Aquatics Blog

Joe Hunsaker – College Sophmore

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 returned to St. Louis for approximately a week or two and then left for Champaign where I worked as a fill-in lifeguard at the country club and helped get the fraternity house ready for rush week.

In retrospect, my sophomore year at the University of Illinois was rather uneventful.  This period was like that of most second-year students, a time of adjustment and acclamation to the lifestyle of a college student.  Highlighting this period, however, was the opportunity to compete on the varsity team and, presumably, win a varsity letter.  I felt very comfortable in knowing my way around the campus as well as understanding how university culture all fits together and works in an interdependent way.  My major began to come into focus as more courses were studied.  An added impetus was created when I was able to take field trips through the Department of City Planning and Landscape Architecture.  I have to admit that I had some difficulty in visualizing myself working in the profession that was being outlined before me.

The start of the varsity swim season was exciting.  We did dry land exercises in the first two months, i.e., September and October, and then phased the dry land out as we went into swimming.  (This is in contrast to college swimming today where dry land exercise and weight work is continued throughout the season as just another element of training.)

During my sophomore year (my first in competition) I swan only breaststroke, i.e., the 100 breaststroke on the 400-yard medley relay and the 200-yard breaststroke in dual meet competition.  There was no 100-yard breaststroke in dual meet competition.  I had relative success during my first season and easily lettered, which required ten points.  Five points were awarded for the winning of a race, three for a second place and one for third place.

The high point of the season started to take shape in mid-March with the Big 10 Championships, which were held at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.  The natatorium was a small and dark arena, which seated approximately 500 people.  The pool was deep throughout with open wall-fixed bulkheads at the ends of the race course.  I placed 4th in the 200-yard breaststroke and 5th in the 100-yard breaststroke. (During championships the 100-yard breaststroke was also an event.)  In those days we swam the breaststroke underwater as much as possible, which meant that you swam four or five strokes off the dive and then would surface for one quick breath and then go on down and swim another two or three strokes. It was a very awkward form of breaststroke swimming and extremely different from what is swum today by my son, Eric, at the University of North Carolina. 

Apparently I piked (bending slightly at the hips) during my underwater strokes. This was noticed by an old St. Louis swimmer, Ronnie Johnson, who was at the meet for some reason.  He may have been an assistant coach at that time.  Ronnie had trained under Ernie Vornbrock in St. Louis and was one of our family that bridged swimming with Ernie from Jim Counsilman’s days in the late 30’s to my swimming in the late 50’s.  Ronnie had also made the Pan American team that competed in Mexico City in 1955.  He told me that I needed to straighten out my body during the underwater strokes and made several other suggestions.

It was a fun meet.  I remember that after the meet was over on Saturday night a bunch of swimmers got together in the hotel where we were staying and caused a lot of racket and let off steam.  One of the individuals that I teamed up with temporarily for horseplay, which annoyed a lot of the regular hotel guests, was Ronnie O’Brien.  Thirty years later Ron has turned out to be one of the top diving coaches in the world, primarily because he is the coach of the great American diver, Greg Louganis.  (We have maintained our friendship into our 60s and 70s.).

After a two-week period of concentrated training, a small group from the team left for the NCAA Championships at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.  (Thirty-two years later my son Eric enrolled at UNC.)  It was the end of March and in Champaign it was quite cold, windy and gloomy.  Upon our arrival at Chapel Hill, I was surprised by the mild weather and even the buds coming out on the trees.  UNC has the reputation of a beautiful campus and it certainly lived up to that description. 

The swimming pool was not a good choice for a National Collegiate Championship.  It has very few seats and was approximately 100 feet long with a fixed bulkhead built in at 25 yards.  Seating existed on one side and at the end of the shallow end bulkhead and was supported by scaffolding that actually extended into the water beyond the bulkhead.  As was the case in those days, the National Collegiate Championships were, basically, a re-run of the Big 10 Championships with one or two people outside of the Big 10 who were good enough to make the finals.  In my events, the 100- and 200-yard breaststroke, five of the six finalists in each event were from the Big 10.  The 100 breaststroke was won by a relatively unknown from the University of Oklahoma by the name of Gordon Collette.

