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 arrived on campus a few days before the beginning of the clean up period prior to rush week. It was fun seeing some of the brothers as they came back into town and I participated in the ritual of painting and more painting. After that the rush week began with the hourly arrival of small groups of young men looking for a fraternity to pledge.
I found that I had lost interest in the process, which was partly because of 'senioritis' or whatever. In any case, I skipped several afternoons of rush and went out to the country club where I swam in the pool, lifeguarded and did some light workouts. In retrospect, I should have been present for the rushing and been more supportive to my fellow brothers.
The first couple of weeks were always a get-acquainted period as well as reacquainting with those girls you had dated the preceding spring.
As I recall, I wrote and directed three Dolphin Shows. The one in ’58 (the year under discussion) was the best. It was called “Bon Hour, Pierre”, and was set in Paris. The lead character was played by an Acacia fraternity brother, Lew Mabie. He was short, thin, a very good musician, and had a great personality. In my case, the two of us had worked out6 a story in which he would be the Frenchman that appeared on stage, but never in the water. He was dressed in a beret and a sport coat, providing the transition from act to act, etc. When Sheila asked to be involved she convinced me that she might be a good sounding board to review the development of the story, acts and dialogue. Lew and I met for cokes with Sheila several times. Each encounter impressed me with her personality and ideas. Eventually, Lew and I concluded that maybe Sheila could add to the show as another character. Her looks certainly qualified her and her voice was very sexy. The three of us rewrote the story to include Sheila.
The Dolphin Show that year was as I said earlier, the best of the three I did and the head coach, Al Klingel, said it was the best out of thirty years.
The next event on my horizon was the annual Christmas trip to Fort Lauderdale. The lodging in Ft. Lauderdale, near the Casino Pool was the best we had ever had, but still on the water of the inland waterway and a block from the beach.
The two-week session was pretty much like the other years. . . .with one exception. The annual East/West Swim Meet, which was held on New Year’s Day and usually had a standing room only crowd, was going to be a matchup between Frank Brunell and me. Brunell was the long course 400-meter individual medley National AAU champion and I was the 200-yard individual medley NCAA champion. We were going to swim the 200-meter event in a long course pool. Added to the situation was the fact that Frank and I did not like each other because of our fraction when we both swam for Counsilman at Cortland a year-and-one-half before.
Most of the events that day were fairly uneventful and predictable in the outcome, except one race ended in a tie and a world record. Our event, however, was a toss-up. As a result, we both were psyched up. A photograph was taken at the start of the race and later appeared in a textbook about aquatics. Frank and I were in the air, off the blocks while all the other swimmers in the race were still getting off their starts with their toes on the blocks. The lead changed several times as frequently happened in the IM. He pulled ahead in the butterfly and I closed slightly in the backstroke. Then, I passed Brunell in the breaststroke leg and turned at the freestyle with a body and a half lead because breaststroke was his weak stroke. Freestyle was his strong stroke and he came back like a train. In the end, I touched him out for first place. Later, I was informed that my time had bettered the world record. The record lasted less than a year, but it was a great way to begin my senior year of competition.
It would seem that this would have given a lift to my morale. It really didn’t happen. I had been having problems all winter with my motivation. Partly, because I was having a hard time adjusting to the changes in coaches. Don Van Rossen, my coach (the varsity assistant coach), had moved to Oregon. This meant a change to a new assistant coach. The bond between an athlete and his coach, especially in an individual sport, is very important. When we returned to Illinois after the first of the year I was discouraged with my times. My work during the past four months didn’t seem to be doing any good. I was feeling somewhat burned out or something.
Finally, I decided to take some money I had saved and fly to California for a week. This I did without letting anyone know. I stayed with my aunt and uncle in San Jose. I also worked out a little at Santa Clara Swim Club, which was coached by George Haines, one of the great coaches of that time and a rival of Doc Counsilman.
The adventure helped a little as I returned to Illinois. I had been gone the week between semesters. During that time the swim team had two meets with weak teams, i.e., Ball State and Northwestern, which Illinois easily won without me.
