Stroke Of Genius Quite simply, he was the greatest swimming coach who ever lived. But Doc Counsilman knew even more about people

April 25, 2004

On Sunday morning Indiana University's Royer Pool overflowed with
swimming talent. Olympians Gary Hall Sr., Mike Troy, John
Kinsella, Jim Montgomery, Don McKenzie, Charlie Hickcox and
nine-time gold medalist Mark Spitz were among 200 IU alums who
came back to Bloomington to dip into their common past--and in
some cases, into the water--as they remembered Doc Counsilman,
the man who used to sit on a bench at poolside, sipping coffee,
reading mail and occasionally dispensing swimming wisdom through
a portable amplifier. "He rarely yelled," recalled Dave Tanner,
who swam for Indiana from 1968-72 and was an assistant coach for
two years. "In six years I saw him get mad three times." Said
Spitz, 54, who addressed the group at a dinner on Saturday, "Doc
taught us all one thing: We were special, whether we were
Olympians or not."

Bob Knight once called James E. (Doc) Counsilman "the best coach
I ever met," and with no small reason. In his 33 years as the
men's swimming coach at Indiana, Counsilman led the Hoosiers to
23 Big Ten championships and six straight NCAA titles. He wrote
the sport's bible, The Science of Swimming, in 1968, and he
introduced innovations such as the pace clock, weight training
and pulling with bent rather than straight arms. No collegiate
coach, except perhaps James Naismith, drove the evolution of a
sport as Counsilman did.

But those things were rarely mentioned at the reunion to honor
Counsilman, who died at age 83 on Jan. 4 after a long battle with
Parkinson's disease. What emerged was a picture of a man who, for
all his success and cool scientific inquiry, was a warm, caring
father figure (just as his wife, Marge, whose lasagna recipe was
served at Saturday team dinners, was a mother figure). Two hours
of open swimming at Royer Pool gave the graying alums, some now
in their 60s, a chance to do a few freestyle sets together and
swap stories. Listening to them, an outsider couldn't help but
conclude that as astute as Counsilman was in physiology, the
subject in which he earned his Ph.D. from Iowa in 1951 (and,
thus, his nickname), he was even better at psychology. Before the
1971 NCAA Championships he told Spitz that the red bumps that had
suddenly appeared on his chest were an allergic reaction. Only
after Spitz had won two titles at the meet did Counsilman say,
"You have the measles."

On Sunday afternoon, as Hall stood in Memorial Union's Tudor
Room, where Counsilman used to treat swimmers who had a 3.0 GPA
or better to dinner, he recalled an image of his coach from that
same meet. Counsilman told Hall that he would win the 200 IM and
beat Hickcox's American record. When Hall did exactly that, he
looked up to see Counsilman on the pool deck on his knees, tears
running down his face. "I have only seen Doc cry twice, when his
son Jimmy died (from an accidental fall in 1973) and after I won
that race," says Hall. "His joy didn't come from winning Big Ten
championships or NCAA titles; it came from seeing individuals

Counsilman wanted his swimmers to be well-rounded, so in the
early '60s he played classical music on the pool stereo system
during training sessions. And he encouraged them to visit art
museums on road trips. Even on Sunday he was exposing people to
culture. At the memorial service nearly three hours of moving
tributes concluded with Counsilman's son, Brian, 48, leading the
crowd of 300 in a rendition of Moonlight Becomes You, a song
Counsilman loved to mock, and Mack the Knife, a song he just

It was a finish that might have brought tears to his eyes.

--Kelli Anderson


"Danton asked if she knew anyone who would kill the man."