A doctor who makes agony and fun pay off

Dr. James Counsilman, Indiana's swimming brain, mixes horseplay and science to produce champions
March 23, 1964

Indiana University swimmers are sleek, high-spirited and passionate about swimming to the point of exhaustion. Next week, if they win the NCAA championships at Yale, as they probably will, the Indiana swimmers will raise up their coach—a bland, balding, sleepy-eyed, slightly paunchy man named Dr. James Counsilman—and chuck him in the pool. It is a wetting that Dr. Counsilman has long been waiting for. Although his team has dominated American swimming for the past several years, it has not been allowed to compete in the NCAA meet since 1960 because of sins committed by the school in football recruiting. Winning the NCAA title would be topping for Dr. Counsilman's cake: he has been selected to coach the 1964 U.S. Olympic swimming team, and for nearly a decade he has enjoyed a reputation as a physiologist, a swimming technician and a sly fellow who bamboozles swimmers into thinking that two or three workouts a day are fun.

For much of his bamboozling, Dr. Counsilman uses a very simple formula: he dilutes the toughest doses of work with a good bit of foolishness. At a typical workout a few weeks ago at Indiana's lush, lovingly planned half-million-dollar pool, the tough, lung-searing sprints through the water were well mixed with shenanigans. In the middle of the workout Dr. Counsilman, dressed in what he calls his Bozo suit—Indiana-red bell-bottom pants and shirt to match, red shoes, red socks—summoned all except one of his swimmers out of the water. For sly psychological reasons, he had breaststroker Pete Anderson continue plowing through the ripples, frog-kicking his kickboard. This was an important, high-pressure workout, and Dr. Counsilman wanted Anderson to set a new 440-yard frog-kick record. It would be a breakthrough, he felt, that would fire up all his swimmers to work harder and go faster. While breaststroker Anderson frog-kicked his way to glory, one swimmer seized a microphone and began imitating airplane noises over the stereophonic P.A. system. Others flung rubber pulling tubes at each other. (These are like giant black doughnuts and support a swimmer's feet while he pulls through the water using only his arms.)

Dr. Counsilman addressed the group in a mild, reproachful voice. "Let's put a little oomph into this workout," he said. "A little enthusiasm." Then, perhaps because he felt he might have sounded too stern, he added, "I hear Michigan has a midget that does the 100 in 49 flat. He has big feet and he walks on the bottom of the pool."

Laughter drowned out the rock 'n' roll music that had mysteriously started, and a shout drew the attention of most swimmers to the giant pace clock at the end of the pool. (The pace clock is a Counsilman invention that enables swimmers to check their times at the end of each lap.) Kicking mightily, Anderson crossed the 440-yard mark amid the cheers of his teammates. Dr. Counsilman allowed himself a smile, summoned the manager and sent him off to fetch a huge bag of jellybeans. The jellybeans are red and white (the Indiana colors) and are distributed as rewards to swimmers who burn themselves up in practice.

To the accompaniment of agonized groans and mock cries of betrayal, Anderson's time was announced. It was 5:58, a new Indiana frog-kick record—nothing the press would record, but ideal for Dr. Counsilman's purposes. The jellybeans were distributed, and the time was chalked up on a vast blackboard filled with names and numbers.

The airplane noises stopped. At Dr. Counsilman's wave, nine swimmers poised themselves on starting blocks or made ready to push off from the end of the pool for a 440-yard sprint. No friend of long, leisurely swims, Dr. Counsilman punched his watch as he set them off with a piercing whistle. When they were done, he unerringly told each man his time and by a glance indicated if the time was better or worse than he expected. "Not knowing the complete history of a swimmer's time," he says, "is a personal affront. Like not knowing his name."

When the swimmers had pulled themselves out of the pool, Counsilman strolled to the record player, ripped off the record and scaled it into the water. He prefers Puccini to rock 'n' roll The swimmers throw his Puccini records into the pool, so he throws in their rock 'n' roll.

The bamboozling Counsilman does is a vital adjunct to his swimming program. He believes that severe stress is the key to improved swimming times. A typical high-pressure workout consists of half an hour's struggle with weights, immovable bars and elastic pulleys, a warmup in the pool, 16 50-yard sprints, 18 laps with the kickboard, kicking 100 yards four times at high speed, sprinting 440 yards four times and swimming 50 yards 16 times. Under the interval training system developed by Dr. Counsilman, rest periods are timed as carefully as work periods, so that a swimmer adapts to the necessity of recovering his wind quickly. If he completes his assigned distance in quicker time than expected, he is rewarded with a few seconds' more rest.

