SI Vault
Ray Kennedy
September 24, 1979
That was the cry as Doc Counsilman, 58, wavered en route to becoming the oldest English Channel swimmer. He went for it—and he got it
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September 24, 1979

'go For The Gold, Doc'

That was the cry as Doc Counsilman, 58, wavered en route to becoming the oldest English Channel swimmer. He went for it—and he got it

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But Counsilman, engrossed in teaching, lecturing, writing, inventing training aids and coaching the 1964 and 1976 U.S. men's Olympic swimming teams, barely had time to come up for air, much less test his doctoral thesis, "An Analysis of Propulsion in Two Types of the Crawl Stroke," in the Channel. In fact, while directing Indiana to six straight NCAA championships and authoring such works as The Science of Swimming, a widely translated book that has made him as much a celebrity in Moscow as in Bloomington, he let his health ebb to a dangerously low level.

"My doctor issued an ultimatum: exercise or I'd be dead," Counsilman says. "I was 50 then and really in bad shape. I weighed 243 pounds. I was suffering from asthma, arthritis, chronic bronchitis and high blood pressure. Let me tell you, I was scared."

Counsilman began working out for two hours ever morning in the Indiana pool. After nine months, he was down to 183 pounds and pronounced himself "beautiful, never healthier." Though he became a national sprint champion in the AAU Masters' swim program, he soon began to promote long-distance swimming as the ideal conditioner for the aging. "There's less chance of precipitating a heart attack," he says, "and it avoids the aching joints that many older people get when they jog."

By taking on the Channel, Counsilman also hoped to help plot a truer course for a sport that he feels is being exploited by "phony-baloney promoters." He cites the example of Diana Nyad, "a very mediocre swimmer with a very good publicist. Most of her swims have been failures. For instance, she has attempted to swim the Channel three times and has never finished. Still, when she gets into the tide off the Bahamas and rides it to Florida, a swim that truly great marathoners like John Kinsella could do with one arm tied behind their backs, she gets all the attention. The result is that more deserving marathoners like Loreen Pass-field, the current women's world champion, go begging."

The Channel is not wanting for challengers. In the past decade the number of swimmers who have completed the crossing has doubled. Counsilman was the 214th. During the same period, the ratio of successful attempts has risen from one in 10 to about one in five. On one weekend last month, no fewer than 17 swimmers embarked on crossings, and 11 emerged triumphant, including Cindy Nichols, a Canadian law student who set a two-way record when she swam from Dover to the French coast and back in 19 hours and 12 minutes. Nichols also holds the women's one-way France-to-England record of nine hours and 46 minutes.

That same weekend, 12-year-old Kevin Anderson of South Africa became the youngest Channel swimmer ever, only to be dethroned the very next day by another 12-year-old, Marcus Hooper of London, who is three months younger. Ned Barnie, a Scottish schoolmaster, was more fortunate. His reign as the oldest Channel swimmer, which began in 1951 when he was 55, endured until the coming of Counsilman.

Though an anonymous donor contributed $5,000 to cover his expenses, Counsilman became reluctant to take the plunge when someone told him he had to pack on 35 pounds of insulating fat to withstand the cold Channel waters. But that myth was quickly dispelled by Tom Hetzel, a former New York City policeman who has swum the Channel eight times. "It's not fat but sheer guts that gets you across the Channel," he says.

Enlisted as Counsilman's coach, Hetzel spent weeks training and acquainting him with the vagaries of the Channel. July, August and September, when the water temperatures rise from a numbing 57° all the way to a chilling 62°, are the only months when man can survive along with mackerel. While neap tides favorable for England-to-France crossings, occur about five days every two weeks, winds that can kick up to Force 8 in a matter of minutes often leave swimmers waiting weeks for a good day. And those who do make it into the water must contend with fog, debris, jellyfish, seaweed, oil slicks, diesel fumes and seasickness. Not to mention the hazard of the 700 ships that pass through and across the Channel each day.

"The Channel will give you a million excuses for getting out," Hetzel warned Counsilman, "and you must not accept any of them. If you make it—and you will—you will experience the agony of victory."

Beginning in November, Hetzel directed Counsilman's training program by telephone from his home in Corpus Christi, Texas, where he is an instructor in criminal justice and police science at Del Mar College. After logging 1,200 miles in the pools and lakes of greater Bloomington, Counsilman flew to England a month ago and stroked another 100 miles in Dover Harbour as Hetzel looked on from the pier.

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