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Original Issue


Australia's revolutionary swimming coach, Forbes Carlile, defies the orthodox but gets results, notably with windmilling young freestylers

Cautioning his countrymen against the latest trend in freestyle technique, Howard Firby, a Canadian swimming expert, wrote last March: "The vaunted 'modern Australian freestyle' (high revs, two-beat kicks, so-called 'power' stroking) expounded so effusively by always-expounding Forbes Carlile, is just another style, and a questionable one at that. I wonder if those who use it enjoy their swimming? Canadian coaches should ignore it: in fact, our swimmers are already superior in technique to the Australians."

When this brickbat thrown by Firby struck the solid, resolute form of Swimming Coach Forbes Carlile in Sydney, it shattered on impact, eliciting roars of laughter from its target. When under attack, Forbes Carlile loves to laugh, and in this instance laughter was warranted.

First off, there is no such thing as a "modern Australian freestyle," because the freestyle is not a stroke but a category of swimming events in which any stroke is allowed. Furthermore, since the early '30s, when the leg-thumping, slow-stroking Japanese turned the happy-time sport of swimming into a national ordeal, no coach worth the name has considered any stroke, slow or fast, something to "enjoy." And still further, be it a delight or an agony, in competitive swimming as in all of life, it is hard to argue with success. Three years ago, using the two-beat kick and "fast-revving" stroke condemned by Firby, Forbes Carlile's pupil Shane Gould broke every world freestyle record in the book in eight months—something no other fast- or slow-stroking man or woman ever had done or will easily do. Carlile's latest prodigy, 14-year-old Jenny Turrall, a two-beater who takes 62 strokes per 50-meter pool length, was world class across the board when she was 13 and has broken the 1,500-meter record five times, leaving her best rivals several body lengths behind.

In the past 70 years, swimming powers have come and gone, but Australia has managed to hang in there, thanks largely to "always-expounding" Forbes Carlile and a handful of other restless coaches of revolutionary bent. Firby's statement had come on the heels of the last Commonwealth Games, held in Christchurch, New Zealand. It was at those same games that Carlile's windmilling tyke and her fast-revving teammates won seven freestyle titles and lost one—to a New Zealander—leaving Canada, the nation "superior in technique," only four second places and lesser scraps. And at last month's New Zealand Games, also held in Christchurch, Turrall swam to three firsts—in the 400- and 800-meter freestyle and the 400-meter individual medley—as well as a third in the 200-meter freestyle.

Considering the preponderant evidence, what prompted a Canadian expert suddenly to heave a brick made of such seemingly unsubstantial clay at an Australian half a world away?

Perhaps it is because in brickbat throwing, as in more classic forms of the hunt, the real challenge lies in the quality of the prey. For certain, Forbes Carlile is a challenging target. He is a rare and curious bird, at times prominent as a peacock, but never an easy mark. For one thing he is often on the move, here today and anywhere tomorrow. For another, this is not the first time a potshot has been leveled at him—in his quest for knowledge he has almost done himself in several times—and after 30 years he is still aflap with new ideas. Forbes Carlile is steeped in the lore of swimming and stroke dynamics; he is disciplined in the science and theories of physiology and is loaded with empirical fact; but, for all that, he is generally open-minded, if on occasion he can be as unconventional as the Mad Hatter.

Early on, before Carlile became known the world around, his far-out experiments and total involvement in sports physiology made him a favorite of Australian papers and journals, which often featured him as they did Shirley Temple, Winston Churchill, Al Capone, Sir Donald Bradman, Leopold and Loeb and other characters whose life stories paid off in the telling and re-telling. Thirty years ago when Carlile swam around in sharky Sydney Harbor to test the diffusion rate of various muslin fabric bags filled with copper acetate "shark repellant" he was instant news. His tests became even better copy later on, after it was proved that the copper acetate was about as effective against hungry sharks as a pinch of snuff.

But Carlile has never been the kind of general who sends troops where he would not go himself. Often in his research he has been his own most enthusiastic guinea pig. In a study of the effect of warming up on athletic performance, he has stuck thermocoupled needles into his own legs to find out how fast and drastically muscle temperatures rise and fall during intermittent periods of mild activity and rest. Bucking the common opinion of coaches that passive warming with hot baths or showers was enervating, if not downright debilitating, he put himself through a series of 220-yard swims with and without a hot-water warm-up, finding that after an eight-minute shower as hot as he could stand, his times improved 1½%. Figuring that his performances might have been affected by preconceived notions, he persuaded 16 dutiful Olympic prospects to put up with a similar program of alternating swims. Thirteen of the 16—including six skeptics who insisted the hot-water ordeal left them as limp as rag dolls—swam better times whenever they were preheated. The average improvement was about 1%, which in top competition today is often the difference between first and sixth place. Four of Carlile's Australian swimmers who went to the 1948 Olympics in England preheated themselves, and three recorded all-time bests.

