Note to Reader: Dad has written a memoir he has shared with the family. This document is around 500 pages and covers most of the significant events of his life. He wrote about his college swimming experience and we will be sharing these as blog posts (Freshmen, Sophomore, Junior, and Senior years) over the next couple of weeks. While Dad had a great memory, he was not perfect. If you have any additional information or pictures to share, please comment. - Scot Hunsaker
I was very discouraged at the end of the summer 1957. I had spent the summer training with Doc Counsilman, working very hard and yet had a disappointing performance at the Outdoor National Championships. I felt tired and pondered in my mind that having worked so hard with little progress whether or not I should continue to swim. I actually considered quitting. I was, however, on a scholarship and without it there was no way I could continue studies at the University of Illinois. In any case, I did lay off during the month of September and part of October. I felt that I was entitled to a rest. This period coincided with early pre-season when very little was being done by any of the Illinois swimmers.
Once the Dolphin Show was the fun part of the fall semester, along with the excitement of football weekends. (Throughout my life the autumn has been a good time, one that I look forward to each year.) In adulthood this has been because of the swimming business, which always caused a lot of pressure in the spring and summer and the fall was when everyone forgot about us and we had time to relax. During my high school and college days, when I was swimming, the spring was always the welcomed break after the excitement of the winter season.) As previously mentioned, the swim team began training in October and by November I was training hard. This consisted of dry land exercises, running and some swimming.
As I began to spend more time at the pool in the presence of the other swimmers I noticed a motivation start to take place. I was enjoying a quasi-celebrity status, which had developed, apparently because of my training with George Breen and under Counsilman. Many of my teammates wanted to know what is was like. I naturally enjoyed describing the hard workouts and my familiarity with Doc and George, as well as, some of the other national caliber swimmers I trained with that summer. George Breen, being a world-record holder and an Olympian, added to the prestige of my sacrifice, which was beyond anything my teammates had undertaken.
Because of this experience, there was a certain expectation that I would show a new inspiration having trained under what was at that time a radical regimen that many people felt was impossible. This translated into a sort of expectation on their part regarding me and my potential ability. As a result, I tended to make up my own workouts, which were considerably harder and longer than what the Illinois coach, Don Van Rossen, would post each day. I found this somewhat fun because the conditioning I had undergone during the summer was now starting to show results as Doc had predicted.
I had to admit that I had missed the training for the past six weeks and I really enjoyed getting back into the discipline.
The breakthrough came during our Orange and Blue intra-squad meet in November. I was going to swim my usual 200-yard breaststroke and a relay. For a third event, I asked to swim the 200-yard individual medley because that was my high school event and I had done a lot of medley work with Counsilman during the summer because it was his method of coaching. He felt it was a means of breaking the monotony of training in only one stroke. Because I had been an individual medley swimmer, I was able to improve my swimming I the other three strokes somewhat. I was excited and having fun as the meet progressed because it was sort of a kick off for the season. I hadn’t swum the I.M. since high school and hoped that I would go around two minutes and twenty seconds.
The meet was on a Saturday afternoon, which meant the pool was brightly lighted with sunshine coming through the south windows. The individual medley was my first race of the day so, understandably, I was fresh. The race went well and I felt strong at the end, which is always a positive sign because frequently the freestyle leg, which is the last, is the hardest. My time was two minutes sixteen seconds, setting a new pool record and breaking the old record which had been set by an Olympian from Ohio State by the name of Al Wiggens several years before. At the time he set it, it was a world record, which was before the short course race was eliminated from world recognition. Everyone and especially the coaches were excited and congratulated me. It was possibly one of the best times in the Big Ten so far that year. I could hardly believe it.
My 200-yard breaststroke was good for the beginning of the season and was close to my all time best. I began to feel a gratification for all the hard work the summer before. I also sensed a star status starting to occur. I couldn’t wait to push harder and harder. As a result, I threw myself into training and spent hours in the gym using pulley weights and other weight work. We swam a few dual meets before Christmas and then the team moved to Fort Lauderdale for our two-week training program down there. At Ft. Lauderdale we began to train earnestly and hard although our time in the pool was somewhat limited because of the many teams that had to share the 50-meter Casino pool.