My absence (disappearance) caused quite a disturbance among the team and the coaches. It also focused on the fact that I was not okay and something was seriously wrong. As a result, Al Klingel, the head coach who was mostly an administrator, talked with me about what the problem was. We finally agreed that the assistant coach I was working with was not compatible. He had a negative personality and always focused on one’s weaknesses rather than on the positive. In any case, it was decided to switch me to another coach who was in charge of a few freshman swimmers. His name was Jack Meyer. He used a lot of psychology and concentrated on high quality swimming in practice.
His coaching seemed to help. He believed in hypnosis as a means of focusing on performance. We tried it, but it never worked on me.
We swam a few more meets with lackluster performances by me. I always won, but time was getting short before the Big 10 Championships with a showdown with Tashnick and with less than five weeks before the NCAAs.
The last dual meet of my college career was on a Saturday night against Indiana. It was a home meet. This was a fortunate development because it would be the last I and my senior teammates would swim before a home crowd. My stepfather and his future wife, Alma, drove up from St. Louis.
Dick Whittaker and I went to his grandmother’s apartment the night before while she was out of town so we could get a good night’s sleep. The day of the meet we did some light swimming because we had started our taper. I don’t remember what we did all day, but I know we ate an early dinner, probably around 3 p.m. and rested at Dick’s grandmother’s. I was keyed up because I was going to be pushed by one of the top individual medley swimmers in the country, Bill Barton. The fact that he swam for Counsilman at Indiana meant that he was in excellent shape and, probably, finely tuned.
An unusual thing happened that night. The rules of the NCAA stated that the visiting team had a choice of the lanes they would use. Counsilman chose the two lanes that Illinois always swam in. This meant that we were swimming in strange lanes, not a big deal, but it ended up being a positive situation.
It wasn’t long before the individual medley came up. By this time I was quite excited and ready to swim. We got on the blacks. I could hear the shouts of encouragement and support from my teammates and people in the stands. I remember hearing my stepfather’s voice.
The other Illinois swimmer jumped the gun with a false start. This was aggravating to me, but it was understandable that he was tense; everyone in the room seemed to be. That morning, The Daily Illini, had a headline on the sports page, “Hunsaker May Be Pushed.”
The gun fired and we were off. Barton was one of the best butterflyers in the country so I expected to be behind him at the end of that 50-yard; I did my flip turn from butterfly to backstroke (I was the only person in the country that did this kind of turn.) when I came up backstroking I could see that I was a half-body behind. At the end of the backstroke, Barton was almost a body length ahead. I did my flip turn to breaststroke, expecting to catch him in the first 25 yards, turn together and then open up a body length before going into the freestyle final leg. It didn’t happen that way. I was gaining, but not at the rate I expected and I hurt a lot. We, finally, turned together at the start of the freestyle, apparently the crowd was screaming but, of course, I couldn’t hear them. Both teams were happy because Indiana knew how I had faded at the East/West meet again Brunell. The Illinois team was confident because they knew that my freestyle had greatly improved during the past month under Jack Meyer, the freshman coach. In any case, I came out of the turn slightly ahead of Barton because I was about six inches taller than him.
Because of the lane assignments, I could not see Barton because I was breathing on my right side. I knew we were close, but I felt strong and confident that I would beat him. I concentrated on making a good turn (not like the one at the Big 10 Championships the year before). When we came out of the turn, I was about six inches ahead of him. During the last length, I could see him and I knew I had him. I touched and had the thrill of winning, but I hurt all over. As was customary, I swam slowly up and down the pool once trying to stay loose.
While I was still in the water the announcer huddled with the timers, and then stepped forward to announce over the P.A. system the final results. He named the fourth-place finisher, the third and Barton as second. He then preceded my name by stating that “The winning time sets a new varsity record, a new meet record, a new pool record, a new Big 10 record, a new NCAA record and a new American record.” The place went crazy.
I got out of the pool, picked up my towel and sweatshirt and walked to the team bench where the entire team stood up and led by Coach Al Klingel, each shook my hand. During all of this the crowd was applauding.
I’ve thought about that moment many times and have concluded that it was the most thrilling of my swimming, more than my two national championships.
Diving was an event in the middle of the meet and the swimmers on both teams would usually go into the locker room and get mentally ready for the second half of events. I needed to rest because I still had to swim the 200 breast.
