They were born swimmers. They used concrete-filled coffee canisters for weight training, endured 5 a.m. practices and dominated their competition for three
IU’s historic success in men’s swimming is largely attributed to world-renowned former Coach Doc Counsilman, who led the team to six straight national championships.
With the direction of current IU Coach Ray Looze, the legacy continues as members of the swim team travel to Atlanta for the USA Swimming Winter Nations today.
But the swimmers from Doc’s era, which lasted from 1957 to 1991, know the real magic came from Doc’s wife Marge’s lasagna.
Marge was a mom-away-from-home, showering the swimmers with unconditional love as they gathered around the family table, laughing and savoring forkfuls of rich marinara. Her undeniable influence on these swimmers — including my father, who swam for IU in the mid 1960s — is evident as they reflect on their time at IU and how Marge adopted them into the Counsilman family.
Dec. 28 would have been Doc’s 91st birthday. He died from Parkinson’s disease in 2004. Now 87, Marge honors her husband daily at 7:30 a.m. as she glides through the glassy waters of the Monroe County YMCA pool. Swimming connects her to
“He wasn’t perfect. No one is,” Marge said. “But I thought he was.”
She said she lives to talk about Doc, about his passion, his dedication, his excellence. Beneath her crystal-blue eyes and soft smile, she is too humble to acknowledge her impact on Doc and the team.
Marge grew up in Ohio, where baseball was the long-hailed sport, and knew nothing about swimming until she met Doc at the pool on the first day of summer after high school graduation. He kicked her out for eating a milk chocolate Clark bar but asked to court her a month later.
“When I first met Doc, I didn’t quite know what to make of him,” Marge said. “He kicked me out of the pool. I didn’t know anything about swimming, competitions. I knew nothing about such an animal.”
When they married in 1943, she quickly became immersed in the swimming world.
After moving to several Midwest universities where Doc had coaching positions, they came to Bloomington in 1957 before Doc took the role as head coach in 1958.
From 1957 to 1991, Counsilman’s team won 20 consecutive Big Ten Titles, won six consecutive NCAA championships and produced 47 Olympic medals.
Coaches from around the world traveled to IU to watch practices, curious about the team’s “special sauce.” They were drawn to Doc’s use of underwater cameras and his invention of the swimming pace clock. What they didn’t see was Marge — supporting her husband’s new techniques, raising a family of four and acting as a motherly figure to hundreds of swimmers.
“We were parents to them,” Marge said. “We would laugh at one another, and they felt like they could talk around us and give their opinion.”
Jesse Steinfeldt, a professor of counseling and educational psychology at the IU School of Education, focuses on the psychological development of student athletes.
Steinfeldt said he sees the coaching staff as playing a vital role in the athlete’s identity, having the potential to nurture values of togetherness and high self-esteem.
“If the team atmosphere is one of respect and comfort, it can help the athlete in other aspects of their life,” Steinfeldt said. “Sports are the perfect laboratory to teach people interpersonal skills that can create a better lifestyle.”
There wasn’t a swimmer on Doc’s team who did not visit the Counsilman home at least once. In fact, not a day passed without a few swimmers sitting at the dinner table. Sometimes Marge would stay up until 2 a.m. to help one of the swimmers finish an English paper.
Chuck Richards, who swam for Doc from 1964 to 1967, left his home in the state of Washington to venture into the heart of the Midwest.
“A lot of us, especially from my generation, started to head to Indiana from farther away places, and Marge played a bigger and bigger role in the lives of the swimmers,” Richards said. “She created a bit of a home away from home.”
Other IU coaches’ wives did not want the pressure of inviting athletes into their homes. One day, when Marge invited a group of them to lunch, they confronted her.
“They accosted me, telling me to quit,” Marge said. “But I told them, ‘I’m not. It works. I have a good time. They have a good time, so I’m not going to stop.'"
And she never did.
Marge recalled meeting future Olympian Mark Spitz for the first time, a somewhat shy teenager knocking on the door of her hotel room during a winter training trip to Florida in 1968.
Marge remembered how Spitz’s father wanted the opposite of whatever his son desired, including a career as a TV star. As Spitz became comfortable with the Counsilman family, Doc and Marge were able to create a relaxed environment for the future nine-time Olympic gold medalist.
Together, the husband-and-wife duo were at the forefront of the swimmers’ lives, encouraging an appreciation for classical music, comforting those who came up short in Olympic trials and teaching them the value of hard work by building pace clocks in their basement.
While Marge might not have been at practices, she made it to every home meet, typed Doc’s manuscripts, ran the summer swim programs and had numerous gatherings at their home.
“She was very much on the team,” Richards said. “She wasn’t just Doc’s wife. She was part of the crew.”
Alan Somers, one of IU’s most decorated swimmers from the early ’60s, remembered Marge as a quiet but constant presence, a woman who made sacrifices to take care of her family while Doc was head coach.
“The biggest thing Marge did was that she allowed Doc to do what he thought he needed to do,” Somers said. “She never made any demands that distracted him from his needs as a coach, but I also never detected any sense of martyrdom.”
In 2004, Marge received the International Swimming Hall of Fame’s Grand Dame Award, which praised the “surrogate mother” of IU men’s swimming. In 2005, Somers also created the Marge Counsilman Swimming Scholarship as a tribute to her role in the program’s achievements.
“I did it because I think she had as much to do with the success of the program in her own way,” Somers said. “All the swimmers know that.”
Every year, Marge writes more than 200 Christmas cards to former swimmers who now live around the world.
I remember receiving a Christmas card from her every December as I grew up. I yearned to listen to my father’s stories about Doc and Marge and how he found a sense of family in Bloomington with the Counsilmans. I laughed when he told me about flinging kickboards across the pool and wolfing down entire roasted chickens at the Cousilman table. One year, Marge sent him her lasagna recipe, which is safely nestled in my recipe-card box.
When I came to IU from Portland, Ore., in 2008, my father had just passed away from a heart attack while doing what he loved most: swimming. When I arrived in Bloomington, Marge was there to ensure I felt at home, just as she was there for my father more than 40 years earlier.
Her descriptions of my father as a “very handsome guy whom all of the ladies wanted to date” always makes me smile.
Richards, who now lives in Oregon, still said he considers Marge a motherly figure. He calls Marge every few months and stops by her house first when he visits Bloomington. Living alone in a house filled with Doc’s collection of rare Audubon prints and black and white swim team photos, Marge is eager to visit and reminisce with any of Doc’s former swimmers.
“Marge was the underpinning of what enabled the team’s excellence,” Richards said. “She was the meat and potatoes behind Doc and the team. She was a great person to talk to and provided a sense of home.”
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