Courtesy of Gary Hall Sr., 10-time World Record Holder, 3-time Olympian, 1976 Olympic Games US Flagbearer and The Race Club co-founder.
Coach Doc Counsilman tapped his foot impatiently on the asphalt of the cul-de-sac outside of Royer Pool in Bloomington, Indiana. He was standing next to one of the two remaining I.U. station wagons with the motors running, looking up at the sky at the dark, swirling clouds above closing in. His wife, Marge, was seated in the passenger side of the front seat, quietly waiting. Three freshmen, John Kinsella, Mike Stamm, and Pat O’Connor, and I, now a sophomore, were standing around the other white station wagon, shivering in the cold and rapidly falling temperature, waiting for Doc’s instructions.
In early March, the weather in Bloomington is unpredictable, but anyone could see that a storm was moving in quickly. Doc didn’t get nervous very often, but I could see the concerned look on his face. We had a long drive ahead of us to Columbus, Ohio for the Big 10 Swimming Championships. Even without a blizzard moving in, having a bunch of young swimmers driving these fleet vehicles was not exactly safe. We were already 20 minutes late for departure.
“Where the hell is Duncan?”, Doc asked, glancing down at his watch,
Duncan Scott, another freshman, was perpetually late and today was no exception.
“You guys go ahead and get going”, Doc said, motioning us into the other station wagon. “I will wait for him and will probably beat you there, anyway.”
Doc’s reputation for driving fast was legendary. We didn’t doubt what he said.
Mike Stamm took the first turn at driving and jumped in behind the wheel. Kinsella grabbed the front passenger seat, while O’Connor and I got in the back. Before long, we were on the highway heading north toward Indianapolis. Don McLean singing Bye-bye Miss American Pie was blasting on the radio. Stamm and Kinsella were rocking back and forth in the front seat, singing along to the hit song, while the white wagon swerved from one side of the lane to the other.
By the time we reached I-70 going east, the snow was coming down heavily. For the first time, Mike grabbed the wheel with both hands and slowed down to about 60 mph. It was hard to see much more than 100 yards ahead of us. I reached down to make sure my seat belt was tightened.
Once we crossed the Ohio state line, the storm had become a full-blown blizzard. The visibility was now measurable in feet, not yards. We had slowed down to about 30 mph and I was feeling very nervous at that speed. Stamm took his eyes off the road for just a split second to observe the blinking red light on the dashboard.
“S#*t!” he exclaimed rather loudly. “We are almost out of gas. We’ve got to pull over at the next gas station.”
We crawled off the highway at the next off-ramp, where a gas sign was posted near the exit. When we came to the stop sign at the end of the off-ramp, there was no gas station. We looked both ways and couldn’t see any sign of one, so we took a chance and turned right.
It seemed like we crept along for five miles down a little two-lane road in the middle of a full-blown blizzard, somewhere in rural Ohio, until we finally came upon a gas station. The lights inside the station were on.
“Thank God,” Stamm said, breathing a sigh of relief. “They are open.”
He pulled in slowly next to one of the pumps and the man inside the office jumped out of his chair and came out to fill our tank. Self-service stations had not yet been invented. He was dressed in a big winter coat with one of those hunting-style hats on with the insulated flaps pulled down over his ears. While he filled the tank, we all went into the bathroom.
O’Connor and I were the first ones out of the bathroom and went back outside. Pat took the wheel and I sat in the front passenger seat. I had a little more confidence in Pat’s driving ability than I did with Stamm, so felt safe enough to sit in front, even in a blizzard.
After paying for the gas with the I.U. credit card, Mike and John came back to the car. Stamm jumped in the back, but John knocked on the window of the front passenger seat, where I was now buckled in.
“Hey,” Kinsella said. “I was sitting in the front. You took my seat.”
Even though John had won the James E. Sullivan Award as America’s best amateur athlete just one year before in 1970 and he was Doc’s number one recruit, he was still a freshman. I was a sophomore. Seniority had its place.
I reached up with my left hand and pushed the lock knob down on the passenger door and motioned with my thumb. “Get in the back,” I told him.
“F#@k you!” he screamed. “I had that seat.”
O’Connor now had the motor running and looked over at the two of us.
“Let’s teach him a lesson,” Pat said. With that he pulled out of the station and made a right turn back toward the highway, leaving John at the station in the blizzard with the gas station attendant.
Pat drove about a mile down the road, then made a U-turn and said. “OK. Let’s go back and pick him up now. Hopefully, he’ll get in the back seat.”
When we pulled back into the gas station, no more than ten minutes had passed since we had left. There was no sign of Kinsella. We walked back into the office where the gas station attendant was watching some program on a small black and white television. His gloves and hat with ear muffs were still on.
“Have you seen our friend?” I asked. “The guy we left here?”
He looked up from the TV, seemingly annoyed. “He started walking back toward the highway after you guys left him.”
I ran back out to the station wagon, jumped in and told Pat and Mike that John was walking in the blizzard back toward the highway. One could scarcely see 20 feet ahead. Pat pulled out of the station as quickly as he could without sliding around too much and started driving north, very slowly. While they looked on one side of the road, I searched on the other. We crawled all of the way back to the highway but found no sign of John.
“There is no way he could have made it back to the highway on foot,” Pat said. “He must still be back at the station. I bet he is laughing at us right now.”
We drove back to the station as quickly as we could, yet he was not there. The attendant confirmed that he left on foot.
We scoured both sides of the road again. There was no trace of John.
“Holy s%#t,” Pat said, with the clear sound of trepidation in his voice. “We just lost the Sullivan award winner. Doc is going to kill us.”