I swam the 200 breast with a mediocre time, but it was an exciting race for the crown. I trailed Jerri Miki, a Hawaiian swimmer from Indiana, who was a national finalist, and then passed him in the last 50 yards. Indiana was assured of winning the meet except it was closer than expected. 200 breaststroke was the second to last event with the final race being the 400-yard freestyle relay. I was still in the water after finishing the breaststroke when Al Klingel walked to the pool and asked if I would like to anchor the relay. I had never done that before, but it would make the relay team made up of all seniors. I said, “Yes!”
By swimming last, I would have about four minutes rest form the time I climbed out of the pool after the breaststroke race. Lead off swimmer for us made a false start, which bought me an extra 45 seconds. The race started and I waited my turn while sitting on a chair. Finally, my turn came. I was on the block and would swim against the Hawaiian, who had won the 100 free earlier in the meet. Surprisingly, the Illinois team was only a body length behind as the swimme4s approached the final relay exchange. The Hawaiian was a foot shorter than me, but a Big 10 finalist. With a big wind up, I virtually caught him with my dive. We rushed down the pool together and I felt pretty good. We turned at the 50 with the last two lengths ahead of us.
About a third of the way down the pool I started to really hurt and my arms became very heavy due to oxygen depletion. I slowly fell behind and finished the race at my opponent’s feet. After that the team received a round of spirited applause from the crowd. I ached allover and didn’t have the strength to even swim it off slowly. I just hung on the ropes. Before I finally got out of the pool, John Parks, an Indiana swimmer, stopped at my lane and asked how I felt. I told him and he said “I don’t see how you did that”. (two races back to back)
After the meet was over, I slowly walked into the team locker room and leaned against the wall. I hurt everywhere. Swimming the last two events had been a real strain. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had peaked at that meet. Two weeks before the Big 10 meet.
I slept in my room that night instead of the dorm. I frequently did this, but it was not very comfortable. I had a room to myself decorated in an Oriental motif with a bamboo curtain on the wall. The only window was a small high window. The room was in the basement of the fraternity house at the bottom of the stairs off a corridor that led into the kitchen. My room and the one next to it were called The Salt Mines.
The bed was a flush wooden door perched on a concrete block legs approximately 20 inches off the floor. As I recall there was a thin palette, which was a poor substitute for springs and a mattress. The good part was that the room was warm, whereas, the dorm was unheated with open windows, which was supposed to be healthy.
The next morning I awoke after a fitful night of sleep with a touch of a sore throat. This was a concern because I was two weeks away from the Big 10 meet.
Michigan State University had just completed the construction of its new natatorium, which was outstanding for its day and signaled a new generation of competition facilities. It was symmetrical with an equal amount of seats on each side. The pool was approximately 40 yards long with a movable bulkhead, which created the 25-yard course from the shallow end. On the other side of the bulkhead was the deep water diving area, which featured two 1-meter diving boards and two hydraulic boards that converted from 1M to 3M, a unique innovation.
The meet started on Thursday with the swimming of the 1500-meter for my friend Dick Whittaker. The 200 individual medley was on Friday. I swam to qualify and could tell that the edge wasn’t there. Usually I would have to hold myself back from swimming hard. T was not the case this time.
That night the finals were held. Tony Tashnic, my rival from Michigan had swum a good time, not wanting to make the tactical mistake he had made the year before at the NCAAA’s. He had the fastest prelim time and I qualified second.
A memorable sequence of events occurred during my race. One was rather dramatic, one was bizarre and somewhat funny in retrospect and the third was disappointing.
At the start of each race, the overhead lights in the natatorium were turned way down with the underwater lights running along each side of the pool still burning, creating an image similar to a airport runway at night.
Each competitor was announced and when he stepped up onto the starting block, a small spotlight in the ceiling was turned to shining directly onto the athlete. It was quite a feeling. The spotlight feature was only one of several innovations that the Michigan State coach had developed for the new complex.
Another was a unique ceiling design. One of the problems for backstroke swimmers is to know when to turn as one approached the turning wall. The new natatorium featured light panels in the ceiling that were directly above the black racing stripes on the pool bottom. Since each racing stripe terminated with a cross “T” five feet from the end of the pool, the architect had located a small yellow light bulb over the “T”. This yellow light would warn the backstroke swimmer that he was 5 ft. 0 in. from the end of the pool. Since the individual medley was part backstroke, we would be looking for the lights.
The race started and Tashnic took the lead as expected, but I was further behind than I should have been.
During the second leg, i.e., the backstroke, I noticed at the last instant before my turn that the yellow light was out. I adjusted just in time and made a tight flip turn. One of the swimmers in the race never realized that the light was out and crashed into the bulkhead. He came in last and was very angry and frustrated. Into the breaststroke (3rd leg) and I made my move to catch and pass Tashnic as I had done the year before. It didn’t happen. I moved up, but not much. As a result, we went into the freestyle with Tashnic ahead. I never caught him. He won the race with a time slightly faster than my time against Indiana two weeks before.
My breaststroke was disappointing also. I went from 2nd and 3rd the year before to 3rd and 4th.
The results of the Big 10 meet were not only frustrating, but confirmed that something was missing in my ability. In retrospect, I believe the whole problem was the result of not training hard during the previous summer, a situation created by the ROTC requirement and not continuing my daily weight regimen during the season.
Two weeks later our team journeyed to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York for the NCAA Championships. I had a foreboding feeling. Once there, the feeling didn’t change. The pool and natatorium were nice but not on the level of Michigan State or the University of Michigan, the site of the previous year’s NCAA Championship.
We stayed in an old Victorian hotel in the town, which was located at the bottom of a large hill on which the campus was located. The hotel was at least 50 years old. It was the month of March and the weather was changeable, but cold nevertheless.
On the second day of the meet, which was the day of the individual medley, it began to snow. I swam my preliminary heat and qualified third behind George Harrison, a sophomore from Stanford. After the prelims, I found that my coaches had driven to the hotel having left word that they would make a second trip to pick me up with some of the other Illinois swimmers.
The snow had become intense and was accumulating. After a time, traffic up the hill from below was impossible. As a result, I and a number of other swimmers were marooned in the field house. We found a wrestling room with mats on the floor, which enabled us to lie down and rest. The primary problem, however, was finding something to eat. In the end, I bought a hot dog, a soda and some potato chips for my pre-race meal.
There was little doubt to me that I wasn’t “up” for the race. However, I kept trying to “psyche” myself into believing that when the time came, I’d be ready.
The 200 IM race began with Harrison in the lane for the fastest qualifier and with Tashnic and me on each side of him. Harrison led from the beginning and I trailed at 3rd to the end. It was interesting that I finished 3rd and no one else slipped in ahead of me. It was ironic. I had duplicated the experience of P. Timothy Jecko the year before when he had been the defending champion and finished 3rd.
The 200 breaststroke the next day was equally disappointing with a 7th place finish. A memorable aspect of that race was the winning of the event by Bill Mulliken of Miami of Ohio. Bill’s home was Champaign where he had attended high school. His family belonged to the country club and we had become friends over the first summer when I worked as a lifeguard. He had been expected to go to Illinois, but when he graduated he decided that he wanted to go away to college.
Bill not only won the NCAA Championship that year, but he eventually won the National AAU title, the Pan American Championship and, eventually, became the Olympic Champion. In each of these swims he was the dark horse in the race.
In later life Bill became a corporate lawyer specializing in toxic contamination litigation.
By the time the NCAA meet was over, I was pretty demoralized. I had entered the National AAU Championship meet the next week, but was not looking forward to it. Too short of period to return to school, Dick Whittaker, Al Rubenstein and I went to New York City for the four days before the AAU’s at Yale University. We took rooms in the YMCA in the YMCA Sloan House.
I remember that I slept a lot during those four days. It was unorthodox to not be doing any swimming for five days before a major race, but I just didn’t feel like it. We did some sightseeing and even talked our way into a sold-out performance of The Music Man, which was a hit on Broadway at the time.
Wednesday arrived and we drove Al’s Buick to New Haven, Connecticut and the Payne Whitney Gym at Yale.
