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The Old Man and the Sea: at 58, Famed Swimming Coach Doc Counsilman Vows to Conquer the Channel

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“Don’t look back,” James “Doc” Counsilman was told. “When you think you’re going to die, you know you’ve only got 10 more miles.” It may be the best advice the famed Indiana University swimming coach will get before his adventure this week. At 58, Doc wants to become the oldest man ever to swim the English Channel.

It is an act of magnificent audacity for a man who says quietly, “I don’t mind getting old. I just don’t want to get old before my time.” In 22 years at Indiana, Counsilman has produced 53 world and national swimming champions—among them Mark Spitz—and twice been asked to coach the U.S. Olympic team. Now the time has come to set a record himself.

Between September 13 and 18, when tides are weakest, Counsilman will step into the water at England’s lonely Shakespeare Beach. As dawn tints the white cliffs of Dover behind him, he will strike out for Cape Gris Nez, France, 20.6 miles to the southeast. “I’ve always dreamed of swimming the Channel,” Counsilman explains. “Every swimmer dreams of it.” He prepared for the ordeal as both coach and scientist. Last year Doc (who holds a Ph.D. in physiology) underwent a sophisticated biological test on the muscle tissue in his calf. The results convinced him: “I could never be a great sprint swimmer or the best marathoner. But I knew I could make it across the Channel—and I decided to.” During the winter Counsilman steeled himself for the frigid Channel by taking long, ice-cold showers. When spring came, he swam seven and a half miles each day in Lake Monroe near his Bloomington, Ind. home. In late August he flew to Great Britain for final workouts before challenging the record of Ned Barnie, who conquered the Channel in 1951 at the age of 55.

Doc’s 12 months of training were supervised by criminology professor Tom Hetzel, who has swum the Channel himself eight times. Though Counsilman has devoted his professional life to cultivating speed in the water, now he had to learn about distance. “I finally took away his stopwatch,” recalls Hetzel, who teaches at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. “I told him, ‘In this dimension of the sport we talk about the hour hand, not the second hand, and about mileage, not meters.’ ” Hetzel convinced Counsilman to minimize his strong kick—which provides a lift that is unnecessary in buoyant salt water—and resign himself to the slogging, steady pace of the long-distance swim. The transition did not come without difficulty. “Some marathoners sing to themselves to relieve the boredom,” Counsilman laments. “I’m tone-deaf.”

When he begins the 12-to-14-hour swim, Counsilman will have five pounds of lanolin and paraffin jelly on his body and a big meal in his stomach; both should help maintain his body temperature in the 60° Channel. “I am most worried about the cold,” Doc admits, “not the jellyfish, not even the junk that people flush out of their boats.” Counsilman has put on extra padding for the swim: A diet of bananas and ice cream over the summer added 16 pounds to his 6′ frame, bringing his weight up to 204. “When your body temperature drops to 94°,” Counsilman explains, “you begin to hallucinate, I have a friend who hallucinated for two or three months after the Channel swim.” Hetzel has no doubts that Doc will be all right: “His metabolism is so fast that he’s still warm when he comes out after several hours in cold water.”

If Marge Counsilman, Doc’s wife, is worried, she knows her husband too well to protest. When they eloped on a Greyhound bus in 1943, Doc was a soldier with a borrowed $3 in his pocket. Soon after the wedding ceremony was performed in Hernando, Miss., he spotted a pool. “So as not to waste the rest of the day, would you mind if I went swimming?” he asked. Marge laughs: “He didn’t see anything wrong with it. I guess neither did I. It set the pattern of our life.” The Counsilmans have two daughters and a son (a second son, Big Ten breaststroke champion James Jr., died in a 1973 hiking accident)—and have served as surrogate parents to a generation of Indiana swimmers. Scores of young men have found that almost any problem disappears in the presence of Marge’s famous lasagna.

The son of a carnival barker, Doc taught himself to swim at 13 in fish hatcheries located in the St. Louis public parks. Four years after he graduated 113th in a high school class of 116, an Ohio State coach talked him into college. He became the 1943 Big Ten champion in the 100-yard and 200-yard breaststroke, but one week before the all-important NCAA meet, the Army Aviation Cadet School ordered him to report. “I think he’s always been a little bitter that he missed the NCAAs,” Marge says. Doc flew 37 combat missions and won the Distinguished Flying Cross before returning to Ohio State to graduate with honors.

He went on to earn his doctorate at the University of Iowa and revolutionize swimming by using underwater photography to analyze strokes. His research changed the beliefs of both coaches and competitors about the dynamics of swimming—and he has invented several training devices based on his discoveries. Counsilman became swimming coach at Bloomington in 1957; his ability to coax the best out of his swimmers (“HURT, PAIN, AGONY!” he exhorts) soon established Indiana as the foremost team in the country. Beginning in 1968, the university won six consecutive NCAA championships. Although the Hoosiers have been somewhat overshadowed by schools in the South and West in recent years, Counsilman radiates confidence about the future, pointing to such stars as junior Jim Halliburton, ranked second worldwide in the butterfly. Halliburton returns the compliment. “I expected Doc to be mean and disciplined,” he says. “But he’s lovable. As a coach he’s better than I expected, and I expected a lot.”

All of Bloomington expects a lot from Doc. Vendors there are peddling “Old Man and the Sea” T-shirts. Spitz, his former star, now living in California, admits, “I thought he was crazy when he told me about the Channel swim,” but adds, “Yeah, he’ll make it, but it could ruin him as a coach. He’ll be too sympathetic because he’ll understand how much it hurts.” The most confident prediction comes from trainer Hetzel. “The important thing is will,” he says, “how hard you gut it out.” If guts are what it takes, Counsilman’s friends are sure his French connection is as good as made.