Doc Counsilman Helped Usher In An Increasingly Graying Trend In Channel Swimming

Doc Counsilman Helped Usher In An Increasingly Graying Trend In Channel Swimming

Doc Counsilman is arguably one of the most famous swimming coaches in the annals of competitive swimming, coach of the 1964 and 1976 USA Olympic men’s swim teams, 6 consecutive NCAA championship teams, and a number of accomplished swimmers from Mark Spitz to John Kinsella during his famed 23-year stint as the Indiana University head coach.

But it was 1979 when Doc made a lasting mark on the sport of open water swimming.*

Escorted by Reg Brickell, observed by Ray Scott, and coached by Tom Hetzel, all International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame inductees, Counsilman was himself a dual inductee in the International Swimming Hall of Fame (as an Honor Coach in its Class of 1976) and in the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame (as an Honor Swimmer in its Class of 1981).** With their support and guidance, Counsilman ultimately completed his English Channel attempt in 13 hours 7 minutes in September 1979.

During the crossing somewhere during the 10th hour, Scott encouraged Doc to pick up his stroke count by calling him “an old bugger“. After he increased his stroke count to 70 spm, he became the oldest person to swim across the English Channel.

Doc later explained after his historic crossing at the age of 58, “I think we have greatly underestimated the physical potential of older people. Who says people my age are over the hill? God, we’ve got to realize how many productive years we have left after 50, and I’d like to prove that by swimming the Channel and helping to lead a gray revolution to adult fitness.”

While Counsilman had always wanted to swim the English Channel, a doctor’s warning of his worsening health at the age of 50 spurred him to get serious about exercise and swimming. With a daily regimen of two hours in the pool, he eventually dropped from 243 to 183 pounds, a 25% reduction of his total body weight. He said at the time, “I was suffering from asthma, arthritis, chronic bronchitis and high blood pressure. Let me tell you, I was scared.”

But he had also realized that swimming was optimal for older people. “There’s less chance of precipitating a heart attack and it avoids the aching joints that many older people get when they jog.”

Now, with swimmers like Dr. Otto Thaning (73 years in 12 hours 52 minutes), Cyril Baldock (70 years in 12 hours 45 minutes), Dr. Roger Allsopp (70 years in 16 hours 51 minutes and 65 in 15 hours 40 minutes), George Brunstad (70 years in 15 hours 59 minutes), Chris Shapland (69 years in 16 hours 28 minutes), Donald Riddington (68 years in 19 hours 45 minutes), Clifford Batt (66 years in 18 hours 46 minutes), Pat Gallant-Charette (66 years in 17 hours 55 minutes), Ashby Harper (65 years in 14 hours 52 minutes), Joe Smith (65 years in 14 hours 9 minutes), Sue Oldham (65 years in 16 hours 11 minutes), and Sally Minty-Gravett, MBE (65 years in 15 hours 30 minutes) crossing the English Channel in their 60’s and 70’s, 58 years seems rather on the moderately young side. Even two 59-year-olds (Rick Seirer in 29 hours 46 minutes and Minty-Gravett in 36 hours 26 minutes) have completed two-way crossings of the English Channel.

The graying revolution in the channel and marathon swimming communities is well-established worldwide. Among the oldest swimmers to have crossed the Oceans Seven channels and a few other swims, are the following masters of the open water:

Cook Strait:

  • Tom Hecker (USA) age 60 in 10 hours 46 minutes in 2012
  • Toshio Ogawa (Japan) age 60 in 11 hours 51 minutes in 2015
  • Dr. Marilyn Korzekwa (Canada) age 58 in 11 hours 44 minutes in 2016
  • Liz Fry (USA) age 59 in 9 hours 32 minutes in 2019

English Channel:

  • Dr. Otto Thaning (South Africa) age 73 years in 12 hours 52 minutes in 2014
  • Sue Oldham (Australia) age 65 in 16 hours 11 minutes in 2010
  • Pat Gallant-Charette (USA) age 66 years in 17 hours 55 minutes in 2017

Tsugaru Channel:

Molokai Channel:

North Channel:

Strait of Gibraltar:

Catalina Channel:

Sea of Galilee:

Lake Ontario:

20 Bridges around Manhattan Island:

Lake Tahoe:

Loch Ness:

Lake Memphremagog:

Santa Barbara Channel:

Bristol Channel:

Rottnest Channel Swim:

Sri Chinmoy Marathon Swim:

* Back in 2013, this blog posted an article: 50 Is The New 30, 60 Is The New 40 In The Open Water where it stated, “…it appears that 50 is the new 30 and 60 is the new 40 in the open water – a great demographic trend in the sport…the aging population is seeking healthful ways towards the Fountain of Youth.”

** There are relatively few times when channel crossings have three or more International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame inductees on a single crossing (Brickell + Scott + Counsilman + Hetzel in 1979). Recent examples was when Honor Pilot Mike Oram escorted Honor Swimmer Trent Grimsey to his English Channel record with pace swimmer Damián Blaum also on board in 2012 and when Ned Denison swam across the Catalina Channel with Honor Pilot John Pittman, crew chief Forrest Nelson, and observer Evan Morrison in 2012. Another example was when six IMSHOF Honorees Penny Dean, Karen BurtonChad HundebySid Cassidy, and John York joined Jay Wilkerson, Martha Jahn and Dirk Bouma with pilot Reg Brickell on a record-setting English Channel relay that set three English Channel relay records: 6 hours 52 minutes on their first leg (England-to-France), 7 hours 26 minutes on their second leg (France-to-England), and the fastest overall and fastest 2-way relay (England-to-France-to-England) in 14 hours 18 minutes in 1990.

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Steven Munatones