High-pressure workouts alternate with low-pressure ones. These permit slower sprints and more tomfoolery. The theory behind low-pressure workouts and complex, closely timed, high-pressure workouts is to keep swimmers keenly interested in racing up and down a pool. The theory behind the program as a whole is the "overload principle." That is, extreme stress is placed on the body, which learns to adapt to it. The heart becomes more efficient, the lungs work better, the hemoglobin content of the blood rises and the muscles tire less easily. At certain levels of stress, Dr. Counsilman has discovered, the swimmer is no longer aware of his agony and can go faster than he ever did before. For Dr. Counsilman the objective is clear. "The best-quality protoplasm is going to win," he says simply.

The protoplasm of the Indiana men is top quality: they have won every dual meet since 1959 and the Big Ten championship for the past four years, and, swimming under the flag of the Indianapolis AC, have also won every National Outdoor title for the past seven years.

Often Dr. Counsilman's enviable problem is not getting his team up for a meet, but getting it down. "In a year-round sport like swimming," he says, "you don't dare keep a team keyed up all the time. I treat a lot of meets casually. I don't mind draining a swimmer's physical reserve, but I don't want to drain his emotional reserve. The worst thing that can happen to a team is staleness. You can't cure it. You've got to prevent it."

Dr. Counsilman pushes himself as hard as his swimmers. Thriving on five hours of sleep a night and lots of carbohydrates, he is a tireless student of stroke mechanics, physics and photography. He shoots underwater movies of Indiana swimmers, cuts, splices and edits the films in his cellar and sells them to coaches. He puts together pace clocks in his cellar and sells them to schools like Army, Navy and Princeton. He writes dozens of pamphlets a year on such subjects as dry-land exercises for swimmers and how to keep practice from becoming tedious. He has invented weights that can be used at poolside without danger of damaging the deck. The business ends of these weights are plastic and can be filled with sand. When dropped, they bounce. He has invented an Isogym—it looks like a high-jump stand—on which his swimmers can do Counsilman-designed isometrics. The Isogym is now being used on atomic submarines. He has written books on scuba diving and weight lifting, and is at work on a book on scientific swimming. When four Russian coaches and an interpreter visited him last fall, they were so impressed by Counsilman's theories and swimmers they asked him why he didn't put a stop to all the erroneous instruction appearing in print. "They had a point," he says. "American coaches are great recruiters, but they are too busy teaching and recruiting to study swimming scientifically—the way the Russians are doing. For years everybody claimed the arm in the crawl was straight as it pulled through the water. But films of Dawn Fraser, Peter Sintz and others show the arm is constantly bending, reaching a 90° angle halfway through the pull." The Russians bought two of his films, paying in dollars. So impressed is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration by Dr. Counsilman's exercise theories that he has been asked to think up exercises for astronauts in space, where weightlessness makes weight lifting, say, a breeze.

Dr. Counsilman has enough confidence in his knowledge of stroke mechanics to tinker mightily with the strokes of some of his swimmers, despite the hoots of fellow coaches. He changed Chet Jastremski from an average butterfly and crawl swimmer to a specialist in the breaststroke, shortened and speeded up his stroke and kick, and Jastremski obliged by breaking all four world breaststroke records. He converted Mike Troy from a run-of-the-mill crawl swimmer to a world-record holder in the butterfly. While coaching at State University Teachers College in Cortland, N.Y., he discovered George Breen—a mediocre athlete—and taught him a choppy, flailing stroke that drew chuckles from the experts. Lashed into superb condition, Breen set world records at a mile and at 1,500 meters.

The Indiana pool, built in 1961 and carefully planned by Dr. Counsilman and his predecessor, is a marvel of convenience for swimmers. It is 25 yards long and six lanes wide. The chlorine content is less than in most collegiate pools and the alkali content is higher—for the comfort of swimmers' eyes. Because Dr. Counsilman thinks what goes on underwater is 10 times as vital as what goes on on the surface, the pool is equipped with the largest underwater windows of any collegiate pool. A microphone by the windows allows him to address a swimmer underwater in a ghostly way to suggest corrections in his stroke.