After Christmas we began the serious part of our dual meet season and my times continued to improve. In February when the Big Ten Championships were only several weeks away, my time in the individual medley was the best in the Big Ten and possibly the best in the nation. Could it really be happening? I was excited and also feeling that something was going to happen to burst the bubble. Something did. Its name was Tony Tashnic. Tashnic was a sophomore swimmer at the University of Michigan and two weeks before the Big Ten Championships he swam a time better than mine by less than a second. This was like a very cold shower and sobered me quite quickly. I really began to concentrate on my swimming and trained very hard. My coaches, however, wanted me to taper off and begin to take it easier as a means of developing strength for the coming championships.
The Big Ten championships were held the at the University of Iowa that year and the Iowa pool was 50 yards long with a permanent bulkhead built at the shallow end at 25 yards. The spectator seating was rather large and all in all it was a good pool and natatorium for a championship meet. When I got there I recalled that I had visited it for the same Big Ten championships when I was a junior in high school and here I was going into the meet ranked as one of the top two swimmers in the IM and possibly the breaststroke. As always the 1500 meter freestyle was on Thursday night and then on Friday half of the other shorter events occurred with the prelims during the daytime and the finals at night. As I recall, I qualified first, but had only cruised to qualify without going all out Tashnic did the same.
I climbed on the starting block for the final championship event and realized that this was the moment of truth with a show down between the two of us. I had never swum against Tashnic before so I did not know really how he would go out or what his strong strokes were. In any case I felt I had to take him in the breaststroke and go into the freestyle ahead because my freestyle was not particularly strong. Butterfly was his main event so I knew I should keep close to him if at all possible for the first butterfly leg. The gun went off and we were in the water.
In the butterfly it is hard to see anyone around you and since I was on the right side of him going down the pool and I turned to the right, I never really saw him until I had done my flip turn at the end of the butterfly, pushed off on the backstroke and came up swimming on my back. I saw that I was about two feet behind him at this point. This motivated me to try harder and I finished the backstroke at his knees. I executed a flip turn from backstroke to breaststroke while he used an open turn. The long push off, which I was known for, helped me gain ground. I caught him at the first turn of the breaststroke and pushed off ahead. During the second length of my breaststroke I pulled strong, hurting a little bit, but knowing that I had to make time now. I turned at the wall and had and had a body length on him when I pushed off into the freestyle.
I had open water going down and began to realize that winning was there for me. I simply had to make my turn and swim back to the other end of the pool and I would have won the Big Ten Championship. As I went into the turn, for some reason, I turned farther away from the wall than I should have and, as a result, I got a very poor push off. He executed a good flip turn and we came out of the turn almost together. I could see him on the right side of me and realized that I had to swim faster. I made a calculated decision to shorten my stroke to try to get a higher turnover. As a result, I made a tactical mistake and actually made my arm stroke inefficient. As a result, we hit the end together and he touched me out by two-tenths of a second. We had shattered the Big Ten record, as well as, the national record.
Everyone was amazed at our time, we had not only broken two minutes and ten seconds, but had gone in the low 2:08. The rest of the field was far behind. I was crushed with losing this race after I had it won. After the race we went up to the award stand and I climbed to the second-place position and Tashnic went to the first. A swimmer from Michigan State congratulated him as a fellow Michigan athlete, which sounded like they were rooting for Tashnic and against me.
After the meet that night, Dick Whittaker, my best friend and roommate for the trip, and I went out to eat. I remember that I played pin ball for about 30 minutes trying to unwind. We went back to the room, watched a little TV and turned out the lights and tried to go to sleep. I was so uptight from the race and from the disappointment I did not sleep all night. Furthermore, I developed a cramp in my back from tension. I was panicked because I still had to swim the 200 breaststroke on Saturday. I desperately needed sleep and so did Dick because he had to swim the 440.
Dick’s father, a doctor, and his mother came to all of our meets. They were staying a few rooms away in the motel. Finally, we called his dad and asked him if there was anything he could give me to make me sleep and, thereby, let Dick get some sleep. He came to our room and gave me a half tablet of a tranquilizer. It helped and I was able to relax, but I still really did not go to sleep.