The exhibition pool at Payne Whitney was/is a six-lane, 25-yard course, all deep water with diving boards at one end and a shallow end depth of approximately seven feet. The reason for the deep water was for the sport of water polo. Yale had fielded nationally ranked teams over the years. The natatorium seated 2,500 spectators, all of whom had an excellent view because of 360 degree seats with no columns to obstruct the line of sight. The incline or “rake” of the seats was especially steep and no longer would meet building codes.
The facility is still in use, having been built in 1927, just before the start of the Great Depression.
Another outstanding feature of Payne Whitney was a 50-meter pool on the 5th floor. It had a movable bulkhead so that course lengths could be changed.
At Yale, the 1,500-meter race was swum over the 50-meter long course instead of the 25-yard short course in the exhibition pool. There was not much in the way of spectator seats overlooking the 5th floor pool. As I recall, there were approximately 250 seats in the balcony.
The real benefit of the 5th floor was its use as a warm up pool to be used before your event in the exhibition pool. In those days, most championship meets had only one pool, which meant that a swimmer would have to warm up before the meet began and then wait until his event came around. Sometimes the meet would be stopped for 10 or 15 minutes to give athletes swimming in later events a chance to loosen up a short time before their race.
The 5th floor 50-meter pool enabled any swimmer to loosen up exactly when he wanted to. After the warm up you would take the elevator the 1st floor, make a short walk to the main natatorium and wait for your race to be called.
We were lodged at the New Haven YMCA, which is where I had stayed on previous trips with Ernie. I should point out that I had to pay all my expenses including my entry fees for the meet. We shared a ride to the meet with Al Rubenstein. The three of us, i.e., Dick, Al and I were the only swimmers from Illinois. There were two assistant coaches from our team, Dave Stacey and Jack Meyer, who came to see the races.
The rest in New York City had made me a little stronger, however, I still felt “off”. I, therefore, decided to scratch the 200-yard breast and the 400-yard individual medley and concentrate solely on the 200-yard I.M., my specialty.
The 200 I.M. was being held in the AAU Nationals for the first time in history. Before, the 400-yard I.M. was the only individual medley event (I had taken second in that the year before.) Now there were two I.M. events.
The 200 I.M. was scheduled for Saturday afternoon with the finals that night. I felt good in the prelims and qualified 1st with a good time and yet I knew that I had not gone all out.
Since I had no other event to swim, I ate something and then went back to my room in the late afternoon. I wanted to lie down and try to get some sleep. When I entered the lobby I stopped at the registration desk and left word for a wake-up call at 5 p.m. The meet started at 7 p.m. and I wanted to take a long warm up and pace myself for my event, which should probably occur around 8 p.m. I had no wristwatch because mine had been stolen at Christmas in Fort Lauderdale. I dozed a little, but mostly stayed awake in my dark room. There was a lot of noise from other swimmers who were on the same floor and in the men’s room shower, several doors down the hall. I must have dozed off a little because I awoke to relatively quiet. I laid there for several minutes wondering what time it was. I knew that the room phone had not rung and yet it was too quiet. I finally got up and called the desk and asked what time it was. I was told that it was close to 6:00 p.m.
I dressed as fast as I could, put on my coat, grabbed my gym bag with my suit, towel and sweat suit and jogged hurriedly all the way to Payne Whitney. When I got to the natatorium, I could see that the meet was about to start. My event was the fifth or sixth. Understandably, my heart was beating from the running and the anxiety over the possibility of missing my race. Seeing what was happening assured me that I would not miss the race, however, I still had to change, warm up and wait and relax before my race. I quickly changed into my swim suit, checked the schedule of events in the natatorium and calculated the time I had before my event. I took the elevator to the 5th floor and warmed up. Everything was starting to settle down. After a few minutes in the water I began to relax. The excitement was probably good for me although running is not recommended before a race.
An interesting sidelight of the evening occurred when I got off the elevator on the 1st floor, which was a secured area (the spectator entrance was one floor above). The hallway was empty except for a swimmer who was sitting in a doorway searing a sweat suit. I asked him if he knew what event was currently being swum. He told me and I went on to the pool office and a rub down room, which had become a staging area for the swimmers waiting to swim.