The diving pool, planned by the Indiana diving coach, Hobie Billingsley, is an equal marvel. It is completely separate, 15 feet deep and has four air bubblers that produce ripples so divers get an instant view of the surface of the water as they tumble toward it. There are two one-meter boards, two three-meter boards and a five-meter platform. Between the diving and swimming pools is a trampoline equipped with a safety belt so that divers can practice difficult dives without danger of injury.

When Dr. Counsilman came to Indiana as freshman coach in 1957, things were not so fancy. The four-lane pool then in use was in a dimly lighted room and, for some mysterious reason, was surrounded by a white picket fence. In contrast to the present natatorium seating 1,388, around the old pool there was space for only 200 spectators who, during meets, sweated more than the swimmers. The diving board stood on one side of the pool, and divers had to practice at night when the pool was free of swimmers. The ceiling was so low that a diver getting a good high lift from the board was apt to crack his head, sometimes cracking it again on the shallow, eight-foot bottom. With these drab facilities and little local talent to draw on, Indiana was the Big Ten doormat and therefore beloved of rival coaches.

Dr. Counsilman, who was born in Birmingham, had the ideal temperament for the bootstrap operation called for. "Some kids want to be lawyers or firemen," he says. "I never wanted to be anything but a Big Ten swimming coach." After attending a St. Louis high school, he entered Ohio State—a national swimming power. He left college to fly B-24s over Europe in the war, then reentered Ohio State. He was captain of the swimming team in 1946 and 1947, winning the Big Ten breaststroke title in 1946 and briefly holding the 100-yard world record. He went to Illinois for his master's degree, writing a thesis on the breaststroke, and from Illinois on to Iowa, where he wrote his doctoral thesis on the crawl. In 1956, while at tiny Cortland State, he helped coach the U.S. Olympic team; then in 1957, with a formidable won-lost record and Breen as his prize pupil, he came to Indiana as freshman coach. In 1958—Dr. Counsilman's first full year as varsity coach—Indiana finished sixth in the Big Ten. The following two years it finished second. Since then it has never been headed.

Indiana's drive to the top has not endeared Dr. Counsilman to other Big Ten coaches. They have repeatedly ordered investigations of his recruiting practices but have found nothing fishy. They bulldozed through changes in the scoring rules of the conference meet in an effort to capitalize on Indiana's lack of depth. It didn't help; Indiana still won. The coaches warned high school swimmers Indiana was so good they could not make the team. Many of the swimmers still chose Indiana, accepting even the fact that with the football-imposed ban, they might never have a chance for an NCAA title. Other Big Ten coaches could not understand why some swimmers, such as sprinter Charles Ogilby and butterflyer Lary Schulhof, should turn down other Big Ten scholarships to come to Indiana—which did not offer them scholarships. Part of the reason is probably what Dr. Counsilman offers in addition to coaching.

He lives in a rambling ranch house, which he partly built himself, with his wife Marge and four children—all breaststrokers. He is a firm disciple of togetherness—his particular brand encompassing not only his family but the entire swimming team. During Christmas vacation he takes about 30 swimmers with him to Florida, where they work out twice a day and then head for the open salt water to spear barracuda. In the spring he guides his team in spelunking tours in caves near Bloomington, where they tell ghost stories. Varsity and freshman swimmers come to the house for dinner at least once a month. His wife types up term papers for those requesting it. Sometimes, for the edification of swimmers, Dr. Counsilman cuts his finger with a lancet and sticks it into the tank containing his two piranhas. The blood drives the piranhas crazy. He has a crocodile and an alligator that swimmers enjoy staring at. He gives away guppies for swimmers to breed. He lets swimmers pet his cats or his hamster or fondle his boa constrictor if they have a mind to. He goes canoeing and camping with them, and spearfishing in the local quarries. With all this adventure, diversion and fatherly concern, who wants a scholarship? Dr. Counsilman is an acknowledged master of human physiology, stroke mechanics and Newton's laws of motion. He is as good a coach as any in the world, and, quite simply, to many swimmers deciding on a college, he cuts quite an attractive figure in his Bozo clown suit.

PHOTOAS POOL FROTHS OVER IN PRACTICE, DR. COUNSILMAN CHATS WITH INDIANA STUDENT PHOTODR. COUNSILMAN, HIS DAUGHTER JILL AND SON BRIAN STUDY THE FAMILY'S PET BOA
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)