Doc Counsilman: Making Waves

About the Program

On January 4, 2004, James ‘Doc’ Counsilman died in Bloomington, Indiana, after having Parkinson's Disease for many years. He is survived by his wife, Marjorie. You can visit the IU Athletics site for a review of his career.

In 1979 Doc Counsilman was used to praise in the athletic arena. The IU men's swimming coach had helped Mark Spitz win an unprecedented number of medals at the Olympic Games and had coached his men to championships at every level.

Doc stands on the shore at Dover, preparing to swim the English Channel.But that year, the spotlight was completely on Doc, who at the age of 58, became the oldest person to swim the English Channel. Upon his return to Bloomington, he was greeted with a hero's parade. At his former residence in Ellettsville, he found that his achievement was even honored by the people who bought his home. Draped across the front of the house in a style reserved for presidents or famous historical figures, was a sign that read, "Doc Counsilman slept here."

The new owner of the house was IU basketball coach Bob Knight. Over the years, Knight's respect for Counsilman has never waned, but has in fact, grown to historical proportions.

"Doc's legacy is very simply this," Knight says. "He is one of the great coaches who ever coached any sport, anywhere, in any era."

Counsilman, the IU men's coach from 1957 to 1990, is now the subject of a WTIU documentary, Doc Counsilman: Making Waves. The story, Doc in his Air Force uniform, June 1944.narrated by Bloomington's Richard Bishop, recounts Counsilman's youth, his success at Ohio State, his military career—in which he flew B-24 bombers on 33 missions and was shot down over Yugoslavia in World War II, his unprecedented coaching success, his family life, introduction of science into the sport, and the philosophies the drove him.

James "Doc" Counsilman was the greatest swimming coach of all time and is credited with revolutionizing the sport. As former IU swimmer and Olympian Mark Spitz said, "He was the architect of the Ten Commandments of swimming."

To be coached by Counsilman was nearly a guarantee of success. In his 33 years at IU, Counsilman's teams won 230 dual meets and lost only 11. They won 20 consecutive Big Ten Championships, 6 consecutive NCAA Championships, 72 individual NCAA titles, 272 Big Ten Individual Titles, and 47 Olympic medals (27 Gold). He was twice Coach of the USA Olympic Team.

Mark Spitz (l) receives a gold medal on the podium at the 1972 Olympics."The thing that made Doc great was not because he was winning as much as he was contributing to the sport," said diving coach Hobie Billingsley. "He was just a born leader. In 1962 if the rest of the world had gathered the best team they could've for a dual meet, they couldn't have beaten way."

It was Counsilman who in the 60's began to examin the mechanics of swimming. His study led him to write The Science of Swimming, now considered the bible of swimming instruction. It was the start of his serious research in biomechanics that lead to several inventions of swimming apparatus that are considered staples in the sport today, including pace clocks, the isokinetic swim bench and anti-wave lane markers.

"He's really the first one to take swimming and turn it into a science," recalled Gary Hall, who swam for Counsilman at IU from 1969-1973, and medalled in the 1968, 1972, and 1976 Olympics. "Every day was a learning experience. You'd think at the level where we were, we'd be doing things right every day at practice. But he was always correcting our strokes. I very seldom ever met a man or a coach who was so dedicated to technique and every day trying to refine that technique."

Doc with a pacer clock.Another swimmer, Jim Montgomery, said Counsilman set the standard for swimming. Montgomery, who won three gold medals in the 1976 Olympics, said Counsilman changed the world of swimming with biomechanics but also "with his books and his influence on hundreds of men that swam for him at Indiana and a lot of coaches out there."

When Counsilman swam the English Channel, he did it to teach people a lesson. "Doc said that older people sell themselves short, both physically and intellectually," recalled Dave Hennessey, a Counsilman student in the 1950s. "He wanted to show how much an older person is capable of accomplishing. That message sustained me for years."

Doc Counsilman: Making Waves includes interviews with his swimmers, colleagues, family and friends. His fatherly relationship with his teams is shown through never-before-seen home movies while his coaching techniques are illustrated with movies he took underwater during training sessions. The program will air June 1 at 8:30pm and June 7 at 4pm.

Doc Counsilman: Making Waves is a production of WTIU/Indiana University. Jay Kincaid, Concept/Director; Kelly Morris, Producer/Writer; Ron Prickel, Editor; Phil Meyer, Executive In Charge.


Doc Counsilman: Making Waves is a production of WTIU
© 2003 The Trustees of Indiana University
Updated January 5, 2004
Contact us at
Or phone (812) 855-5900

Production support provided by
the Indiana University Varsity Club,
Joe Hunsaker, Chairman of Counsilman/Hunsaker and Associates,
and the Indiana University School of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation.