When James ‘Doc’ Counsilman, my coach, mentor and business partner for 25 years, died earlier this year at 83, friends and admirers chose different words to describe the man they knew. Inspiration is the word I choose. His coaching, discoveries and his leadership all left marks in the sport’s history; but I remember the man for things that live on even after his passing: the inspiration he instilled in all his athletes to overcome challenges and ignore barriers to achieve extraordinary accomplishments.
My perspective is somewhat special because I also was coached by Ernie Vornbrock, the same man who was a coach and father figure to young Jim Counsilman. Ernie and I had a similar relationship, therefore I was able to recognize the foundation of Doc’s standards, ethics and principles.
As a professional designer and developer of aquatic facilities, it is natural for me to admire the technical innovations Doc Counsilman introduced to the sport of competitive swimming. Some are taken for granted, such as the large pace clocks that are omnipresent at training facilities around the world. The bio-kinetic swim bench was another of Doc’s innovative contributions. Strolling through a European marketplace one day with his wife Marge, Doc picked up a flashlight that generated power by a squeeze of the hand. The tighter the squeeze, the brighter the light. Doc used that concept to modify his isometric pulley bench into the bio-kinetic bench, which revolutionized dry land training and has become a part of a year-round program for athletes in many sports.
It was the critical analysis of another piece of equipment that resulted in one of the most significant lessons I learned from Doc. During the 1970s, an entrepreneur developed an aluminum movable bulkhead with a unique built-in touch pad. I had discussed with this person the incompatibility of aluminum submerged in chlorinated water, and had dismissed it as a bad idea by someone who didn’t understand swimming pools. Doc, though, said that while my technical arguments might be true, I shouldn’t overlook that part of the product that could be revolutionary. I’ve never forgotten that conversation.
Doc also applied that insight to training techniques. “It is important not to believe what your eyes see,” Doc often advised. After Mark Spitz’ amazing accomplishments at the Munich Olympics, Doc said that Spitz was the best swimmer in the world, and his stroke was extremely effective. “But Mark is not the perfect swimmer, and it is a mistake to attempt to make everyone swim like Mark Spitz. Rather, the qualities and techniques that can be identified in Mark’s swimming can be applied to other athletes with different body types and different sets of natural skills.” In other words, never assume that what appears to be obvious is true. That philosophy helped shape champion athletes, and it helped shape lives and careers.
An equally important part of Doc’s lasting imprint on his athletes was the “hurt, pain and agony” credo burned into us through grueling training and relentless expectations that fired the heat in each person’s constitution, turning common iron into resolute steel.
I remember one discouraging moment after a month of such training, when I finished a time trial with no improvement. Doc listened to my frustrations, all the while silently twisting the stem of his stopwatch. When I’d finished, he simply said, “Well, what are you going to do about it?” Time spent hand wringing was wasted energy to Doc. To this day, when I reach a perceived impasse in business or personal life, Doc’s words help me remember to keep searching for the solution. I suspect I’m not alone, because many of Doc’s athletes have achieved worthwhile and impressive accomplishments after swimming, probably because they did not see the barriers that others saw.
Doc combined both his gifts and insights in his pivotal 1970s book, The Science of Swimming, which he dedicated to Ernie Vornbrock and which became the basis of coaching and swimming techniques for coaches and swimmers throughout the world. I once asked him why he so freely shared his knowledge not only with other U.S. coaches, but also with the East Germans, Soviets and Australians. He said the free sharing of the best, most successful training techniques would improve competition overall, and lower the times of everyone. That would encourage coaches and athletes everywhere to respond with even more effective and innovative efforts.
That philosophy was his legacy to the world of competitive swimming. In teaching it to so many who trained directly with him or indirectly through his writings and coaching disciples, Doc also inspired us to live our lives with the same dedication we gave to training and competition.
The a version of the above was published in Athletic Business May 2004
At the same time there was a nice article on Doc featured in The Washington Times.