-head competition.
Doc Counsilman on “The Scientific Method”
Doc Counsilman had an excellent training in the scientific method. His advice to students was: “Outline your topic clearly and discipline yourself to stay within the limits of your subject.” Doc realized it was important not to become a mere recorder of facts; one should try to penetrate the mystery of their origin.
Doc once said that true understanding in any area of science is always preceded by a series of responses involving three stages: Stage One: Curiosity; Stage Two: Confusion; and Stage Three: Comprehension. Doc added that coaches and scientists are constantly challenged by this triad of learning. “The process can be stimulating, but it is often frustrating and annoying because the light at the end of the tunnel often seems very distant.”
Doc said that a study often shows that a certain method is the best, while another study directly contradicts the first one. “The more we discuss the questions, and research them, the further we push ourselves into the second stage, that of confusion. Finally, after dwelling for some time in this stage, we begin to develop some understanding and venture into Stage Three, that of comprehension.”
Doc’s Advice to Today’s Coaches
Doc once said: “I doubt that any intelligent scientist/coach believes he ever enters fully into Stage Three on any subject. As he starts to comprehend some concept or principle, he becomes aware of new unanswered questions and the cycle of the triad response begins all over again. The perceptive scientist has come full circle and enters again into Stage One as the cycle repeats itself.”
Doc believed that we keep progressing by evaluating change objectively. He warned: “Don’t paint yourself into a corner; people write something and they are scared to walk away from it.” Doc had an anti-doctrinaire nature which precluded him from swallowing systems whole. He believed that putting methods into neat pigeon holes, to synthesize them, led to “stagnation and not progress.”
Doc’s Contributions to Competitive Swimming
Doc contributed to every phase competitive swimming. No phase of the sport escaped his attention and was not significantly improved by his influence. His ground-breaking research covered a wide field. In the area of exercise physiology, and conditioning, he published papers on a wide range of topics: interval training, strength training, isokinetic and biokinetic exercises, hypoxic training, altitude training, and so on and on.
Underwater Stroke Analysis
Doc’s first interest had been in kinesiology, the science dealing with the Doc’s contributions to competitive swimming study of body mechanics and the prescription of exercises for developing specific muscle groups. This interest started in high school when he saved up to buy a small “Argus” camera for ten dollars, and asked a school friend to photograph him in various phases of the high jump. Little did he know that this modest start was to grow into a photographic odyssey spanning more than half a century, in which he was to become the consummate artist of underwater photography, who also pioneered the use of the movie camera as a scientific instrument.
Doc once said: “With the wisdom of hindsight, it’s hard to believe that, only forty years ago, coaches didn’t know the exact answers to such questions as to ‘where and how should the hands enter the water?’, ‘should the pull be bent or straight?’, ‘what should be the path of the hands in the stroke?’, and ‘should the stroke be short or long, slow or fast?’
Doc’s early attempts at motion film analysis of swimmers started with the use of an old aircraft movie camera that, according to Doc, ‘looked as if it had been through both World War I and World War II!’ Using outdated film given to him gratis by the university athletic department photographer, he could shoot five or six swimmers in slow motion with each 100 foot roll. The film still cost six dollars per roll to process. Then he would take the film home to study it. In typical painstaking and implacable fashion, Doc gradually solved the problems of underwater photography; light refraction, image distortion, and the use of grids to measure stroke velocity and acceleration.
Last but not least, the big difficulty was the design of an underwater camera housing that was both water-proof, and easily manoeuvrable. Before perfecting an ideal camera housing, Doc wrote off two expensive movie cameras that were ruined by leakage, and his basement shelves still carry umpteen experimental housings that failed to meet his needs.
Lest it be thought that Doc had access to only the most expensive testing instruments, it should be known that he was a master at devising ingenious makeshift equipment. He followed the precepts of Ivan Pavlov, the Russian scientist, who said: ‘Accustom yourself to the roughest and simplest scientific tools’. Doc cleverly contrived a unique system of underwater strobe light photography, and used it to show, for the first time, the true nature of human swimming propulsion.
He attached a battery-powered flashing light to the mid-fingers of a swimmer’s hands, and had him swim in complete darkness, before flashing a strobe light to make a single picture that showed where the hand was at a given point. Because he left the shutter open throughout the entire swim, he obtained pictures of the flashing light, before and after the strobe was fired, and thus was able to work out where the hand was at other points in the stroke cycle. Doc’s underwater photography completely revised the understanding of stroke mechanics. Using this method, Doc eventually produced the first complete analysis, not only of stroke mechanics and the forces developed, but also of the actual propulsive mechanisms used in swimming.
The Bernoulli Effect in Swimming
There was a time in the 1960’s and the 1970’s, when Swimming World magazine published at least one ‘breakthrough’ article by Doc every year. Readers, and coaches, in particular, developed the habit of quickly canning the pages of each new issue, seeking new articles by Doc. Even his Indiana swimmers were caught up in the anticipation, and one day they appeared on deck in bright new T-shirts inscribed “What’s up Doc?”
Each new discovery was released to the swimming public in sequence to aid the process of concept formation. First he showed, by means of underwater trace-light photography, that swimmers used curved line sculling patterns, and did not pull in a straight backward line, as commonly believed. Only in his next paper did he reveal his major discovery, namely that swimmers propel mainly by means of lift propulsion (the ‘Bernoulli Effect’). Later, he expanded this work to show how good swimmers have acceleration patterns that are interrelated with lift propulsion.
Mentor to the World
Doc published over 100 papers on various aspects of swimming research. His interest even extended to swimming pool design, anti-turbulence lanes, and building thousands of the first specially-designed pace clocks for interval training.
He visited no fewer than 24 countries. A constant stream of coaches, from over 37 countries, came to Bloomington to interview him, and often to stay and complete studies under his guidance. Then they went home to spread the Counsilman gospel.
In 1968, his classic book, “The Science of Swimming”, showed the value of a scientific approach, and was reprinted 22 times. The book had immediate credibility because its author was also an outstanding coach at the pinnacle of his career, with a long and illustrious record of producing world-record holders and Olympic champions.
In 1977, he published another best seller, “Competitive Swimming Manual”.An outstanding feature was the series of underwater action sequences of Mark Spitz, Gary Hall, Jenny Turrall, Kornelia Ender, and dozens more of the greatest swimming stars of the 1970’s, from the United States, Australia, and East Germany. This collection remains the finest photographic record of the stroke mechanics of great swimmers.
“Competitive Swimming Manual” included an important section on the Psychology of coaching. The eminent George Haines paid Doc a fine compliment when he said that Doc had the ability to bring together matured star swimmers, from a wide variety of backgrounds, and then coach them to even greater improvement. Doc aptly fits the great Australian swimmer, John Devitt’s description of a great coach: “A great coach can take a good swimmer and make him great, and he can also take a great swimmer and make him greater.”
The ‘X’ Factor
Doc sometimes adopted a folksy way of putting his message across. His talk at the ASCA World Clinic in Montreal in 1971 on “The ‘X’ Factor in Coaching” remains a classic. He spoke about a mythical coach, ‘Frank Zilch’ who, hard as he tried to become successful, lacked the ‘X’ factor.’ Doc explained the ‘X’ factor as the ability to recognize the important things in coaching, and to work on them, and to minimize the unimportant.
“The great coach must have two basic abilities – he must be a good organizer and a good psychologist,” said Doc. “The good organizer will have the large team, will attract the good swimmers from other teams, and develop the Mark Spitzs and Gary Halls of the future. The good psychologist will be able to handle the parent problems, get along with the city council, and be able to communicate successfully with the swimmers – he will have the ‘super’ teams.”
“The good coach today needs only an elementary knowledge of conditioning physiology and stroke mechanics. He does not need these to get the job done. However nothing remains static, and in the future these two areas will become more and more important.”
Doc Emulated Matthew Webb
No one knows when Doc first started to nurture the idea of swimming the English Channel, not even Doc himself. He had joined the masters’ swimming movement when it started in the early 70’s, and soon made a mark for himself in its ranks. Marge Counsilman noticed that he was spending more and more time swimming in Lake Monroe, near Bloomington. He had decided to swim the English Channel. Marge didn’t think this was a good idea, but try as she did, she was unable to dissuade him.
Doc engaged the services of Tom Hetzel, a renowned coach of channel swimmers, and Hetzel recommended that Doc build up to a ten mile swim twice a month…to begin with. Then, a month before the Channel attempt, he was to have reached a stage where he could cover an average of 100 miles permonth. During this time, Doc could be seen regularly swimming up and down Lake Monroe, with one of his students motoring close by in an escort boat.
Hetzel, a shrewd psychologist, warned Doc: “You need to stop thinking in minutes and seconds, like a competitive swimmer, but rather in hours; hours and hours…That’s the biggest mental hurdle every Channel swimmer mustovercome. The Channel swimmer also needs to not let unexpected events get him ruffled.”