With no other real option, Pat reluctantly pulled back onto I-70 heading east. There were two lanes on the highway, but it didn’t matter. We couldn’t see any lane markers. The highway was covered in snow, with more coming down by the minute. Pat just managed to stay in the middle of the highway trying to avoid a collision with anything.
After what seemed like an hour driving perhaps at 20 mph, we spotted a figure standing in the middle of the highway, covered in snow. He had a long stocking cap on and held his thumb out trying to wave a ride. When we got to about 20 feet of him, we could see it was John. His face was a sheet of ice.
“Gary, hop in the back seat!” Pat screamed. He pulled up along John and stopped the car in the middle of the highway, summoning him to get in the front seat.
John jumped in front, miraculously before someone slammed into us from behind.
For the next 2 hours on that long ride to Columbus, not a single word was uttered by any of us. We had no idea how John had gotten there. We were just glad he was alive, but it was deathly silent in the car all the way to Columbus.
A few weeks before the Big 10 Swimming Championships of 1971, Sports Illustrated sent one of its most famous photographers to Indiana University in Bloomington to shoot a group photo of four of the fastest swimmers in the world, Mark Spitz, John Kinsella, Mike Stamm and me. In those days, Doc’s Indiana teams dominated NCAA swimming and this one was heading toward its fourth consecutive championship. With a very talented freshman recruiting class, this I.U. team may have been the best one ever. It was predicted that if the I.U. swimming team had been a country, rather than a school, we would have been fourth in the swimming medal count at the 1972 Olympic Games. With Spitz winning 7 gold medals there, that was just about right. In 1970, the I.U. men’s swimmers held 9 out of the 12 individual world records.
There was a catch. Sports Illustrated also promised that if we did something special at the Big 10 Championships, not only would they run the article about the great I.U. swimming team, they would also put the photo of the four of us on the cover. There had not been too many swimmers on the cover of Sports Illustrated up to that point, so it was a big incentive for Doc. The something special was that he needed to have all six finalists (only six swimmers swam in finals in those days) in the 200 IM on the first day be I.U. swimmers. What better way was there to show team dominance? Considering the level of competition in the Big 10, that was a tall order. Nonetheless, Doc told them he thought that we could do that.
As Pat O’Connor neared the exit off of the I-70 to get to Ohio State, it was nearly as frigid inside the car as it was outside. The only steam seemed to be coming out of John Kinsella’s ears, as he was still fuming mad at us. Just before the exit, with the snow still coming down hard, we peered down to the left to see a white station wagon stuck at the bottom of a deep V-shaped meridian dividing the interstate. The tracks in the snow from the station wagon were still visible going down to the bottom of the incline from the opposite side, where the car had obviously gotten stuck. It looked as if the car was trying to make a U-turn down the embankment, but couldn’t make it up the other side. Not many would even consider trying to do that stunt.
As we passed the stranded vehicle, we could see Doc sitting behind the wheel with Marge’s head resting on the dashboard.
“Oh my God!” we said. “It’s Doc and Marge.”
We thought for a second about turning around and trying to rescue them, but realized we would just get stuck. Besides, we really didn’t want Doc to find out that we almost lost the franchise, Kinsella, his prize swimmer. We decided to let a tow truck pull them out and made our way toward Ohio State.
We were the last swimmers to arrive at the old Ohio State pool, where we were instructed to go to warm up for the meet the following morning. With the driving mishap, Doc wouldn’t arrive at the pool in time to warm us up. By the time he got pulled out from the meridian, he needed to go directly to the Big 10 coaches meeting held the night before the first day of competition.
Our manager, Mark Wallace, whom we called Mark-Mark, to help differentiate from Mark Spitz, decided he would warm us up. To us that was laughable, as Mark-Mark didn’t even know how to swim. After about 10 minutes in the competition pool, we all found our way to the old spa pool, located behind the diving boards. It was like something out of the movies of the 1930’s; rectangular with fountains in the corners, warm water and no windows. There was just one big box of soft spongy kick boards at one end of the pool. Otherwise, no other equipment or lane lines were in there.
For the next hour, about 20 I.U. swimmers engaged in one of the most intense and exciting games of kick board war imaginable. The object was not to get hit by a flying kickboard, or you were out of the game. With kickboards flying in virtually every direction through the air, avoiding them was no easy task. At the end of an hour of flipping and hurling kick boards at high speed, Bill Heiss, a tall, strong swimmer from Colorado, was declared the winner. We took a long hot shower in what were likely the best showers of any pool I had ever swum in, then made our way to the hotel.
The following morning, the day of the 200 IM, Heiss, who was supposed to be one of the six I.U. swimmers in the finals, could not even lift his right arm above his shoulder. It was so sore from throwing kick boards, he was in agony. In the butterfly leg of his IM, he looked like a chicken with a broken wing. He missed making the finals by 1/10th of a second. Instead of six I.U. swimmers in the finals, there were only five I.U. swimmers and one from Ohio State. Doc was not happy.
It didn’t make him any happier when he later discovered that we had almost lost and frozen his franchise freshman swimmer, Kinsella. Before the finals, Doc reamed us out for a good 30 minutes, calling us the most immature group of swimmers he had ever coached. That was before he even knew about the kick board war.
On the cover of the next issue of Sports Illustrated was Wes Parker, the golden glove first baseman for the red-hot LA Dodgers. There was a nice article about Doc and the Indiana Hoosiers swimming team inside the magazine, but the kickboard war kept us off the cover.
Three weeks later, Doc managed to forget all of that, as Indiana won its fourth consecutive NCAA Division I Championships in Ames, Iowa. As expected, the franchise, Kinsella, along with Spitz, Stamm and I, came through with lots of wins and a few American records. Doc was happy again.
Yours in swimming,
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