Although dispassionate, precise data is what he always seeks, when Carlile recalls the swimmers he parboiled in the interest of science, he is hard put to contain himself. As he now relates, roaring exuberantly, "After an eight-minute hot bath, they were not just pink. Pink was not the word. They were bright red, sweating and staggering, some to the point where we almost had to help them onto the starting blocks."

In 1953, after a truculent horse he was riding threw him over its head, Carlile tried hypnotism to rid himself of a lingering backache. Impressed by his own recovery, he experimented with posthypnotic suggestion on some of his swimming protégés, achieving what at best might be called mixed results. Through hypnotic suggestion he was able to help a number of swimmers with minor hang-ups, such as dislike of cold water. But in other cases he ran into a problem that practitioners of hypnotism have long recognized: there is always a risk that the suggestion offered will be misinterpreted by the subject. When Carlile implanted the idea that Olympic butterflyer Brian Wilkinson would not feel fatigue in his arms, Wilkinson did poorly the next time off the blocks. "It backfired badly," Carlile recalls with a customary outburst of self-demeaning laughter. "Wilkinson not only did not feel fatigue in his arms, but he complained that he felt as if he were swimming with no arms at all."

Carlile implanted in long-distance Olympian Gary Winram the idea that a shark would be chasing him in his next race. Winram did marginally better. But Carlile readily concedes he might have done as well without any imaginary shark snapping at his flailing feet. The matter was never pursued because shortly thereafter Winram's parents, looking askance at such doings, hauled their son out of Carlile's pool and turned him over to another coach. Although he does not think he wholly explored the potential of hypnotism, Carlile stopped experimenting for two reasons: he did not feel such tampering with the psyche was justified in sport and, beyond that, he realized that when it comes to dedication, concentration and confidence—the qualities that count—most champions are their own best hypnotists.

The world of swimming might never have felt the full impact of Forbes Carlile if certain personal quirks had not showed up early in life: specifically, a wandering mind and a weak stomach. In the '30s, when Carlile was still a grade-schooler in Sydney, a teacher wrote despairingly to his parents, "His low marks are a natural result of neglected homework and poor concentration." Carlile himself remembers the worst of his grammar school efforts as a spelling test in which he scored three out of 50.

His parents took him out of the city school and put him in Scots College, one of New South Wales' nine "great public schools," which are, as in Tom Brown's old England, actually private institutions. A big part of the enrollment at Scots College was made up of outback ranch owners' rugged scions sent to get big-city learning. The school was disposed to Locke's philosophy of a sound mind and body, and in such a garden Carlile thrived as an all-rounder. He won his colors as an expert rifleman, all-conference rugby forward, champion swimmer and determined, if plodding, mile runner. In his final year he won the school's cup for excellence in study and sport.

Carlile went on to the University of Sydney with plans to become a doctor but gave them up within a year because a movie of an operation, which spared the viewer almost nothing, had made him sick enough to throw up. He switched to botany, where the intimate workings of bryophytes and gymnosperms were easier to take. He minored in human physiology, becoming so infatuated with it he gave up botany. In this new field Carlile came under the influence of the late Dr. Frank Cotton, a genius with a gypsy heart. Although Cotton is best remembered today as co-developer of the G-suit, the apocrypha and sidelights published about him equal those that have been written since about his protégé Carlile. There is a published fact or legend that Cotton once was late for a dinner date with his wife because during an experiment he got stuck up to his waist in a barrel of plaster. Another tale has him almost killing himself by pedaling a bicycle full tilt into a bus while mulling a problem. It is true that during World War II, on a return flight from England, he happened to be in Darwin in Australia's Northern Territory when Japanese bombers first raided the town. It was a rare chance to measure the stress of people under attack, and Cotton did not waste it. While the Japanese were shaking up Darwin, he spent his time taking the pulse rates of his embattled countrymen.

By the end of World War II, when Carlile was deep in graduate work and also lecturing under Cotton, he gave up competitive swimming and rugby. As he now describes it, he had put on so much weight his thighs were colliding. To stay fit enough for rugby refereeing, Carlile began running with budding distance men he was coaching, ultimately deciding that if he planned to make a career of sports physiology, he could gain insight by becoming a competitor again. In 1949 he set aim on representing Australia in the modern pentathlon at Helsinki's 1952 Olympics.