When the great moment came on September 17, 1979, he set off at dawn from Shakespeare Beach, swimming a steady seventy strokes per minute. Aboard the 26 foot fishing boat accompanying him were Marge, Tom Hetzel, two television photographers, a “Sports Illustrated” writer, an “S.I.” photographer, the official observer, Ray Scott of the Channel Swimming Association, and the fishing boat captain, Reg Brickell, and his two sons.
For hour after hour, except when feeding, he plodded along, arms pulling and recovering in a steady crawl stroke, and purposely breathing late to avoid inhaling sea water. Hetzel had warned Doc to expect the unexpected, and it happened when an under-manned Russian trawler appeared, coming straight towards him. The captain of the fishing boat radioed the trawler to warn them that a channel swimmer was in the sea in front of them. But the trawler was under the control of an automatic pilot while the crew was below deck taking coffee, and it kept coming straight at him, almost to the point where it would have been too late to avoid him. In desperation, the fishing boat radioed to shore, and only then did the trawler get the message, and take evasive action.
Hetzel had arranged a set of signals with Doc; he had three hats which he was to change at certain intervals, and when he changed his hat for the last time, that was to be the signal that Doc had only three more miles to go. Towards the end of the swim, the worst fear of most Channel swimmers appeared about to happen when the weather took a sudden turn.
The rolling swell suddenly became a violent chopping sea that threatened to engulf Doc. The wind whipped up, and it was obvious that Doc was very tired. It was feared his core temperature could drop so low that his brain would stop functioning properly, and he would start hallucinating. At that moment, however, Tom Hetzel changed hats for the last time, indicating that there were only three more miles to cover. Doc remembered Ernst Vornbrock and how he had taught him: “the most important thing in life is to always finish what you start.” Doc started swimming with renewed determination.
Finally, just at sunset, the oldest man to swim the channel found himself wading ashore. “The tide had caused him to miss the traditional finishing spot at Cap Gris-Nez, and he landed at Wissant, 13 hours and 7 minutes after leaving the English shore.
The news of Doc’s swim spread rapidly around the world. Doc and Marge flew straight from London to Seattle. When Doc entered the conference room at the ASCA world coaches’ conference to give his talk, over one thousand colleagues rose spontaneously and gave him the ovation of his life.
On their way home, when Doc and Marge arrived in Chicago, an Indiana University plane was waiting, sent specially to bring them home. At Bloomington airport, before the Mayor and the University president could reach them to extend their official welcome, their grandson, overcome by impatience, broke ranks and ran on to the tarmac to greet them. There was a motorcade parade. Nearly the whole student body and most of the town’s people lined the streets to welcome them and show their joy. In every respect Doc had finished what he had started.
“Doc” James Counsilman Personal Data.
- B.S. (cum laude), Ohio State University, 1947
- M.S., University of Illinois, 1948
- Ph. D., State University of Iowa, 1951
- Positions elsewhere and years in each:
- Graduate Assistant and Assistant Swimming Coach University of Illinois, 1947-1948;
- Instructor, 1948-1952 and Assistant Professor, 1952 State University of Iowa;
- Assistant Professor, 1952-1954, Associate Professor, 1954-1957,
- Professor, 1957 appointment, State University of New York at Cortland.
- Ranks held at Indiana and years in each:
- Associate Professor, 1963-1966
- Professor, 1966-1990.
- Courses taught:
- A384 – Swimming Techniques P530 – Advanced Theory of Training Athletes
- M130 – Life Saving
- M335 – Water Safety Instruction P740 – Research in Physical Education
- T790 – Thesis in Health, Physical Education
- & Recreation
- The Science of Swimming Prentice-Hall Inc. 1968 (Twenty-two printings)
- The Complete Book of Swimming Athenaeum Inc, 1977
- Competitive Swimming Manual for Swimmers and Coaches, Counsilman Co., Inc. 1977
- The New Science of Swimming, Prentice Hall, Inc., 1994 (with Brian E. Counsilman)
- Honors and Awards (Over 25. Many deleted for reasons of space)
- National AAU Swimming Award and Outstanding Coach of the Year, 1963.
- College Coach of the Year, 1968, 1969, 1970.
- Founding President of the International Swimming Hall of Fame (1965- 1969)
- President of the American Swimming Coaches’ Association 1965 & 1966, and Member of the Board of Directors , 1963-1972.
