December 28, 1920

James Counsilman is Born

James Edward Counsilman was born in Birmingham, Alabama on December 28, 1920, to parents Joseph and Ottilia Counsilman [3]. Counsilman's father was a carnival barker who eventually left the family to continue working; his mother moved Jim and his older brother Joe to St. Louis in 1923 [3]. There Jim learned to swim in fish hatcheries and eventually began swimming at the local Forest Park YMCA [2].

Courtesy of the Counsilman Center

Jim with mother Ottilia in Birmingham, Alabama.


Jim's First Coach

Jim's skills caught the attention of Coach Ernst Vornbrock, who invited Jim to swim under him at the St. Louis Downtown YMCA [3]. Ernie served as a father figure, motivating Jim to find his potential after he graduated 113th in a class of 116. By helping improve Jim's self-image, Ernie helped Jim exceed both academically and in swimming and connected him to Coach Mike Peppe at Ohio State University.

Courtesy of the Counsilman Center

Jim swam with Ernie Vornbrock at the downtown YMCA in St. Louis during the 1930s and early 1940s.

July 1941–March 1947

Jim Recruited to Ohio State

In 1941, Jim was recruited by legendary swim Coach Mike Peppe of Ohio State University and he began studying physical education [3]. In 1942, he won the 220-yard breaststroke event at the national short course championships in Columbus, Ohio, setting a national AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) record. That year, he also set world records in the 50-meter and 300-yard breastroke [1]. Jim's swimming career was put on temporary hold after being drafted into the US Air Force in 1943. Upon his return in 1946, Jim was named team and became an assistant coach to Peppe [3].

Courtesy of the Counsilman Center

Jim's official 1946 portrait as a senior swimmer for Ohio State University.

June 15, 1943

Jim Meets Marjorie Scrafford

While training at Ohio State at Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, Jim met lifeguard Marjorie Scrafford and they quickly fell in love. After he received orders for active service duty with the US Air Force, the couple were married on June 15, 1943 [3]. Throughout Doc's years as head coach, Marge was a dedicated assistant, organizing meets and helping Jim with his writings and research [1].

Courtesy of the Counsilman Center

The newlyweds in 1943 before Jim left for his service with the Air Force.

January 1945–August 1945

Jim Called to Military Duty

Jim enlisted in the US Army Air Corps on May 21, 1942 and was called up for duty in March 1943. Jim officially left for active duty in January 1945. While in the service, he earned the nickname "Pot Belly" [1]. Jim was stationed in Italy, serving as a B-24 Liberator pilot with the 455th Bomb Group of the Fifteenth Air Force and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for saving his 10-man crew after crash landing in Yugoslavia after their landing gear was shot out over Innsbruck, Austria [3]. Jim's leadership while in the Army translated well later on during his time as a coach.

Courtesy of the Counsilman Center

While stationed in Italy with the US Air Force, Jim visited the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

May 1948

The Beginnings of Research

After graduating from Ohio State, Jim attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he continued his study of physical education in the master's program [3]. In 1948, this effort culminated in Jim's first publication of research, which would begin a lifelong study of the science behind swimming. His master's thesis, "A Cinematographic Analysis of the Butterfly-Breaststroke," was the first of many studies that would help Jim revolutionize the breaststroke [3].

Courtesy of the University of Illinois Archives

Jim's first ever research work, completed for his master's thesis, focused on analysis of the butterfly breaststroke.

August 12, 1948

Counsilman Named to First Official Coaching Position

Counsilman next headed to the University of Iowa to pursue a doctorate degree in physiology [1]. While there, he became involved with the swim team and was named assistant coach in the fall of 1948. This was Jim's first official position as a coach, beginning his long career of swim coaching [2]. It was here where Jim coached his first Olympic medalist, Walter Ris, who won the 100-meter freestyle in the 1948 London Olympics [3].

Courtesy of the University of Iowa Libraries, Daily Iowan Archive

In a Thursday edition of the Daily Iowan newspaper, Jim's appointment as assistant coach of the Iowa swim team was announced.

August 1951

Counsilman Completes Doctorate

At the University of Iowa, Jim completed his doctoral dissertation "The Application of Force in Two Types of Crawl Stroke" which furthered his breaststroke research. His doctoral concentration was in physiology, and earned him his famous nickname, "Doc" [1].

August 1952

Counsilman Takes Professor and Head Coach Role at Cortland State University

After an extra year of academic research at Iowa, Counsilman accepted a professor position at The State University of New York (SUNY) at Cortland, beginning in 1958 [1]. The university's swim team simultaneously hired him as head coach. Here, Counsilman began his coaching program, implementing his stroke mechanic research upon swimmers. Doc's work led to quick success, as he coached student and long-distance swimmer George Breen to multiple Olympic medals and 3 world records in the late 1950s [3].

Courtesy of the Counsilman Center

Doc's 1953 professor portrait at Cortland.


Doc's Research #1: Weight Training

Doc began utilizing weight training methods for his swimmers as an experiment with the idea that pronounced upper body muscles would give more strength to a swimmer to maintain a strong swim performance. Conventional wisdom held that more muscle means a swimmer is weighed down, creating more drag; Doc thought differently. The practice of weight training for swimmers soon became more popular in dryland exercises outside of the pool, and Doc began experimenting with further ideas to increase his swimmers' strength [3].

Journal of Health, Physical Education, Recreation - Volume 26, Issue 1

Doc's work with weight training was published in physical education journals and began to become popular in the swimming world. Never before had coaches emphasized weight training to help swimmers.

August 1957–August 1958

Doc Comes to IU

Doc received the assistant men's swim coach job at IU after longtime coach Robert Royer became ill [3]. Doc quickly established himself among IU swimmers and was up for a challenge in the more competitive Midwest college conference—the Big Ten. He began to recruit swimmers from the Indianapolis Athletic Club such as Frank McKinney and Frank Brunell and put an emphasis on recruiting local talent [3]. Additionally, Doc became a professor in the Department of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation (HPER) [1].

Indiana University Archives Photograph Collection P0022977

Doc Counsilman's first year as swimming coach at IU. Bill Barton and Frank McKinney are freshman in this image.


"[1] Doc Counsilman: Making Waves; Biography. (2004, January 5). -- [2] Tyrrell, R. E., Jr. (2004, January 14). Requiem for a Swim Coach. -- [3] Colwin, C. (2014, July 25). A Giant Has Fallen."