Over 100 years, Indiana has made its mark on swimming

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Carmel High School swimmers jump into the pool in 2016 after winning their 30th straight state title at the Indiana High School Athletic Association’s girls state championship. Carmel’s swim programs are one pillar of Indiana’s rich swimming history. (Robert Scheer/The Indianapolis Star via AP)

It is about the pools. It is about the people.

Mostly, it is about the people.

That is how Indiana—the 17th-ranked state by population with limited lakeshore, no oceanfront and cold winters—developed an outsized influence in the sport of swimming. In 1924, the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials were in Indianapolis and the Olympics in Paris. In 2024: Same.

It is no coincidence the trials are returning to Indianapolis for a record seventh time. One hundred years ago, the venue was Broad Ripple Park. From June 15-23, swimmers will race in a pool assembled inside Lucas Oil Stadium.

In a city that has organized world championships in five sports—a Super Bowl, a Pan American Games, college football’s national championship and 11 Final Fours—hosting the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials was almost inevitable.

“We set a standard for hosting events here that really became the model everywhere in the country after us—and, to some extent, in the world,” said Dale Neuburger, a former president of the Indiana Sports Corp. and now a vice president of FINA, the world governing body for aquatic sports.

Lucas Oil Stadium’s proposed capacity for swimming is 30,000. Largest swim crowd ever was 45,000 outdoors for the 1932 women’s Olympic trials at Long Island, N.Y., according to the International Swimming Hall of Fame. Attendance was enhanced by a water show. Largest crowd for swimming in the Olympic Games was 25,000 at Berlin in 1936.

So 30,000 at any one session would be the most ever for a swim meet under a roof, though early ticket sales are falling short of that number.

And the pillars that built Indiana swimming?

pools available in communities large and small.

the Indiana University dynasty built by Doc Counsilman in the 1960s and 1970s.

construction of the Natatorium in Indianapolis in 1982.

a Carmel dynasty-elevating club.

strong high school programs around the state.

“It’s such a big culture in Indiana,” said Lindsay (Benko) Mintenko, a three-time Olympic medalist from Elkhart and the first woman to be USA Swimming’s national team managing director.

At left, Broad Ripple Park first held the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials in 1924. It hosted the women’s swimming trials, at left, in 1952. (Photo courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society) At right, Becky Collins, a 15-year-old from Broad Ripple in 1959, was the youngest athlete to have appeared on a Sports Illustrated magazine cover. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

A Broad Ripple start

Broad Ripple Park was once one of the top entertainment centers in the Midwest, a destination for swimming, boating and fishing. It held a grand opening on July 4, 1884, with a patriotic display of fireworks and balloons.

In 1906, the site became an amusement park featuring a roller coaster, midway, miniature boats and Venetian canal. The amusement park burned to the ground in 1908, leaving only the 4-acre swimming pool.

The park was rebuilt, then sold in 1922 to the Broad Ripple Amusement Co., which touted it as “Nature’s Gift to the Amusement World.” The new park also featured a roller coaster, and additions included a carousel, arcades, pony track, baseball diamonds, football field, two bathhouses, miniature train and 10,000-square-foot dance hall.

What better place to launch the career of “Tarzan” of movies and television?

Before he was Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller was a 20-year-old from Chicago making the Olympic team at Broad Ripple Park. In Paris, he won three Olympic gold medals, including the 100- and 400-meter freestyles. Don Schollander, in 1968, is the only other swimmer to win such a double.

At Broad Ripple, in what was labeled the “race of the century,” Weissmuller beat Duke Kahanamoku, who had won Olympic golds in the 100 freestyle in 1912 and 1920. Kahanamoku, a 33-year-old native Hawaiian who popularized the sport of surfing, held the world record for 10 years until it was broken by Weissmuller.

On June 8, 1924, The Indianapolis Star reported:

“This brings the local event to a close with three new Olympic records and one new world’s record created here. It is the greatest distinction Indianapolis has ever had in water sports and should make the 125 swimmers from every part of the United States and its possessions, the officials and Paul R. Jordan, director, feel proud. Besides, it is a justification of the officials who conceived the plan to hold all the Olympic tryouts at one place instead, as formerly, in various cities.”

The 1924 women’s trials were held separately at Briarcliff Manor, New York. Making the U.S. team there was Euphrasia “Fraze” Donnelly, a 19-year-old from Indianapolis. In Paris, she won a gold medal as part of a U.S. team setting a world record in the 4×100 freestyle relay.

Sports Illustrated cover

Indiana next produced an Olympic swimmer in 1932, when Fort Wayne’s Dan Zehr, at age 16, finished fourth in the 1000 backstroke at Los Angeles. He barely missed the 1936 Berlin Olympics, finishing fourth in the U.S. trials (three qualify). Zehr was inducted into Northwestern University’s athletic hall of fame in 2003.