The prelims began at 11 a.m., which meant that we had to be at the pool no later than 10 a.m. for warm-ups. I finally got out of bed at 9 a.m., grabbed a few bites for breakfast and went over to the pool. During my warm-up I was extremely sluggish and groggy.
This proved to be the result of the tranquilizer and it greatly influenced my performance that morning. I never will forget what happened when I got up on the block for my preliminary heat. (I was the heat leader.) When the starter commanded “take your mark” I leaned over as always, but was so relaxed I went right on into the pool. This was classified as a false start. In those days you were allowed two false starts, but on the third you were disqualified. I climbed back on the block and this time tried to be a little more alert. When the command came the second time, I went down carefully, but, again, lost my balance and went into the pool.
This created quite a sensation because of my standing in the meet. Several officials came over to me and asked if I was all right, as did several coaches. Bill Huesner, who was the assistant coach at Illinois when I went there, but left before the season started in 1955, expressed genuine concern. (He was then the coach of the University of Minnesota.) He told me to just stand up straight and don’t even bend over. I did this, the gun went off and I started the race. My swimming was sluggish also, but I did manage to qualify third for the finals.
After the prelims we went back to the motel and I was able to sleep a little bit so that when I returned for the finals that night I felt pretty good. The leading qualifier in the race was Cy Hopkins, who had won the national championship the year before. My times were close to him (within a second and a half) and I had planned my race to swim at his side, approximately half a body length behind and then take him on the last 50. Everything went according to plan until we got to the last 50 and I tried to catch him and he moved away from me. I later told Doc Counsilman of my strategy and he said that was a mistake with Hopkins. The only to beat him was to get out in front of him. I had another chance at the NCAA Championships in two weeks.
We went back to the University of Illinois and I was discouraged, but determined to beat Tashnic at the National Champion. I trained hard, but with less yardage so as to build up my strength. I practiced that fateful freestyle flip turn over and over and over with the image of Tashnic coming off the turn right next to me.
The National Collegiate Championships that year were held at the University of Michigan in their brand new natatorium, which was a T-shaped, 25-yard tank with a diving alcove. It was a beautiful facility in its day and certainly one of the finest in the United States. There was seating for approximately 1,000 spectators, excellent lighting, ample deck space and, for the championships, there was going to be live television on Saturday night. In addition, we had coverage by Sports Illustrated, a major sports magazine, in the United States, with photographers and reporters popping up everywhere. The most remarkable aspect of the Sports Illustrated coverage was an underwater photographer in scuba gear who took underwater photographs during the races.
Again, the individual medley was on Friday night, which was my first event of the meet. Tasnic had to swim the 200 butterfly that day, which meant he had preliminaries in two events and finals in two events, although the individual medley was the first final in the evening. During the preliminaries I cruised for qualifying, but the excitement made me go a little faster than I thought I was going. Since I had been beaten by Tashnic at the Big 10 (I had a slightly slower time.), I was the lead swimmer in the second to last heat of the preliminaries (in preliminaries a fast swimmer is placed in the center of each heat so that the top swimmers do not swim against each other in the preliminaries).
At the end of my heat I had the fastest time so far with Tashnic still to swim his heat. Understandably, I watched with interest during his swim. Shortly after he finished in the lead, a murmur started to go through the crowd and the athletes. John Fix, a teammate of mine, and one of our assistant coaches, turned to me wide-eyed and explained Tashnic missed qualifying. He had swum slow to qualify and had underplayed his hand with the result that he qualified 7th and only the first six made the finals. This was a situation that no one had foreseen and resulted in conflicting emotions for me. It made the possibility of me winning the nationals much better, but it also disappointed me that I was not going to have the opportunity to go head-to-head with him again. My major mistake had been the last turn at the Big 10’s. Tashnic’s was swimming too slowly at the NCAA prelims.
Since I qualified first, I was in lane 3. The second fastest time was that by the defending champion P. Timothy Jecko from Yale. Jecko had won three gold medals the year before and had been named the outstanding swimmer of the meet. Cy Hopkins from Michigan was in lane 5. Jecko looked rather mournful and I was really psyched up for the race. As had been my habit, I would breath heavily, pace back and forth and move aggressively behind the blocks and spring onto my starting block quickly and with determination. I wanted to get the race underway. My goal was not only to win, but to better the time that Tashnic had swum at the Big 10 Championships. Jecko’s best time was three seconds behind mine, however, I had no way of knowing what he would do in a national championship situation.
