Legendary IU diving coach Hobie Billingsley dies at age 94

BLOOMINGTON – Legendary Indiana University diving coach Hobie Billingsley died Saturday morning. He was 94.

Billingsley coached at IU from 1959-89, helping the Hoosiers win six NCAA and 23 Big Ten championships. His divers won 115 national titles, 22 Big Ten championships, six Olympic medals, and five national world championships.

At center, James “Doc” Counsilman and Hobie Billingsley celebrate the 1983 Big Ten championship for the IU swimming team.
At the center, James “Doc” Counsilman and Hobie Billingsley celebrate the 1983 Big Ten championship for the IU swimming team. PHOTO COURTESY OF IU ARCHIVES

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.”

Hobie Billingsley in 2016

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.”

Inspiring the future

At every practice, IU’s current team of Olympic swimmers and divers need only look up at the walls of the Counsilman Billingsley Aquatics Center to be reminded that when they compete in Rio, they’ll be following in the footsteps of those who made waves and earned medals before them.

Enormous banners displaying black-and-white photographs of their predecessors are behind them when they dive from the boards in the center, part of the Student Recreation Sports Center on the Bloomington campus. They feature images of Hoosier champions like Mark Spitz, Cynthia Potter, Gary Hall and Leila Vaziri, all of whom have earned Olympic medals, some more than once.

Flags honoring the Olympics, Indiana University and the state of Indiana hang from the ceiling of the Counsilman Billingsley Aquatics Center.
Flags honoring the Olympics, Indiana University, and the state of Indiana hang from the ceiling of the Counsilman Billingsley Aquatics Center. PHOTO BY ERIC RUDD, IU COMMUNICATIONS

Swaying over the swimming lanes is a white banner featuring the interlocking Olympic rings. Along the walls, red-and-white banners list the names of Hoosier swimming and diving Olympians from 1952 to 2012, alongside years of national and Big Ten championship titles.

Over the years, athletes from IU have taken home 50 gold, 16 silver, and 30 bronze medals in the Olympics. In swimming and diving alone, 130 men and women have represented IU in the Olympic games going back to the 1950s.

“I call it the wall of gods,” said Michael Hixon, an IU student and Team USA diver who will compete in the 3-meter synchro and 3-meter individual events in Rio.

Hixon said he’ll always remember the first time he walked into the indoor facility and saw the faces of those great Olympians. Now, they’re his favorite part of training at IU.

“Just walking in there and seeing the history of what’s come before you is so special,” he said. “It’s unbelievable.”

And he’s not alone.

“Those people are my heroes,” said Jessica Parratto, an IU student who will dive for Team USA in the 10-meter synchro and 10-meter individual competitions in Rio. “Carrying on that tradition is pretty special.”

Parratto and Hixon are among 11 diving and swimming athletes who left Bloomington in July to compete for medals in Rio. They’ll hit the water alongside fellow student Amy Cozad, a member of Team USA and a medal contender in the 10-meter synchro event. IU athlete James Connor will compete for Australia in the 10-meter diving event.

In men’s swimming, IU student Anze Tavcar will be on Slovenia’s team in the 100-meter freestyle. On Team USA, student Blake Pieroni will compete in the 4×100 freestyle relay, and IU alumnus Cody Miller will seek medals in the 100-meter breaststroke and the 4×10 medley relay. IU students Ali Khalafalla and Marwan El Kamash will swim for Egypt: Khalafalla in the 50-meter freestyle competition and El Kamash in the 400- and 200-meter freestyle.

In women’s swimming, IU student Lilly King will contend for a medal in the 100-meter breaststroke, the 200-meter breaststroke, and the 4×100 medley relay for Team USA. Student Kennedy Goss will represent Canada in the 4×200-meter freestyle relay.

Four additional athletes from IU have hopes of bringing home medals from the Summer Olympics.

IU student Orianica Velasquez will compete in women’s soccer for Colombia. Alumna Kelsie Ahbe is a pole vaulter who will compete for Canada in women’s track and field. Men’s track and field will be represented by IU alumnus Olu Olamigoke, a contender in the triple jump for Nigeria, and alumnus Derek Drouin, a high jumper on the Canadian team.https://www.youtube.com/embed/99EytwJEtT4?modestbranding=0&rel=0&controls=1&showinfo=0&cc_load_policy=1

Making Hoosiers believe

Whether they are soccer players, pole vaulters, or swimmers, IU’s athletes headed to Rio have over 110 years of Olympic history to reflect on as they prepare to compete against the world’s best. Since 1904, Olympians from IU have taken part in the international event, and they’ve earned medals during every single Olympic game except for one.

Seeing those famous names and faces of past Olympic swimmers and divers at the Counsilman Billingsley Aquatics Center during practice is not only awe-inspiring and special for IU’s latest round of Olympians. It’s also a motivator.