This was the only National Championship that he won to my recollection.  He has, however, stayed in the sport of swimming and is a coach in California at the present time.  His winning was a major upset since a Michigan swimmer by the name of Cy Hopkins had won the Big 10 event and was predicted to repeat at the nationals.  I made the finals in both events and finished one notch back of my finish at the Big 10’s, i.e., 5th place in 200 breaststroke and 6th place in the 100 breaststroke. I did not swim the individual medley, but was attracted to the event as I watched from the side lines during that meet.  The most memorable facet of the championships was the three gold medals won by a swimmer from Yale by the name of P. Timothy Jecko.  He won the 100-yard butterfly, the 200-yard butterfly and the 200-yard individual medley. He received the most valuable swimmer of the meet award and was heavily written up in the local papers and even made the New York Times. He was, understandably, considered the superstar of the meet. As I recall, the University of Michigan won the team championship with Yale close behind.

As I’ve said before, I believe there are several major forks in the road that each person comes face-to-face within their own life.  One of those forks occurred at these NCAA Championships when I sat down and talked with Jim Counsilman who was there as a coach with two of his swimmers from Cortland State Teachers College. Jim had finished his doctorate at the University of Iowa; (hence, the nickname Doc, which has been a part of his name ever since) and after the completion of his studies he accepted a position at a small teachers’ college in upstate New York.  Everyone thought he was making a major mistake by not working as an assistant coach at one of the major swimming universities.  The reason seems to be that he had functioned in that capacity during his masters’ and doctorate studies (Illinois for his masters, Iowa for his doctorate) and felt that he would be frustrated working as an assistant coach again.

Another motivation for this decision was that he had developed a revolutionary concept for competitive swimming and probably felt that he could have more freedom to develop swimmers with this theory if he were head coach, even though it would be at a small school.

In any case, we talked about the possibility of my spending the summer in Cortland and training with him.  He thought that was an excellent idea and saw a number of things that were wrong with my stroke during my performance at the Championships.  He said that if I could get to Cortland, he could get me a summer job as a lifeguard and arrange lodging at one of the rooming houses near the campus.  I would be training with a handful of other swimmers one if which was George Breen, who was Doc’s first world-record holder that he had developed in a matter of three years.  This was an exciting idea for me and a challenge that I definitely wanted to take on.  I immediately started making mental plans for my trip to Cortland and what I would be doing that summer.

As was the custom in those days, I stopped swimming after the nationals in April and didn’t begin again until I arrived in Cortland, New York in mid-June.  I knew this was going to be very difficult for me to take on the extensive workouts that Counsilman would demand.  In retrospect, I should have kept swimming all spring.  This was contrary, however, to the way most swimmers trained in those days and I did not have the foresight to see that my summer would be more beneficial if I stayed in condition after the indoor nationals.

Shortly after my last final exam was taken at Illinois, I went home to St. Louis for several days and then packed my gear for the trip to Cortland, New York. I had not hitchhiked over a great distance before and so I determined that I could afford to take a Greyhound bus as far as Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which is located in the center of the state and approximately 250 miles south, southwest of Cortland, New York.  The bus ride was relatively uneventful although it did take place over one night.  When we arrived at Harrisburg I disembarked the bus, consulted my road map and found my way to the edge of the city where I began to hitchhike.  Hitchhiking in those days was rather fun and adventuresome.  I would meet a number of interesting people and usually had no great wait in catching a ride. 

In any case, I arrived in Cortland in early evening and called Doc from a pay phone on the edge of town.  He came in his car, picked me up and took me back to his house where I spent the night.  The next day he took me to a fraternity house that was being occupied by several of the swimmers that he was going to be training that summer.  When we arrived, I met George Breen and was very pleased to find that I would be rooming with him for at least several weeks.  There was one major complication, and that was that Doc was working in Philadelphia at an athletic club during the week and driving home on weekends to be with his family and to go over workouts for the week ahead.  Fortunately, this was not a permanent situation and was going to last only several weeks.

The workouts that Doc left with George were unbelievable from my point of view.  I had never trained as hard as Counsilman required.  We swam two and three times a day and some of the workouts were long mile swims, which are really quite boring without a coach around.  Also, I could not swim freestyle as fast as Breen (world-record holder), so I didn’t even have the advantage of working out with someone.

After several weeks Doc finished his Philadelphia requirement and was available on a daily basis.  At this time, several other swimmers arrived from around the country. One was Frank Brunell, who was an outstanding age group swimmer.  Another swimmer (with a name) that arrived was Gene Adler.  Gene was a real phenomenon as an age grouper. He matured quite early and I remember swimming against him at the National YMCA Championships where he won both the breaststroke and the individual medley.

As I said before, the workouts were unbelievably long and hard.  But I had no choice, I had to stick with the program or lose a tremendous amount of face and be considered a quitter by the others and myself.