A Purdue University swimmer, Keith Carter, won a silver medal in the 200 breaststroke at the 1948 London Olympics. Carter, a bombardier during World War II, once broke a world record set by Counsilman, a collegiate swimmer at Ohio State University.

In 1952, the Olympic trials returned to Broad Ripple Park, this time for women. A Broad Ripple High School graduate, 18-year-old Judy Roberts, made the team in the 100 freestyle. She was eliminated in the semifinals at Helsinki, Finland. She won a gold medal in the 4×100 freestyle relay at the 1955 Pan American Games and graduated from IU.

Also competing at the 1952 Olympics was a future Hoosier, Bill Woolsey, who at 17 was the youngest on the American swim team. The Hawaiian took gold in the 4×200 freestyle relay and later became the first NCAA champion in IU swimming history—before the Counsilman era.

Another milestone came in 1959, when Broad Ripple High swimmer Becky Collins, at 15, became the youngest athlete to appear on a Sports Illustrated magazine cover. She had set a world record in 1958 in the 200 individual medley and a year later set another world record in the 200 butterfly.

Collins remained the youngest to appear on an SI cover until tennis player Tracy Austin, at 14, did so in 1976. Regrettably, Collins did not make the 1960 Olympic team, supplying early evidence of the SI cover jinx. There were no college women’s teams, so she discontinued competing and enrolled at IU.

Collins represented the Riviera Club and later the Indianapolis Athletic Club. Both clubs figure prominently in Indiana’s swimming history.

In the 1950s, the Indianapolis Athletic Club, under coach Jim Clark, won a national team title with a collection of high school boys: Mike Troy, Frank McKinney, Bill Barton, Bill Class and Marty Sommers. All five enrolled at IU, jump-starting the Counsilman dynasty.

A female swimmer, Kathy Ellis, represented the Indianapolis Athletic Club when she won a national title as a 14-year-old in 1961. She later moved to the Riviera Club.

She became the most prominent swimmer ever out of “Rivi” by winning four medals, including two golds (and world records) in anchoring relays at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. It was such a different era that Ellis, at 17, was the second oldest on the U.S. women’s swim team. She retired from competition afterward and enrolled at IU.

In 1974, the Riviera Club was sued after a Black man was denied entry to the pool as a guest of a member. The racial discrimination case wasn’t heard until 1980, when the Riviera Club selected a new membership committee and announced a policy of openness to all races.

At left, Counsilman’s most famous swimmer was Mark Spitz, pictured waving after winning his seventh gold medal during the 1972 Olympics in Munich. (AP photo) At middle, James Counsilman authored the 1968 book “The Science
of Swimming,” which is considered the bible of the sport. (Photo courtesy of Amazon.com) At right, U.S. swimmers Jim Montgomery, right, and Jack Babashoff, who were coached by Counsilman, won gold and silver, respectively, in the men’s 100-meter freestyle in 1976. (AP photo)

The Counsilman era

There is a case to be made that James “Doc” Counsilman is the greatest coach the United States ever produced. Not the greatest swim coach. The greatest—football, basketball, baseball, hockey, soccer, track and field, gymnastics or any other sport. Counsilman was, effectively, coaching the entire world, not just the Indiana Hoosiers.

It wasn’t that he won a record six successive NCAA championships or 140 straight dual meets or coached dominant U.S. teams at the 1964 and 1976 Olympics. His 1968 book, “The Science of Swimming,” has been published in more than 20 languages and is considered the bible of the sport. His innovations—stroke mechanics, underwater cameras, pace clocks, pool overflow gutters—continue to be used a half-century later. Yet his insatiable curiosity and innovative research did not override the psychological element of his coaching.

“He’s the smartest guy I’ve ever known in my entire life,” said Jim Montgomery, the first man to swim 100 meters in less than 50 seconds. “Just sheer brain power. And he had a sense of humor.”

Counsilman’s most famous swimmer was Mark Spitz, winner of seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Spitz was a broken athlete after the 1968 Olympics, and his coach rebuilt his psyche. Two IU swimmers, Gary Hall (1969-1970) and Spitz (1971-1972), were two-time world swimmers of the year.

Yet there were so many other champions. Counsilman coached Olympic medalists as early as 1948 and as late as 1988. Over time, his swimmers set world records in every long-course men’s event, an unequaled achievement.

Counsilman, born in 1920 in Birmingham, Alabama, grew up in St. Louis. There, he learned to swim in a fish hatchery. He set breaststroke records and won Big Ten championships for Ohio State in a college career interrupted by World War II. As a B-24 Liberator pilot, he flew 32 missions. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross after he flew his plane over the Alps to a crash landing in Yugoslavia, saving the lives of his crew.