While readying himself for the pentathlon, he became intrigued with the idea of running a marathon, and this was almost his undoing. For six months of 1950 he averaged 42 miles of running a week, which is simply not enough for a marathoner—Carlile's top swimmers now average more than that in water. Fearful that he might make a poor showing in the New South Wales marathon in September of 1950, 13 days before it was held Carlile ran an all-out time trial over 20 hilly miles, and by projection figured he could do the classic distance in about three hours.

If Carlile had known then all he knows now about the intricacies of stress and the general adaptation syndrome in hard endurance work, he would never have put himself through such double jeopardy in a 13-day span. He placed 10th out of 40 in the marathon, clocking three hours 13 minutes. For the week following he was nauseous, feverish, weak and addleheaded, and was admitted to the psychiatric ward of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, where his grief was diagnosed as being the result of acute renal failure and attendant hemoglobinuria with consequent uremia. In brutal terms, because of the double beating he had given his system, his kidneys up and quit, leaving him to die in his own poison. A half-dozen medical brains gave up on him, but after 10 days of lingering between here and the hereafter, abetted by tubes in various parts of his body, he began to come around.

After his near death Carlile, who extracts something from every Pyrrhic victory, told the press that because he was able to observe severe overstrain firsthand, he would not trade the experience for £1,000. ("A safe enough statement," one reporter observed, "since nobody in his right mind would have offered him a bloody bent penny for it.") Because of his close call, doctors advised Carlile to give up the strenuous life. Eight and a half months after getting back on his feet he ran another full marathon in three hours 19 minutes.

During his illness Carlile stuck with the idea of becoming an Olympic pentathloner. While still abed in the hospital he practiced dry-firing a dummy pistol. In 1952 the pentathlon was definitely not an Australian sport, in part because that nation has always been gun-leery—in New South Wales even today a handgun permit is about as easy to get as a private audience with Howard Hughes. Nonetheless Carlile obtained a permit and went to the Olympics armed with a warped secondhand Webley revolver he had bought for ¬£10.

To prepare for the pentathlon's equestrian event, Carlile paid £30 more for a horse named Grut, which had been foaled in the rural town of Wagga Wagga. Before Carlile began fattening him up on molasses, Grut, the wonder horse of Wagga Wagga, looked like a collection of ribs connected to legs, and had never jumped over anything higher than his own shadow. "The horse and I taught each other," Carlile recalls.

Despite the handicaps of a mediocre training mount, a warped pistol, his nation's disinterest and an error of more than one minute in his time for the 4,000-meter cross-country run, Carlile managed an overall 25th out of 52 competitors in the 1952 pentathlon. In modern Olympics there have been some unusual, versatile performers. In 1948 Harrison Dillard became a sprint winner after failing to make the U.S. team in his specialty, the high hurdles. After winning a boxing gold medal in 1920, Eddie Eagan returned in the wintertime of 1932 to take another in bobsledding. Out of the whole lot in the modern Olympiads, Carlile is quite possibly the only man who first took part as a coach (swimming, 1948) and came back as a competitor (pentathlon, 1952).

As a physiologist Carlile is well versed in the discrete matters of heart, nerve and muscle that apply to athletes treading the fine line between maximum performance and possible breakdown. But he is no bookbound coach. Like his prime counselor, Dr. Cotton, he holds to the tenet that coaching is an art humbly based on science. His success today depends most on his ability to keep swimmers of varying promise stirred up and his ability to cope with parents of all kinds through the tedium of double workouts five or six days a week almost every week of the year.

Today Carlile catches the occasional brickbat not only because of his rebel belief that there is more than one good way to swim the crawl but also because he is seemingly hidebound on another count. In the face of a growing emphasis today on the quality rather than the quantity of training, Carlile remains outspoken for quantity—so much so that anyone challenging him on the matter runs the risk of being smothered by incontestable fact and the latest theories. "Speed through endurance" is his credo, and his students must keep the faith.

Twenty years ago, 1,000 miles of swimming a year with a few months' layoff here or there was considered sufficient fare for a champion. Today Carlile swimmers go about 2,200 miles, with little letup in any season. "We give our swimmers Christmas and Good Friday off," he says jokingly, "and we begrudge them even that."

The swimming school that Carlile and his wife Ursula operate in Sydney employs 55 assistants and handles more than 2,000 pupils a year in nine pools at four sites in the northern suburbs of the city. The clientele of the Forbes and Ursula Carlile School of Swimming runs the gamut: in age from three months to 80 years; in competence, from dud to world-beater. It is one of the largest such institutions in the world—an odd example of free enterprise that owes a fair bit of its current growth to the oppression of the free enterprise system that spawned it. Taxes in Australia are fierce; as a consequence the Carliles live modestly, plowing the yield of their school back into it, profiting, as it were, by making a profitable operation show as little profit as possible. Carlile observes, "After years at it I have never really come to terms with the idea of making a living out of swimming."