The gun went off and we began the race. At the end of butterfly Jecko was ahead as was expected because butterfly was one of his major events. At the end of backstroke I was about a half body length behind Jecko and I did my flip turn from back to br3east, pushed off with my long underwater stroke and when I surfaced I had passed him. There was open water ahead of me and I poured it on even though I could not see anyone nearby. The crowd was effective and the novelty of the pool was helpful in turning out a good performance so I kept straining. When I went into freestyle I could see that Jecko was hopelessly far behind and Hopkins was the closest one to me. I swam down freestyle and concentrated on making a good flip turn, pushed off the wall and brought it home with open water on both sides of me. When I hit the end of the pool, Dick Whittaker was at the edge and slapped me on the back when I stood up. Shortly, my coaches gathered around to congratulate me. I pushed off from the wall, kicked out into the water on my back and with 1,000 spectators I rolled over, stood on the bottom, buried my face in the water and said a prayer of thanks. It had really happened.
That night I slept fine. There was, however, an interesting aspect of that particular swimming meet and my sleeping. Our coach, Al Klingel, was known for getting good accommodations for his swimmers, much better than most of the other coaches. For the National Championships he had made arrangements to lodge our team at the University of Michigan Student Union. This is where VIP’s usually stay and how he arranged it I am not sure. In any case, we had lovely rooms on the 2nd floor.
There was one problem, however, and that was that my room (which was shared with Dick Whittaker) was directly over the bowling alley, which stayed open ‘til midnight. As a result, when we turned out the lights and tried to sleep, we could hear the ten pins crashing below. I couldn’t believe this was happening. I thought it was unbelievable that I would train for seven years for this very moment in time and then be sleeping over a bowling alley. It really wasn’t a big problem because we could sleep in until 9 o’clock the next morning.
I qualified 2nd in the 200-yard breaststroke and was really feeling good because of the championship the night before. The finals, which were on Saturday night, were being televised live nationwide. Knowing that we were on television added more drama to the experience. It was really quite exciting being in a brand new natatorium with 1,000 people watching and knowing that you were being watched by friends and relatives everywhere. The 200-yard breaststroke was shaping up to be quite a race because of the six finalists. There was less than a two-second spread among us.
The race began and this time I tried to get out in front of Hopkins or at least stay with him. This I was not able to do, but I stayed much closer than before. It was during this race that a strange development occurred. We were all going out at a rather fast pace and in breaststroke it’s hard to see people on either side of you, but I could vaguely see splashing up ahead of me approximately three lanes over. I stayed with my pace and tried to shadow Hopkins. We finally went into the last turn and coming out of it we were close together and I really tried to pour it on, but I could sense that Hopkins was slightly ahead. What was unique in this particular race was that several times I could spot strobe lights going off underwater and could even see the scuba diver with his camera just off the race course. There was a television camera mounted in the center of the ceiling of the natatorium and they would do overhead shots at different times during each race.
I was later told by my friends in Champaign, who had watched it on television, that for the last lap they used the overhead camera angle and Frank Modine from Michigan State University had gone out very fast and was the splashing I had seen earlier in the race. But as we came down to the finish, the other five swimmers were catching him and it ended up being a touch out with a little more than a second between the six finishers. It was a very exciting finish to watch. At the time, I was disappointed in my third place finish behind Modine and Hopkins. In retrospect, it was a respectable performance in a field of outstanding athletes. Modine’s time was a new national record and he was congratulated on that.
I returned to Champaign in a wonderful state of mind and was already starting to think about next year.
My plans for the summer could not include swimming with Counsilman for two reasons. After the previous summer he had taken the position of varsity swimming coach at Indiana University, which was a rival in the Big 10. The second reason was the fact that I had chosen to complete the ROTC program and receive an Army commission upon graduation. As such, I was required to attend a six-week summer camp at Fort Gordon, Georgia. This ruled out any competitive training that summer. This concerned me. However, at the time I did not realize how important year-round swimming was to achieving the national class performances.
Follow along the next leg of Joe Hunsaker's college journey with Joe Hunsaker - College Senior