In 1979, at age 58, he became the oldest person to swim the English Channel. He died Jan. 4, 2004, in Bloomington. He was 83.

“Doc was not just a monolithic, single-focused swim coach,” said Pat O’Connor, a member of the Hoosiers’ NCAA championship teams. “It was not just swimming for swimming’s case. It was about life in a much bigger picture. I dearly loved him and everything about him.”

Counsilman was nicknamed “Doc” after earning a doctorate at the University of Iowa, where he was an assistant coach. He arrived at IU from Cortland State University after coaching George Breen, who twice set world records in the 1,500 freestyle.

Counsilman coached the Hoosiers from 1957 to 1990. Besides the six NCAA titles, “Doc’s boys” won 23 Big Ten team titles, including 20 in a row (1961-1980). In a 12-year span from 1964 to 1975, Indiana was first or second in the NCAA 11 times.

The Natatorium in Indianapolis, which was constructed in 1982 and became the de facto home of USA Swimming events. (Photo courtesy of Indiana University)

Building a dynasty

Remember, the pools matter, too.

The IU dynasty was nurtured in the on-campus Royer Pool, which wasn’t finished until 1962, the year after the first of Counsilman’s Big Ten titles. Counsilman was lead design consultant on the Natatorium in Indianapolis, which became the de facto home of USA Swimming events.

“He is really the reason,” Neuburger said.

Ray Looze, the IU coach since 2002, said Indiana University’s Royer Pool was “revolutionary” at the time. Indeed, Counsilman patterned the Natatorium after it, just with more space and seating.

And to think none of it might have happened without Counsilman’s conviction or vision—or gamble, really. Before there was Royer Pool, the location was a hole in the ground. Moreover, IU teams were banned from the postseason because of violations in the football program. So Indiana swimmers could not compete in NCAA meets in 1961, 1962 or 1963.

The late Hobie Billingsley, the former IU diving coach, recalled in a TV documentary what Counsilman told him.

“‘Hobie, you know what? In that hole, we’re going to build a dynasty.’ I said, ‘Really, you think so?’ He says, ‘Yep, we’re going to build a dynasty. We’re going to come up with the best there is.’ So I say, ‘If you feel that way, I feel that way.’

“So here we are, two people struggling to create a team here, and we’re put on probation, which just cut our throats. Doc comes to me and says, ‘You know where I can get another job?’ I say, ‘I don’t know, Doc. I’m going to be looking myself. We’re dead here. There’s no way we can form a team here.’

“About two days later, he came back, and he said, ‘I’ve changed my mind. We’re going to build it, anyway.’ I say, ‘If you say so. I go where you go, Doc.’”

Two Indianapolis swimmers, Frank McKinney and Mike Troy, were not eligible for NCAA championships. But they were foundational to the dynasty.

While at Cathedral High School, McKinney won a bronze medal in the 100 backstroke at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. In 1959, in a 14-day span, he twice set world records in the 200 backstroke, then not part of the Olympic program. He won silver in the 100 backstroke at the 1960 Rome Olympics.

He became a banker and civic leader, and he helped found the International Swimming Hall of Fame. McKinney was killed Sept. 11, 1992, in a midair collision of two small airplanes. He was 53.

Also at Rome, Troy won golds in the 200 butterfly and 4×200 relay, both in world-record times. The Scecina High School graduate became a Navy SEAL, decorated war veteran, successful coach and Paralympics advocate.

IU’s dynasty reached its apex in the 1970-1971 season. For a span of 19 days from late August to early September 1970, out of 12 individual world records, Hoosier men held nine.

“That will never be done again,” Looze said. “It’s one of those things that’s just so off the charts.”

Sports Illustrated suggested the 1970-1971 IU swim team was the greatest college team ever assembled in any sport. If it came down to Indiana versus World, it reported, Indiana likely would have won.

“Doc was a master at being able to keep everybody happy and make everybody think they were getting special attention,” IU swimmer Hall said. “We had a team of thoroughbreds, and it’s not always easy to do.”

The Hoosiers won eight of 13 individual events in the 1971 NCAA meet at Ames, Iowa, setting four American and seven NCAA records. In the 200 individual medley, Hall, a sophomore, led Indiana’s 1-3-6-7-8-9 finish for an unprecedented 53 points.

“That one year, I don’t know if there’s been a better team ever,” Looze said. “And I’ve thought that for many years. With the advent of globalization, I don’t think you’ll ever see that again.”

If there ever was a better team, it was one coached by Counsilman. That would be the 1976 U.S. Olympic team. Those swimmers won 12 of 13 gold medals at Montreal and 27 of a maximum 35 medals (77%). They set world records in 11 events and achieved medal sweeps in five.

One of the biggest upsets was in the 100 butterfly. Matt Vogel of Fort Wayne had barely made the team in third place at the U.S. trials, 0.02 second ahead of fourth.

