Aquatics Blog

Doc Counsilman – One Of Ernie’s Boys

Jim attended the St. Louis public Blewett High School, which disappeared 60years ago. He was a poor student and reportedly graduated 103 out of 109 in his class. He excelled in track and was elected captain for his leadership..….there was no pool. Finding employment after graduation, during the depression, was not easy and his first job was washing dishes in Pope’s downtown cafeteria.

Jim had additional responsibilities. His father had abandoned his wife and two sons in the 1920’s. To survive, Jim’s mom operated a boarding house just east of what is now the Barnes Jewish Hospital Complex on Kingshighway.

One day, while still in high school, young Counsilman walked east on the railroad tracks and ventured into the downtown YMCA on Locust Street. During subsequent visits, he wandered into the pool for a swim and eventually was noticed by of Ernie Vornbrock who was teaching swimming classes. Ernie thought he saw something in Jim’s crude stroke that had merit. Within several years, Jim was swimming breaststroke times that were of national caliber.

After several years out of high school, consisting of swimming and climbing poles for the telephone company, Jim began to listen when Ernie told him he should go to college, even though he was not a prime candidate because of his high school record. Ernie contacted Mike Peppe who was an acquaintance and the varsity coach at Ohio State. There were no scholarships for swimming so Coach Peppe had a space made for him in a store room with a cot, table and chair. A job was arranged operating an elevator at night, when no one used the elevator, permitted him to be paid while he studied. When WII broke out, Counsilman was a sophomore and like many young men, he enlisted and attended officer candidate school and than went on to train as a bomber pilot. Later, while flying over Rumania, his plane was hit and he was forced to crash land in unfriendly territory. The entire crew refused to bail out because one crew member’s chute was damaged. Everyone survived and for this Jim was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery. At 21 years, he was the “old man”, the commanding officer and the oldest crew member.

Back at Ohio State University, Jim continued his studies in physical education, was captain of the swim team and the non compensated assistant swimming coach. The following year, the Ohio State Swimming Team won the National Collegiate Championships and the National AAU Championships. During that same year Jim Counsilman became the National AAU breaststroke champion.

After marrying his wife Marge, he earned a Masters Degree at Illinois and then his Ph.D. at Iowa, following which, he was given the affectionate handle “Doc” for the next forty years. He recruited swimmers and converted many of them into national champions, Olympians, Olympic champions and world record holders.

He spent the last 33 years of his career at Indiana University where he coached his Hoosier team to 22 straight big 10 championships and five consecutive NCAA championships. At the time of his retirement he had coached more Olympic medal winners than any other coach in the world. His revolutionary book The Science of Swimming, printed in over 30 languages, became the reference for coaches and swimmers in many nations…….. During those three decades he revolutionized the art of coaching which was even applied to other sports. He also was the US head coach for men at the Tokyo and Montreal Olympics. Doc coached many Indiana swimmers to the Olympics….the one with the greatest name recognition is Mark Spitz.

During his career, Counsilman received many awards including an induction into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, academic awards for his scientific research, membership to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, patents for training equipment and, most significantly, the recognition by his peers as the greatest contributor to the profession of coaching swimmers. He also took time out when he was fifty eight to become the oldest person to swim the English Channel,  after he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease…..a true profile in courage. He had quite a life for a kid who graduated at the bottom of his high school class. More than once, Doc reflected about what his life would have been if he had not met Ernie, who became his father figure and his beacon in his early years.

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