WASHINGTON — My first gaucherie committed in our nation’s capital came in 1970. I was traveling with Vice President Spiro Agnew, the acerbic pol who for obvious reasons was trying to coax me away from The American Spectator to become one of his speech writers. He was an easy-going fellow, and he remarked to me and young staffers seated with him that he found signing autographs to be a pleasant task. I told him I did too, and then heard the groans of the young men around me. Agnew asked when I started signing autographs. When I was a teenager, I replied. I had been a swimmer for Doc Counsilman, and every swimmer around Doc was thought to be a world record holder. Agnew knew about sports and understood. Possibly he also understood that my autograph was not quite world class. The other day Doc died.
Simply stated Doc was the greatest swim coach of all time, and among history’s greatest coaches in any sport. From 1957 to 1990 as coach at Indiana University his teams won 23 Big Ten Titles, six consecutive NCAA titles, and seven AAU Outdoor national championships. In the early 1960s, though allowed to compete in the AAUs, his IU teams were barred from NCAA championships owing to recruiting violations committed by other IU teams. Were he free to compete in the NCAAs in those years he almost certainly would have accounted for three more NCAA titles. Doc coached two Olympic teams. He trained 48 Olympians from ten nations who won 46 medals, 26 of them gold. How many world record holders holding how many world records I can only estimate, but I can say that in the early 1960s my teammates broke world records during practice and held anywhere between two-thirds to four-fifths of all men’s world records. In the AAUs we beat the best national teams in the world and might well have been able to win a dual meet against the best non-IU swimmers in the world.
Because I came from that athletic milieu, you will understand, perhaps, why I say that of all the virtues I have always found humility the most mystifying. God knows, Doc was not a humble man. Yet he was not arrogant either. He was a creature of the Enlightenment. Raised on the other side of the tracks in St. Louis in the 1930s — his father being a carnival worker, his mother what we now call a single-parent mom — he graduated 113th from a high school class of 116. But his boyhood hero was Lawrence Tibbett, the great baritone, and when in he left Ohio State University for the Army Air Corps he scored in the ninety-ninth percentile on the Army’s IQ test.
During the War he piloted a B-24 on 32 missions during one of which he successfully crash-landed into Yugoslavia. A notorious problem with crash-landing those heavy bombers was that their noses would catch the ground causing the plane to flip. On this fated flight enemy fire destroyed Doc’s landing gear and hit a compartment, leaving the crew one parachute short. Doc ordered his crew to leap, leaving him at the controls. They refused to do so. Of a sudden, the man his swimmers would one day call the Great White Ph.D. got an idea. If the crew ran to the back of the plane at the last minute, its weight distribution would be sufficient to keep the nose from catching and the plane from cart-wheeling. As his disabled bomber approached the Yugoslav fields Doc rang a bell. The crew scurried to the tail. And all were soon being escorted by partisans from harm’s way. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross.
I would like to have been with him on that flight. Surely Doc would have had a wry remark as he gave his orders. Swimming under him was demanding to the utmost — “hurt, pain, agony,” he would sing. And along with the agony there was always humor — “Reach down in the bread basket and come up with the cookies,” was another of his exhortations, and from Shakespeare, “Screw your courage to the sticking point.”
Most of my adult life has been spent in the company of intellectuals of greater or lesser voltage, and it was Doc, an intellectual of the highest voltage that sent me out of the swimming pool and into the reading room. His house was filled with the books of a truly literate man and the appurtenances of a man of science: technical papers, scientific instruments, tanks filled with fish and reptiles. When we trained at the indoor pool, opera and concert music lilted from the public address system. When we traveled he would have a museum to direct us to. We kidded him about keeping his art books in his bedroom and out of the public eye, for Doc never made a display of his artistic interests. Science was a different matter. He often brought conversations back to science. By suggesting I read Robert Ardery’s books such as The Territorial Imperative and Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape, I suspect he thought he might lure me to science; but I remained obtuse.
ANOTHER OF DOC’S BEQUESTS to his swimmers has been a life-long respect for fitness. He himself had become a national champion breaststroker at Ohio State after the War and before that a national YMCA handball champion. His interest in sports for health endured. In 1979 he became the oldest man to swim the English Channel, and the nation’s vast master’s swimming program for adults owes much to his encouragement. I have remained fit for four decades thanks to him, lifting weights, running, playing handball, and defying the crank Puritans who confuse vitality with crapulence.
The dominance his swimmers had over the sport will never again be duplicated. There are all the titles I cited above. In the early 1960s he revolutionized stroke mechanics in every stroke. In the 1964 Olympic Trials seven IU swimmers stood on the eight starting blocks in the breaststroke. Incidentally that being my stroke you might properly deduce that I was the team’s eighth stringer. He also insisted on strict amateurism. His IU teams had none of the wealth that so-called amateur sport has today, and the showmanship was strictly that of quiet American. At the 1962 summer nationals where his swimmers took practically every title, I recall the frustration of ABC’s Jim McKay asking each champion as the cameras whirred, “To what do you attribute your victory?” Our world record holder in the backstroke set the undemonstrative tone: Wearing a threadbare nondescript warm-up jacket, Tommy Stock replied, “Superior coaching.” It became the IU champions’ signature response and McKay’s despair.
The professionalization of amateur sports became one of Doc Counsilman’s last challenges. Though usually phlegmatic he was surprisingly ardent in his derision of the cataracts of money washing into amateur sport. In fact any contaminant that threatened fair-play and what we might term sport for sport’s sake angered him. He had numerous complaints with the drift of college sports into gaudy show biz and away from the ancients’ ideal of a healthy mind in a healthy body.
Doc was an idealist disciplined by objective fact and ethics. In his youth he had been an ardent New Dealer. In his last days he remained faithful to the memory of FDR but he had come to admire another former New Dealer, Ronald Reagan. As with Reagan, so it was with Doc; he never left the Liberals. They left him — and Doc, a man devoted to fact and principle, found himself voting with me and with Agnew.
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