The Hoosiers threatened often enough in the past, but not until last week did they take an NCAA swimming title. The key to victory was a superb backstroker named Charlie Hickcox
April 08, 1968

There were three things you used to be able to count on at the NCAA swimming and diving championships. Records would fall all over the place. Indiana would come on with a team that was unbeatable. And Indiana would lose—to Stanford, to Yale, to Southern California, to Vassar, if it came to that. One way or another, the Hoosiers would find a way to blow it.

Well, you can still count on records falling, and Indiana came to the NCAA meet last week in Dartmouth's pool at Hanover, N.H. with another one of those powerhouses. But forget the rest of it. Not only did Indiana win the championship—its first NCAA swim title—it won it more thoroughly than anyone ever has, scoring a record 346 points, or 93 points more than Yale's strong team earned in finishing second. As for those West Coast teams, favored USC and defending champion Stanford, a strange thing happened. The West sank slowly in the East.

The difference between this Indiana squad and those of the past was really not very great. The swimmers might have been a shade faster; the Hoosier divers were as strong as they always are. But add to that the name of Charles Hickcox. There you have the difference.

Hickcox, a tall, lean, intense fellow with deep-set eyes, set an American record while qualifying for the 200-yard individual medley finals on Thursday and then broke it again as he won the final that night. Friday night he won the 100-yard backstroke and tied the record he had set that afternoon. Saturday he entered the 200-yard backstroke and won that by nearly two seconds. After each win he bobbed up out of the pool, fist clenched, jaw set and fire in his eyes. He not only won his races, he aroused the entire Indiana team. Swimmers who thought they were only good found they were much better than good and suddenly great hunks of time were falling off old standards and unknown Hoosiers were winning or finishing right up there with the most glamorous names in swimdom.

Bryan Bateman is a case in point. Considered the sprinter least likely to make life uneasy for UCLA's phenomenal Zac Zorn, Bateman managed to cut nearly half a second off his best time in a 50-yard freestyle trial, which barely earned him a chance to swim off against Stanford's Morgan Manning for a place in the finals. Bateman trounced Manning, got into the finals and, with a superlative effort, had Zorn grabbing frantically at the touchplate to keep the Hoosier out of first place.

Then the divers caught the Hickcox fire. Indiana always has fine divers, mostly because Hobie Billingsley is far and away the best collegiate coach in the country. But where most people were conceding Indiana 60 points in the one-and three-meter events, Billingsley's acrobats picked up more than 90 (the first 12 places in each swimming and diving event earned points). And so Indiana's head coach, Doc Counsilman, finally went home with the championship after 11 years of near misses, including a couple of times when Indiana was on probation and ineligible to compete.

Not that Indiana had a monopoly on heroics. In fact, there were so many great deeds performed in the Dartmouth pool by swimmers from all over the place that a sound with a futuristic note was struck. You could not really hear it, of course—that ghostly clanging of gold and silver and bronze medals. Why, they probably haven't even been forged yet. But after three days it was obvious that in Mexico this fall a lot of that outgoing U.S. gold will come flowing back—around the necks of American swimmers.

How those records did tumble. Consider, for instance, the Stanford 800-yard freestyle relay team. Stanford bettered the record it had set last year and still finished behind Southern California—which finished behind Yale. It was that kind of meet. Swimming records are complex—for example, NCAA races do not conform to the precise distances in meters or yards that are acceptable for world-record recognition—but all sorts of them were broken.

UCLA's team came to Dartmouth with the best tans, a few middling swimmers and two that were not middling at all—Zac Zorn, who swims the shortest races faster than anyone in the world ever has, and Mike Burton, who swims the longest races faster. Zorn has the height—6'3"—which is the way the good swimmers are built these days. "There is no doubt that Zac has natural speed," says UCLA Coach Bob Horn, "and he works hard for more." Like 7,000 yards every day. When Zorn gets up on the blocks before a race he is ready. He is also likely to get sick on the spot if the starter dallies before sending the field on its way. But once Zorn hears the gun, he is gone. No one is sure exactly what happens. There is a blur, a splash, and suddenly there's this white wake boiling along the lane that just keeps going and going and going for 50 or 100 yards. Then Zorn climbs out of the pool and collapses. At Dartmouth he did a 50 that would have made any swimmer—any other swimmer—blushing proud, but Zorn was disappointed. He had only tied the record he shares with Steve Clark, and tying records is not what Zorn has in mind. That became evident when he bolted off on the opening leg of the 400-yard freestyle relay and completed the fastest unrecorded 100 ever—45.4. Bob Horn had told the judges that Zorn was going for the record and please won't you have the required three judges timing him? Oh, sure. But there were only two judges, and there went the record. "Boy, was I mad," said Zorn.

He was so mad, in fact, that he torpedoed through the 100-yard freestyle qualifying heat as if that missing judge was waiting for him at the finish line with his head in the water. Zorn got to the finish in 45.3, which was better than the night before, and this time it stuck.

The long man in UCLA's two-man aquatic extravaganza is Mike Burton, who is only 5'9", which is about a half foot less than what it's supposed to take to win races this season. And Burton should not be swimming at all. At 13 he was perched on the handlebars of a friend's bike when they made direct contact with an oncoming truck. Thus ends the athletic career of Michael Burton, said the doctors, who were very happy that the little fellow was still alive.

