The year was 1958. Americans were deeply embroiled in the Cold War, Ike was president and Alaska was on its way to becoming a state.
At Indiana University’s Bloomington campus, deep in the nation’s landlocked heartland, what would become a decades-long swimming and diving dynasty was just starting to take shape.
James E. “Doc” Counsilman had arrived at IU the year before to serve as assistant coach of the men’s swimming team. Once he stepped into the head coach role, he had his work cut out for him. The university’s program was mediocre at best, and he had no star swimmers, no staff and little to offer in the way of fancy facilities or pay to anyone who might even be interested in either job.
Enter Hobie Billingsley, who knew Counsilman from their college days swimming for The Ohio State University.
“When Doc got the job at IU, I called him up asking if he wanted a diving coach. And he said, ‘Well now, I’m not just going to run out and hire you,’” Billingsley said, pausing briefly before adding with a grin, “Three days later, he called me up and said, ‘If you want the job, it’s yours.’”
Only the second person in the U.S. hired to coach diving at the college level, Billingsley would, through his decades-long partnership with Counsilman, be instrumental in co-creating what would become one of the nation’s premier college swimming and diving programs.
The two men literally changed the face of collegiate aquatic sports, each leaving a vast legacy: coaching athletes whose names still inspire; helming multiple Olympic teams; and writing books about the mechanics and principles of swimming and diving that are still being used today.
Though Billingsley retired from the university in 1989 and the late Counsilman retired in 1991, their names loom large throughout the university’s vaunted program, as well as with the athletes and coaches responsible for continuing that legacy.
‘It’s an honor’
Just ask Ray Looze, the women’s swimming and diving head coach for IU, who is serving as assistant women’s swimming coach for Team USA at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
He’s accompanying 11 of IU’s swimmers and divers, a singular number of athletes from one university who will compete for the U.S., Egyptian, Slovenian, Australian and Canadian teams. And even though it's been 40 years since an IU swimmer has been part of Team USA, three Hoosiers made the team this year.
IU head diving coach Drew Johansen is there as well, serving his second stint as Team USA’s head diving coach.
“It’s an honor to coach at Indiana University, which is one of the most historically relevant places for swimming and diving in the history of the NCAA, thanks to the legacy of what Hobie and Doc did,” Looze said. “When the news about the Olympic teams was announced, my wife and I got a letter from Marge Counsilman. And it just means the world to me to have her recognition and encouragement.”
As a former member of the USA Diving National Team himself, a coach during the 2012 Summer Games in London and founder of the Ohio-based U.S. Elite Diving Academy, Johansen is no stranger to famous faces. That includes Billingsley, who can often be found alongside the pool when Johansen’s divers are practicing.
“He gave me one of the best pieces of advice I ever got. He told me to talk to the kids, to care about them, to be there for them,” Johansen said of Billingsley. “I can be pretty technical, so it’s been a great reminder to me to focus on the athletes themselves.”
“And I’ve witnessed his legacy in action – at practice just the other day, five of his alumni came to see him,” Johansen continued. “One of them was telling me how he’d planned to name his son Hobie when he was born, but they had a daughter. He was telling his wife how excited he was over their daughter, but that he guessed they couldn’t call her Hobie. And his wife said, ‘Oh no, her middle name is Hobart.’ That’s the kind of relationship Hobie has with his athletes, and the kind of relationship I can only hope to have with mine.”