The swimming professor: the late Doc Counsilman perfected the science of swimming, which led many of his students to Olympic gold – People
Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn
James “Doc” Counsilman accomplished a lot in his long life. In 1979, at the age of 58, he swam the English Channel, becoming the oldest person at the time to have done so. He also trained scores of Olympic gold medal swimmers and wrote a bestselling book.
But what really mattered most to Counsilman, 83, who passed away Jan. 4 from complications of Parkinson’s disease, were his myriad contributions to the science of swimming.
Counsilman single-handedly revised long-held swimming training methods and stroke techniques. He reportedly invented the pace clock, pool-lane makers, pool overflow gutters, interval mining and the biokinetic bench.
But he said his greatest contribution to the sport was in the application of Bernoulli’s principle, which proposes that the higher the speed of a flowing fluid, the lower the pressure and vice versa. That theory formed the basis of Counsilman’s 1968 book, The Science of Swimming, which has been reprinted in more than 20 languages.
“He was the first person to apply this principle to the effects of speed in the water, and that’s why it was such an important finding,” said Bob Duenkel, executive director and curator of the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Counsilman was founding president of ISHOF, serving from 1965 to 1969. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1976 while still actively coaching.
A World War II Air Force veteran and native of St. Louis, Counsilman landed his first head coaching job in 1952 at Courtland (N.Y.) State Teachers College.
In 1964, Counsilman coached the United States men’s swim team to nine gold medals in the Tokyo Olympics, and to 12 more in the 1976 Montreal games.
He coached at Indiana from 1957 to 1990. During that time, his teams won six consecutive NCAA championships, 23 Big Ten titles and 140 straight dual meets.
During all this coaching, Counsilman aim managed to co-found a company in 1970–Counsilman/Hunsaker & Associates Inc. in St. Louis. He served primarily as a consultant over the years while Joe Hunsaker, a former champion swimmer he’d coached, developed the firm that specializes in the engineering, planning and design of aquatics and recreational facilities.
In all, 48 of Counsilman’s swimmers competed in the Olympics, representing 10 nations and winning 46 medals, including 26 gold. Among them were Mark Spitz and John Kinsella, each a winner of the Sullivan Award for the nation’s best amateur athletes as well.
“His techniques, his coaching and his use of interval training all played a part in these swimmers’ success,” Duenkel said.
They were the same techniques that likely contributed to Counsilman’s own successful swim across the English Channel.
“If I hadn’t tried to swim the channel, I would have had a lot of regrets,” he once said of the swim that took him 13 hours and 7 minutes. “And the swim only hurt once–from the beginning to the end.”
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