Recently I paid a visit to my alma mater, Indiana University, to celebrate the life of the Grand Dame of swimming, Marge Counsilman. The passing of Marge put a finality to the team of Doc and Marge, who collectively changed our sport of swimming for the better. A large group of an older generation of swimmers that had benefited from Doc and Marge’s influence throughout his career assembled to pay the Counsilman family final respects and appreciation. It was a memorable weekend, indeed.
A Warm Invite
While there, at the invitation of Head Coach, Ray Looze and his assistant, Mike Westphal, I took the opportunity to observe the IU swim team training at the Counsilman/Billingsley Aquatic Center. I was particularly anxious to observe the newly appointed Head Sprint Coach, Coley Stickles, and his assistant, Mark Hill, in action. Coley is known as a creative, think-outside-the-box coach and Mark has learned from one of the best coaches in the world, Mike Bottom. They both could bring a lot to the table, and I was curious to see how their different approach would mix with the more traditional aerobic training of Coach Looze. I was not disappointed.
Dryland Training at Indiana University
The sprinters and middle distance swimmers spent the first hour and a half of practice dedicated to a series of dryland exercises that Coley and Mark ran inside the natatorium. The entire session took place in the bleachers and the narrow concrete walkway at the top, not in some fancy modern exercise room nor fitness center. The total financial investment in all of the equipment used for this extraordinary session could be measured in hundreds of dollars, not thousands. Chin up bars, climbing ropes, med balls and a few other inexpensive devices completed the list.
What was most impressive to me about the session was not the relentless series of exercises, nor how much was accomplished with so little equipment, but more about how the exercises were done. Coley had designed the session around a strategic combination of strength, agility and quick movements, often with swimmers paired for both physical and moral support. There were never any exercises that sought a maximum number of repetitions at a given station, but rather one single well-executed exercise followed by a different one, followed by some quick motions requiring skills in coordination and strength, then on to another one. Between sets, rest intervals were short. This varied assortment of exercises was particularly focused on working the arms, upper body and core, but in such a way that one group of muscles was never overly taxed or fatigued during any given exercise.
While extremely challenging, this dry land session was anything but boring or traditional. From the expression on the faces of the swimmers that somehow seemed to be enjoying this arduous and complex workout, one could hardly consider it to be torture. The swimmers bought in and could sense the benefits that these unusual sessions could bring.
A New Legacy
Near the end, Coach Looze asked me to say a few words to the entire team. I spoke briefly of the rich swimming heritage of Indiana University, thanks to Doc and Marge, but I probably didn’t need to. There were plenty of big photos on the walls to remind them of that. What was more important is that I assured them that Indiana University is well on its way to becoming a powerhouse of swimming again.
Winning the NCAA Swimming Championships is not easy at any level. You must have a diverse team of coaches, trainers and experts, among other staff, who carefully play by the rules. It demands recruiting and landing talented swimmers that mesh together. It relies on having sprinters. Then it requires building the environment and culture of success around those swimmers and getting them ready for the task. Winning is more challenging today than ever before.
For Indiana University, time will tell if I am right. I believe that this diverse group of coaches of Looze, Stickles, Westphal, and Hill may be the finest assembled in the swimming world today. It has been a long time waiting, but I look forward to the ride.
Best in swimming,