He proceeded to win the gold medal in 54.35 seconds, just 0.08 second off the world record set by Spitz at Munich 1972. Joe Bottom and Hall were second and third, completing the Americans’ 1-2-3.

“Nothing could be explained on a physical basis,” said Hall, a medalist at three Olympics. “It was an emotionally charged team. It led us to compete at a level beyond what we thought we were capable of.”

Those were an Olympics in which Montgomery won three gold medals.

Evidence of how much the Hoosiers declined thereafter is that no IU swimmer made a U.S. Olympic team for 40 years—not until Lilly King, Cody Miller and Blake Pieroni made it to Rio de Janeiro 2016. All three won relay gold medals there, and King famously beat Russian rival Yulia Efimova in the 100 breaststroke in a throwback Cold War showdown.

At left, U.S. swimmer Lilly King competes in the women’s 100-meter breaststroke final during the 2016 summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. (AP photo) At right, U.S. swimmer Michael Brinegar competes in the men’s 1500-meter freestyle heat at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. (AP photo)

High school champs, too

The Natatorium cemented Indiana as a swim center. An iconic feature is that names of swimmers making Olympic teams are painted on the wall by a calligrapher. Names include Michael Phelps, who made the first of five Olympic teams there as a 15-year-old in 2000.

The state’s teens have come to be recruited by elite college programs. Alex Shackell, 17, a high school junior, could become the first out of the Carmel girls program to make a U.S. Olympic team.

Carmel High School has won 38 consecutive Indiana girls titles, a record for all states and all sports. Carmel’s boys have won 10 in a row. It is not just Carmel, however.

Over the past 20 years, national high school records have been set by swimmers from Carmel, Zionsville, Avon, Center Grove, Yorktown and Chesterton. And that doesn’t include King, of Evansville Reitz. Drew Kibler (2018) and Zionsville backstroker Will Modglin (2022 and 2023) have been national high school swimmers of the year.

The state placed five swimmers on the U.S. team for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, second to California’s seven. The five were Jake Mitchell and Kibler (Carmel), King (Evansville), Pieroni (Chesterton) and Michael Brinegar (Columbus).

Previously, the most native Hoosiers placed on an Olympic team was four in 1976: Dan Harrington (South Bend), Jennifer Hooker (Bloomington), Camille Wright (New Albany) and Vogel. Harrigan won a bronze medal in the 200 backstroke and Wright a silver in the 4×100 medley relay.

Fishers resident Arlene McDonald, meet director for a fifth Olympic trials, said coaches attributed recent performance by Hoosiers to the Natatorium. From a young age, she said, they witness the best in the country.

“It lit a fire in them. They have this bigger understanding of the sport and more of a bigger vision,” said Laura Swander, a Yorktown native who coached at IU and elsewhere before becoming CEO at Carolina Aquatics of Columbia, South Carolina.

Mintenko lives in Colorado Springs, home of USA Swimming. She saw a similar evolution in Colorado in 2022, when the NHL’s Avalanche won the Stanley Cup, and the University of Denver won the NCAA Frozen Four. Local interest in ice hockey increased, she said.

“I think that’s part of the culture,” she said. “As people watch that, they get excited about it.”

Tony Young, a former Carmel coach, is executive director of Indiana Swimming, the umbrella organization for all the state’s clubs. After the state qualified zero 18-and-under swimmers for the 2004 Olympic trials, Young pulled the state’s coaches together and arranged for swimmers to attend training camps.

Putting the state’s top swimmers together enhanced motivation, training and performance, Young said. He remembers one 2011 camp in Colorado Springs in which Frank Busch, then the national team director, told them someone in the room would become an Olympian.

“And Blake Pieroni and Lilly King were sitting in the room at the time.”

McDonald cited cooperation between the Indiana High School Athletic Association and clubs, allowing swimmers to thrive in both settings. She and Swander both pointed to the overall quality of coaching.

“I would not be where I am today had I not had those experiences in Indiana,” Swander said. “Who has those? Who just happens to be in the right place at the right time and to have the influence of these people?”

Just as swim leaders haven’t allowed performance to languish, neither have they neglected the Natatorium, the site of more than 100 world records.

A $20 million renovation was completed in 2016. The 4,700-seat venue remains the nation’s largest for aquatics and is revered in the way Wrigley Field is in baseball or Hinkle Fieldhouse in basketball. Funding came from Indiana University and the Lilly Endowment.

The phrase “All Great Racers Come to Indy” originated in motorsports. For a century, that has applied to swimming, too, whether the pool is at Broad Ripple Park, on a college campus or inside a football stadium.•

Contact freelance writer David Woods at dwoods1411@gmail.com. Follow him on X at @DavidWoods007.

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