When considering people with Indiana ties who hold a record for having crossed a body of water, Amelia Earhart’s is one name that comes up. The first woman to make a trans-Atlantic trip by plane taught for a time at Purdue, which also financed the Lockheed Electra in which the aviatrix ultimately vanished. Another sometime resident of the Hoosier State, however, made his record-breaking water crossing fully immersed.
When he set foot on the sand at Wissant, France on September 17, 1979, 58-year old “Doc” Counsilman became the oldest person at that time to have swum the English Channel. The feat of having made the journey in 13 hours and seven minutes at his age was all the more remarkable given a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease four years earlier.
By the time he set his record, James Edward “Doc” Counsilman had been making history as head swim coach at Indiana University for more than twenty years; teaching in the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation for almost as long. The Birmingham, Alabama native led the IU men’s swim team to a total of six consecutive NCAA championships and twenty consecutive Big Ten titles. Counsilman coached the two most successful Olympic swim teams—for the 1964 games in Tokyo, and again in Montreal in 1976. Among the world-class athletes he mentored was swimmer Mark Spitz, whose seven gold medals in the ‘72 Munich Olympics represent another record.
Having earned a doctorate in physiology, Counsilman brought his expertise in the science of movement to bear on his coaching style. His experiments and innovations in underwater photography facilitated understanding of the swimming body to an unprecedented extent. Counsilman’s 1968 text, The Science of Swimming, has enjoyed 22 subsequent editions. The Counsilman Billingsley Aquatic Center was dedicated on the Bloomington campus in 1996. The legendary coach passed away in 2004 after a long battle with Parkinson’s.
The first person recorded to have swum the English Channel was Captain Matthew Webb, in August of 1875. Although Counsilman’s record as the oldest Channel swimmer has been surpassed at least twice since 1979, those master swimmers did not best his time.