After about four weeks I started to see improvements in my endurance and conditioning.  My swimming performance with regard to the breaststroke did not improve much at all and this was very discouraging.  Doc kept reassuring me that the benefit would occur next winter and it would not take place now because of the “tear down” by the workouts and that success comes when the body rebuilds itself during the layover between the summer season and the winter season.  It was interesting that in all my swimming for time, other than the breaststroke, I improved.  I swam the individual medley, I swam individual strokes other than breaststroke and I did a lot of kicking and pulling for time.

The summer season ended with all of us going to the outdoor National AAU Championship in Philadelphia.  The meet was held at the big Kelley Olympic pool.  I swam the 400 individual medley (There was no 200-meter event.) and the 100-meter breaststroke and the 200-meter breaststroke.  My individual medley time was not very good because the event felt so foreign.  My 200-meter breaststroke was a little better, but not good enough to make the finals.  I did make the finals in the 100-meter breaststroke, which was quite surprising because I was always a 200 breaststroker. There were eight swimmers in the finals at the outdoors and it was covered by TV.  I finished the 100 with a number of positions being touch outs.  There was some confusion over who finished where, and I was asked to go to the victory stand along with everyone else.  When I got there, I soon realized that I had placed 7th out of 8 and they were giving medals only to the top six.  This was a little embarrassing, but I was probably the only one to even notice.

I swam in lane 7 out of 8 in the 100 breaststroke.  The swimmer in lane 8 should have been a slow qualifier and he was.  The reason was because he swam only to qualify.  Bob Hughes was huge breaststroker, maybe 6’7”, 250 pounds and very strong. I felt like a high school sophomore standing on the block beside him.  He later qualified for the Olympics for the 200 breast and water polo team competition.

I remember when the race was underway in the shallow water.  I would look down and see this large dark shadow ahead of mine. He won the race.

After the meet was over I sand goodbye to everyone, packed my gear and took a bus to New York City.  The bus arrived at the New York Port Authority terminal.  From there I managed to get to the Sloan House, which was a YMCA with hotel rooms.  The rooms were considerably less-costly than was the standard of the day.  Because it was a men’s hotel, the rooms were elongated closets with a single size bed with showers and toilets being down the hall.  It was really like a dormitory with individual rooms.

I had never been to New York before and it was an adventure. I was going to treat myself following the hard summer. I spent three days visiting landmarks, points of interest and just walking around looking at the tall buildings.

Several things stand out during that trip.  One was that I usually ate my meals at hot dog stands or at the coin-operated Horn and Hardet.  This was a unique experience that I had seen in movies.  Two walls of this large eating room were filled with little windows behind which were single servings of all kinds of food.  You would insert the necessary coins, turn the handle and the door would open and you would remove your food. I also stumbled across a tremendous find.  It was Tad’s Steak House on 42nd Street near Times Square.  For 99 cents you got a steak, baked potato and a salad. The beverage was extra. (The restaurant was still in the area in 2006.)

Finally the time came for me to leave New York.  I bought a bus ticket from the Port Authority Terminal to Wheeling, West Virginia.  I could afford that far and it gave me a way of getting out of the city congestion and even through Philadelphia.  Wheeling was a small town at that time.  Once I left the bus I was able to make my way I some fashion to the edge of town. I hitchhiked with short rides for several hours and then was picked up by a person who was going to St. Louis.  It was a stroke of luck, although costly to a certain degree before the trip was over. 

This individual, who was a young person, was driving home and was pretty low on money.  When he ran out of money I gave him some of mine to buy gas.  That turned out to be insufficient so at one point he sold his spare tire to a gas station in exchange for a tank of gas.  With no spare and a tank of gas we were limping our way into St. Louis.  We made, however, and I was dropped off at my door at approximately 3 o’clock in the morning.  The summer had really been unique and challenging.  I experienced a number of adventures and was looking forward to some time off before the start of school.

I hitchhiked back to Champaign, helped clean up the fraternity house in preparation for rush week and spent some time working at the country club as a lifeguard.  Our rush week was quite productive and we pledged an impressive group of young men.  In my opinion, it was a better group than my own pledge class.  The sophomore class usually has the most impact and influence over rushes planning to pledge because they will have to spend three years with the sophomores.  In that regard, I have to credit our sophomores with doing a very good job in rushing.

Follow along the next leg of Joe Hunsaker's college journey with Joe Hunsaker - College Junior

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