“We walk in the pool every day, and we see all the faces of the IU and the USA swimming legends on the wall, and knowing my face could possibly be up there with them is a pretty incredible thing,” King said.

“I’ve thought about that the last couple of years, what it would be like to have my name up on that Olympic banner,” Miller said.

If they didn’t know their road to Rio was paved by IU’s great collegiate athletes, they have a living reminder in Billingsley, who comes by practice from time to time.

He’ll put his arms around the shoulder of an athlete, point out a banner, and tell a story of how a former Olympian trained – stories that have lit a spark in Hixon.

“Hobie tells a lot of inspiring stories that really make you believe in what you’re doing,” he said.

It’s just as moving for Billingsley, who can recall like yesterday the difficult night he spent after learning a colleague had been selected to coach the 1964 U.S. Olympic diving team.

The competitive diving world is small, and he’d wanted the job too. That night, though, Billingsley sat on a bench in a darkened park and did some soul-searching.

“As I sat there, I was thinking, ‘Why am I coaching?’” he said. “‘Do I want to be the world’s greatest coach? Or do I want to help get the best out of these kids?’”

He resolved to get the best out of his divers – and that was the year IU’s veteran diver Ken Sitzberger won gold in springboard and 16-year-old Lesley Bush, who’d taken up platform diving under Billingsley’s tutelage a mere six weeks before, shocked the world by taking the gold medal in the event over the defending champion from Germany.

“When it was down to her last dive, I thought, ‘I can’t watch this. I just can’t,’” Billingsley said.

At the last second, he sneaked a look from the spot where he’d hidden and saw Bush about to hit the water. Her form appeared off, so he was certain she’d botched the dive and dropped to his knees.

“And then her numbers went up, and she took the gold. You think that’s not a miracle?” a still-disbelieving Billingsley said, shaking his head. “Remember that night back in the park, when all I told God was ‘Just let me help one diver’? What a reward.”

The ‘grand stage’

Billingsley went on to coach at five Olympic games. And like many of the athletes he coached, IU’s swimmers and divers are lucky to have the familiar faces of Looze and Johansen by their side in Rio.

King said it was a huge relief to find out she wouldn’t be swimming without Looze for a month while she competed in the Olympics.

For Parratto, having Johansen in Rio is special because working with him during the three years she’s been at IU has given her more drive to excel.

“I feel really lucky and fortunate to be able to work with him,” she said. “He brought something out of me that was even more motivated to qualify for the Olympics. I’ve just been working so hard ever since I got here, just really wanting to make that dream a reality.”

Miller said he believes working with a familiar coach offers a competitive edge.

“Obviously having your coach with you is always an asset,” he said. “In all the international meets I’ve ever been to, I’ve never had my home coach with me. So having every advantage possible to perform really well helps.”

Miller said he’s been visualizing Rio and imagining what it will be like to touch the wall at the end of the swimming lane and earn a medal there.

Meanwhile, Hixon’s excited to be on Rio’s “grand stage.”

“You get to have the best in the world all in one place,” he said.

As they prepare to make waves in Rio, uncertain about whether they’ll finish on the stage with a medal, IU’s vast swimming and diving legacy is just beneath the surface in the minds of these 2016 Olympians and their coaches.

They’ll participate in opening ceremonies, set to begin at 7 p.m. Eastern Time in Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro. The proceedings combine the formal opening of the international sporting event, the lighting of the Olympic flame, the parade of athletes and an artistic spectacle meant to showcase Rio’s culture.

If IU were a country, we’d be one of the top medal-winning countries in the world. That’s a great tribute to what we’re trying to do here as well as what’s come before us.

IU vice president and director of athletics Fred Glass

They’ll take their place in history alongside the more than 200 other Hoosiers who’ve dreamed of stepping up to an Olympic podium, feeling the weight of a medal around their neck and representing their fellow citizens on an international stage.

They’re also representing Indiana University, whose athletes have won a combined 96 medals across the university’s Olympic history.

“If IU were a country, we’d be one of the top medal-winning countries in the world. That’s a great tribute to what we’re trying to do here as well as what’s come before us,” IU vice president and director of athletics Fred Glass said. “One of the things we talk about here is creating a new ‘golden age’ for IU Athletics. When you talk about things like sending swimmers to the Olympics for the first time in 40 years, or that we’re sending 15 Olympians overall when we only sent eight during the last games, I really think we’re starting to gain traction here and be true to our legacy as an Olympic powerhouse.

“We’re also very proud of the fact that IU is home to students from all over the world, and we’re proud to see some of those students represent their home countries,” he said.

Want more? Statistics, performance times and dates, and additional information about each IU athlete participating in the 2016 Summer Olympics are available online, thanks to IU Athletics.

Information: Indiana University Bloomington; written by Mary Keck and BethanyNolan; graphics by Heather Farmer; photos by James Brosher, Eric Rudd, and Mike Dickbernd.