Curiously, the natural blessings that originally made Australia a competitive swimming power are today almost as much a hindrance as a help. Prior to the 1930s, back when competitive swimming was by and large a sun-fun affair, Australia, with its moderate coastal climate, capitalized on the swimming brawn developed in its booming surf. An old Australian Olympian like Noel Ryan, who was known as a bear for work, swam less than a mile a day in pools, and that only seven months a year. On that modest regimen he managed to stay competitive for 15 years. In the brisk water—60° or less—prevalent in Sydney's outdoor pools more than half the year, any hardy soul can manage half a mile daily, but it is dangerously cold for a modern waif like the 111-pound Turrall, who spends about four hours out of every 24 in water, grinding out eight miles. For lack of heated outdoor pools, much of Australia's swimming mileage is done short course, indoors. Furthermore, to compete against the top powers of the northern hemisphere in their big summer meets, Australians must go at it hard in their late fall and winter, when the sun hangs low and school is in session. To fit the mileage around academics, the morning workout for Carlile's competitive swimmers begins in darkness at 4:45 a.m. on school days.

In the past 30 years Carlile has traveled the world spasmodically as competitor, coach, lecturer, reporter, kibitzer and commentator. He spent a term as national swimming coach of The Netherlands and has been a paid guest in half a dozen other countries seeking his counsel. Despite his reputation abroad, in certain quarters back home he is still a prophet with tainted honor. The Australian Swimming Union, the governing body Down Under, is amateur to the core, as true-blue as Oxford and purer than the puritan colleges of the Ivy League. In its rigidity against the insidious inroads of professionalism, the Australian Union makes its U.S. counterpart, the A.A.U., look like a bunch of libertines.

Back in 1956, when Australia put together its strongest Olympic swimming squad and whomped the world in its home pool in Melbourne, none of the four professional coaches who produced the bulk of the talent—Frank Guthrie, Sam Herford, Harry Gallagher and Forbes Carlile—was selected to lead the team. During the actual competition at the Melbourne Games, the professional coaches of a dozen countries could be seen mixing with their swimmers, but Australia's pros were isolated to the extent that they were not even given passes to visit their protégés in the Olympic village. Australia's talent producers attended the Games as representatives of press and radio. To American newsmen astonished at such treatment, a local reporter explained, "What you coves don't understand, our Swimming Union rates a professional coach about one cut above a leper with a bell."

Back in the mid-'40s, almost a decade after the International Swimming Federation (FINA) recognized the butterfly stroke, the Australian Swimming Union was still debating whether to allow it in national competition—with a young, then respectable, amateur coach, Forbes Carlile, campaigning for it. Although the Swimming Union now does appoint pro coaches to international squads, there are few other heartening signs to suggest that Australia's governing fuddy-duddies are shaking off what one wit has described as "self-perpetuating rigor mortis." In Australia a professional is still not allowed a voice in any convention or membership on any committee of consequence.

The rigidity of the Union is such that it is currently rejecting one of the finest ideas taking hold elsewhere in the world: masters swimming, which in effect is age-group competition for swimmers who are over the hill. In the U.S. the A.A.U. issues masters cards to amateurs and professionals alike. Dr. Jim Counsilman, Indiana University's professional brainstorm, is a masters swimmer. So is Buster Crabbe, who cashed in on his aquatic fame as a movie Tarzan 40 years ago. Just turned 25, Mark Spitz, who made a few bucks off swimming, is eligible for a masters card. To the Australian Swimming Union the idea that tainted old men like Counsilman, Crabbe and Spitz should be mixing in the same water with untainted old men is unthinkable. This antediluvian stance naturally has provoked protest from Forbes Carlile. After one of his blasts appeared in the press, a former president of the Union complained to Carlile that his utterances were giving the Union a bad name. Carlile shot back, "You're getting a bad name without my help."

In many swimming coaches of renown there is a fire not easily doused, and a dash of acid. But even the most fervid of them in the past, such as Matt Mann and Bob Kiphuth, mellowed in time. Carlile of Australia is now three years into his second half-century, but mellow he is not. He is the same Carlile, still up there on the barricades he helped erect, defying the established order he helped establish, catching brickbats and waving the flag of tomorrow.


Carlile gives his current world-beater, Jenny Turrall, a respite from her demanding regimen.