A DOCumentary – a tribute to a legend: Dr. James “Doc” Counsilman

The USMS Short Course Nationals, which were dedicated to the legendary Dr. James “Doc” Counsilman, were a raucous, record-breaking, aging myth-shattering affair. Doc would have loved it. The week of the U.S. Masters Short Course Nationals in April (Indianapolis) was a complete immersion into the world of swimming, both past and present. My college aquatic career was spent at Indiana University, where I trained under the legendary Dr. James “Doc” Counsilman.

The celebration of and memorial to Doc’s extraordinary life had been held the weekend before Masters Nationals in Bloomington, Ind., on the campus of his beloved Indiana University. Anyone whose life had been touched by Doc would need an exceptional reason not to attend. So, faced with the strange scheduling of these two events, I committed to two consecutive weekends in Hoosierland, where I was joined by my former and current teammates, Ken Frost and Bob Olson.

The first weekend was a wonderful time, during which I reconnected with many of the kindred souls who shared a bond with Doc. The weekend was highlighted by a moving tribute to this wonderful man. Over 200 former IU swimmers came back for the event, where we were joined by Doc’s former coaching colleagues and an unlikely assortment of friends, academics, and writers.

We arrived just in time for the reunion dinner on Saturday, a raucous combination of a roast and a throwback to the fraternity parties of our youth. Swimmer after swimmer recounted tales of Doc’s maniacal driving, gluttonous eating, penchant for practical jokes and other idiosyncratic behavior. The love of this group for this great man was palpable.

This gathering could not be complete without an attempt to get these swimming alumni into the water. Billed as an “open swim,” fully half of the group plunged into Royer Pool. A cross between a legitimate Masters workout for those of us trying to preserve our taper, and a no-holds-barred “free swim” by a bunch of people reacquainting themselves with a seemingly unfamiliar medium, the swim was impressive for the display of proficiency by both groups. Olympians Gary Hall, Mike Stamm, and Chuck Richards, to name just a few, clearly had not forgotten what got them to the Big O’s.

The memorial service was no less moving. Calmer, and with considerably greater decorum, over 20 speakers, from Adolph Kiefer to Mark Spitz, provided additional insight into Doc’s life, career and accomplishments. The crowd of 400 was treated to previously untold stories of Doc’s daring as a bomber pilot during World War II, his prowess as a championship swimmer in his youth, his accomplishment at age 58 of becoming the oldest person to swim the English Channel, and his unprecedented achievements as swimming’s greatest coach and “swimming scientist.”

With the Masters nationals just three days away, but with life also getting in the way of swimming, Ken, Bob and I each headed in different directions to fill the interim with the pretense of work. We reconvened from points east, west and south on the eve of the competition in sufficient time to go through the ritual of shaving down.

Admittedly, the new suits have considerably diminished the effort required and body surfaces that need scraping, but I am a hairy traditionalist and needed at least my legs and arms clean-shaven. My new age group (60 to 64) and some lofty goals also prompted a decision to shed my beard of 32 years.

Stepping into the IU Natatorium the next morning reignited the great feelings of the prior weekend. I quickly learned that the competition was dedicated to Doc. The program was covered with his photos. The first ten pages were a retrospective on Doc’s life by coach and author, Cecil Colwin. First published on SwimInfo.com, it was appropriately entitled, “A Giant Has Fallen.” And everywhere one looked on the deck and in the stands were swimmers wearing “What’s up, Doc?” T-shirts.

Under the bleachers, Joel Stager, Dave Tanner, and volunteers from The Counsilman Center for the Science of Swimming were conducting a study on the effects of aging on older athletes. All manner of poking and probing at Masters swimmers was geared toward learning if swimming is the elixir of life that we want it to be. Hundreds of people subjected themselves to body fat measures, blood sampling, strength and agility tests to prove that all those yards are really healthy, all in the tradition of Doc’s pursuit of the empirical truths about this sport.

Doc loved Masters swimming, and this was the kind-spirited competition that he would have relished. From the inspiring performances of Rita Simonton to the match races between Gary Hall Jr. and Sabir Muhammad, where the awestruck crowd got to see some of the fastest races in Masters history, the meet epitomized what Doc’s life was all about. On Sunday, excerpts from the film, “Making Waves,” were shown on the Jumbotron while people from the entire natatorium looked on. The time in Indiana helped everyone close to Doc to get in touch with what he really meant to our lives. And as for my newly-shaven face, let’s just call it the Sampson effect.