After about fifteen minutes my event was called. I walked into the natatorium, which was filled with spectators, removed my sweats, retied the drawstring on my swimsuit and made my way through the group of officials (that was before the introduction of automatic timing systems). When I stepped up on the starting block I recognized all the other swimmers except the one in the next lane on my left side. I knew his name was Lance Larsen and that he was a freshman at the University of Southern California. When he stepped up to the starting block I recognized him as the swimmer sitting in the doorway when I got off the elevator.
George Harrison, the Stanford swimmer who had won the NCAA 200 I.M. the week before, had passed up the event to swim in the 440-yard freestyle race, which would be an Olympic event the following year. He must have been off because he didn’t even qualify in the 440. A year later he did swim on the winning relay team at the Olympics in Rome.
There was a psychological stimulation when I stepped up on the block. The crowd was noisy, the officials were getting ready, the pool had underwater lights, which made the deep water pool glow and, of course, there was tension as “the moment” arrived.
The gun went off and I had a good start. The first turn was good because I hit it and didn’t have to glide in (a situation which is not always easy to execute). The Yale pool is unique in that it has no gutters at the turning walls, which are flat and vertical. This type of wall is difficult to execute butterfly and breaststroke turns because most swimmers doing those events grab the gutter lip and pull themselves into the wall and use leverage in turning. The smooth wall requires a swimmer to swim into the wall and using body English and “bounce” off the wall with a delicate feel for the wall. I had worked on this kind of turn with Ernie Vornbeck since the first time I swam in the Yale pool at the National YMCA meet when I was a junior in high school. I used a flat wall turn when I practiced in the gutter pool at Illinois.
As a result of this skill, I made a good turn after the first length. At 50 yards we changed from butterfly to backstroke and I used my flip turn while everyone else executed a slower open turn which was more difficult on the smooth flush walls. I apparently picked up on the turns because as we went into backstroke, three of us were fairly even. Again, my turns were good, especially the flip turn from backstroke to breaststroke. Most of my competitors executed open turns, which were slower and difficult to do on a smooth wall. When I went into breaststroke I passed Larson at the turn. Coming back in breaststroke for the turn into freestyle, I was the first to the wall. As I started the final 50 of freestyle I knew I had over a body length lead on Larson and the others. I didn’t want to make the mistake I had made against Tashnic at the Big 10 my junior year, so I kept my stroke long, made a tight turn and then swam strong with long strokes on the last length. Larson was gaining rapidly because above all else he was a freestyle sprinter (He would win a Silver Medal in the Rome Olympics for the 100-meter freestyle a year later.) I saw him and knew that I could beat him to the wall. To demonstrate that I was in control of the race, I glided into the wall over a foot ahead of Larson. That finish gave me a certain class, but it may have cost me the American record that had been set by Harrison at the NCAA’s. I did get the National AAU record, the meet record and the Yale pool record. I missed Harrison’s record by .6 of a second.
After the race I was euphoric. As a winner, I was the last swimmer of my event to climb the victory stand at the corner of the pool deck. Kids leaned over the wall from the spectator seats and asked for autographs. There were several thrills. The biggest was winning the National Amateur Athletic Union Championship and receiving the coveted Gold Medal and cloth patch that said “AAU Champion” on it. The second thrill and satisfaction was in beating Tashnic.
While I was still in the water I announced to several well wishers on the deck that I was retiring. Doc Counsilman later talked to me in the locker room and congratulated me on going out in glory and style.
Dick, Al and I went out to an ice cream shop near the campus and I ordered a banana split. Around 1 a.m. I went back to my room, which I shared with Dick. I tried to sleep, but I couldn’t. The next day I rode back to Champaign with Dave Stacey, one of the Illinois coaches, and not with Al and Dick. The reason I can’t remember. It was two days before I could go to sleep.
When I arrived at the fraternity house, there were several phone calls from the local newspapers. It was a great way to end my swimming career.
After the ’50 National AAU’s I officially retired from swimming. Back on campus there was a feel of euphoria for me. I had gone out as a champion and the spring semester stretched out before me for the next three months. Unlike most of my classmates, I was not concerned with finding a job after graduation because I would be attending Illinois for another whole year.