- Member of the Board of Directors, Sports International. Conducted through the Department of State ; all selections of coaches for foreign assignment were approved by Dr Counsilman through Nicholas Rodis, Special Assistant to the U. S. President, (1963 – 1968).
- Awarded the FINA Prize Eminence, 1972. (This award was later withdrawn when it was decided that it should not be granted to a professional coach.)
- Max Ritter Award, 1980.
- Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine.
- Consultant, President’s Council for Physical Fitness, 1960-1980.
- Member of The President’s Council on Physical Fitness (Nixon administration.)
- Member of the President’s Council on Olympic Sports (Ford’s Administration.)
- Member of the National YMCA Aquatic Committee, 1955 – 1967.
- Inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, 1976.
- Member of the NCAA Rules Committee (1977 – 1981)
- Member of the College Swimming Coaches’ Association, 1960 to present.S
- Member of the American Association of Health, Physical Education & Recreation. Selected to the Association’s Hall of Fame, 1980.
- Chairman, Indiana Cancer Crusade, 1974.
- Honorary Chairman, Mental Health Association, 1980-1981.
- Honorary Chairman, Dental Health week, 1981.
- International Service Award, United States Sports Academy, 1982.
- National Hall of Fame, United States achievement Academy, 1982.
- Member of American Medical Association Sports Medicine Committee.
- Member of U.S. Olympic Committee and Member of USOC Technical Committee
- Member of the Board of Directors, International Underwater Divers Society
- Member of the Board of Directors, marathon swimmers Association.
- Member of the American Society of Sports Psychology.
- Member of the National Board of Directors, Boy Scouts of America.
- Significant Research:
- 1948 Pioneered the use of underwater photography in analyzing stroke mechanics
- 1949 Developed a protocol for the use of weight training in the conditioning of competitive swimmers. 1949 Introduced interval training for competitive swimming, and invented a pace clock, that permitted application of interval training routines specific to competitive swimming.
- 1969 Used underwater photographic analysis to show the curvilinear
- pulling patterns of the swimming strokes, as well as the role of lift
- (Bernoulli effect) in the propulsion produced by these curved line sculling motions.
- 1969 Introduced isokinetic resistance exercies for strength training of competitive swimmers.
- 1979 Introduced semi-accommodating or biokinetic resistance training apparatus for specialized strength training of competitive swimmers. 1981. Used underwater photographic analysis to show the importance of hand-speed acceleration in swimming.
- Major Articles:
- Counsilman published some 120 articles over a forty-six year career. The following are some of his landmark publications:
- “The Role of Sculling Movements in the Arm Pull.”(1969) Swimming World, Vol. X No. 12
- “The Application of Bernoulli’s Principle to Human Propulsion in Water.”(1970),
- “Proceedings of the First International Symposium on Biomechanics in Swimming, Water Polo and Dving.”
- “Interval Training Applied to Swimming”, (1961), Swimming World and Junior Swimmer, 2:6, also Athletic Journal, 42,20.l
- “Hand Speed and Acceleration.” (1983). ScientificSports, pp 41-52
- “The X Factor.” (1971) American Swimming Coaches’ Association World Clinic Year Book, pp 69-74.
- “Effect of Altitude on Swimming Performance,” (1965), Swimming World and Junior Swimmer, 6, 10-11, 26.
- “Does Weight Training Belong in the Physical Education Program?” (1954), Journal for AAHPER, Vol. 26.
- “The Use of Goal Sets and Cruise Interval Sets as a Method of Balancing High Intensity and Endurance Training, and as A Diagnostic Tool.” (1984) American Swimming Coaches’ Association World Clinic year Book, pp 1-9
- “Isokinetics: A New Form of Exercise” (1969), Swimming World, Vol. X, No. 11.
- “Biokinetics – the Ultimate Exercise.” American Swimming Coaches’ Association World Clinic Year Book, pp 29-36 (. 1979)
- “Specificity in Dryland Exercise”. (1969). Swimming World, Vol. X No. 10
- “Three Types of Grab Start for Competitive Swimming.” (1988) Swimming. Human Kinetics Publishers, pp. 81-91.
- “Importance of Speed in Exercise.” (1977). Modern Athlete and Coach, 15 (3), 2-5. American Swimming Coaches’ Association World Clinic Year Book, pp 1-
- “Breaking up Shoulder Problems. Can massaging tendinitis-stricken shoulders make scar tissue problems disappear?” Swimming Technique, 22 (4), 14-18.
Parts of this Obituary were extracted by Cecil Colwin from his article, “The Talent is the Call”
which appeared in Swimming World” 1994 , 2-57