A year later Burton entered a swimming program in home-town Arden Hills, Calif., and the doctors were delighted. "It's great for getting a crippled leg to working again," they told him. Serious competition swimming wasn't even considered. Yet, a few years later, as a sophomore at UCLA, Burton broke the 1,650-yard record in the National Indoor AAU meet with 16:27.3. Later he broke that record again, and smashed it beyond belief, taking 19 seconds off it. At Dartmouth, Burton expected a fairly casual time in his specialty, something around 16:15. Strictly fun. Most swimmers look at 1,650 yards—66 monotonous lengths of the 25-yard pool—with the same enthusiasm they would a letter from the U.S. Government that starts "Greetings." But Burton enjoys it.

So off he went, light of heart, briskly, but with nothing more in mind than first place and a sound base for the forthcoming AAU meet, where he did want to go all out for a record. Then it happened. "I just tried to keep my arms turning," he said afterwards. Unaccountably, he kept turning them so fast that he was completing each 50-yard lap under 30 seconds, a record pace. Another thing Burton had not taken into account was the noise an excited swimming crowd generates when it senses something extraordinary happening. The noise started slowly but kept growing in intensity until, at about lap 40, all hell started to break loose. "Every time I pushed off the wall," Burton said, "it got louder. It sent cold shivers down my spine. I just responded."

Responded is not the word for it. With 50 yards left, after 1,600 yards with not one lap done in anything more than 30 seconds, Burton sprinted. He did those last 50 yards in 27 seconds and finished with the first 1,650 swum in less than 16 minutes (15:59.4, to be exact). On the way Burton had broken the 1,000-yard record by eight seconds (9:39.1). And then he swam a victory lap.

Records are treasured by the crowd, of course, but lots of other things were going on at Dartmouth that had the fans up off their seats. Yale's Don Schollander, the old graybeard of swimming, won his first NCAA championship; illness and the NCAA's 1.6 rule had prevented the man generally conceded to be the best swimmer of all time from winning one before. But he came home first this time in "his baby," the 200-yard freestyle. He also swam a magnificent anchor 100 to give Yale the 400-yard freestyle relay.

And there were two boys from the University of Texas at Arlington—Doug Russell, who kept bouncing off walls head first, and Dick Nesbit—who went alone against the giants and swam off with 56 points.

But the man who kept everybody in a continuous state of agitation was Charlie Hickcox, whose course toward world-class swimmer status seemed inevitable from the day when, as a 13-year-old, he approached the coach of a swimming club in Phoenix with his sister Mary Sue. "I'll take the girl," said the coach, "but that boy is too skinny. Get lost, kid."

So the skinny kid naturally got lost in the first pool he could find, to emerge some years later with a flock of age-group victories and not a few invitations to visit good college swimming coaches on campus. Still, Indiana's Doc Counsilman had no idea when he first saw Hickcox that this was the man who was going to win him his first NCAA championship. "He was good," says Counsilman, "but he was so raw. His turns were agonizing. I thought he'd kill himself going into the wall. But he worked, I'll tell you. After about two months, I guess he started believing in me."

Last year Hickcox established himself as a fine all-round swimmer and a particularly strong backstroker. He showed fine promise in the individual medley, except for the breaststroke leg, where what might have been a great race inevitably would turn into a horror show in slow motion. Last January, Counsilman handed Hickcox a most unusual contraption—a pair of them, in fact—each consisting of two pieces of wood stuck together at an angle and with a shoe nailed on top. Hickcox had to walk around in them. "Those things looked like a crocodile with its mouth open," Charlie says. "I didn't like the looks of them at all, but if Doc tells you it's good for you, you can bet it's good for you." What the things were supposed to do was stretch the Achilles tendon. It is Counsilman's theory that it is the tight tendon that keeps a swimmer from getting the proper leg kick in the breast-stroke.

Hickcox took nightly walks with his crocodiles up and down the halls a procedure that provoked either hilarious comment from his fraternity brothers or deeply suspicious looks. "I've got this tight Achilles tendon, you see," Hickcox would tell anyone who would listen.

That there is something to be said for the device is perfectly obvious, but the ultimate results even surprised Counsilman. "When Charlie finished that swim," said Doc after Hickcox' record-breaking individual medley last week, "I looked down at my watch, blinked and nearly fell in the pool."

He might as well have, because that is exactly where he ended up anyway. Throwing the coach in the pool is traditional practice for NCAA champions. "That's one bath the coach will never forget," said Charlie Hickcox.

PHOTOSTUART SMITHRecord-breaking sprinter Zac Zorn (center) gets jump in each race with explosive start. PHOTOIndiana's Charlie Hickcox won three individual races and was the top performer in the meet. PHOTOMike Burton, mouth agape, gasps for air after stunning performance in grueling 1,650. PHOTOThree top swimmers, Don Schollander, Greg Charlton and Burton, are side by side in 500-yard freestyle. PHOTODelighted Hoosiers give Coach Doc Counsilman traditional victory dunking.