Studying and living the science of swimming
Joel Stager grew up in northwestern Pennsylvania where at the age of ten his swimming ability (or lack there of) caused him to nearly drown in the Tionesta River while on a weekend camping trip with neighbors. As an incentive to learn to swim, his father offered to take him on an extended canoe trip into northern Canada at age 12. While the trip was burdened by bad weather and high winds, it was a success from the perspective of his introduction to life-time swimming skills.
David Tompkins, however, was actually responsible for introducing Joel to competitive swimming. As a new coach at a new high school in Lawrence Park, Pa., Coach Tompkins couldn't be too selective when putting together his first team at Iroquois Area High School. If you owned a suit and were willing to make an attempt, you made the team. Joel, along with a large number of freshman including Bill Manny, John Atkin, Jim Whitehead, John Bush, Martin Schultz, John Johnston, Roger Fickenscher, John Swarthwood, Fred Evanoff, and several others didn't win too often that first year but by 1971 they were a "force to reckon with"! Setting numerous, long standing school records and achieving outstanding team successes, this group of athletes was long remembered locally and each permanently bonded to the sport.
Joel spent the next three years at the University of Miami in Coral Gables Fla., where he majored in biology, hoping to become the next Jacque Cousteau. His swimming involvement was limited until being talked into competing in an intramural meet as a senior and then being invited by Coach Bill Diaz to join the Miami Hurricane swim team. And that was to be that. However, a chance meeting with James 'Doc' Counsilman altered his future plans (which once again did not include swimming) when Counsilman convinced him that Indiana University was where he needed to be.
Doc had a colleague at IU who was considered one of the founders of the field of exercise physiology. Dr Sid Robinson, one of two graduates of the Harvard Fatigue Lab, a former IU cross country coach, US Olympic athlete and later professor of physiology at IU was part of the allure. Doc and Sid collaborated frequently over the years on a number of projects pertaining to the physiology of swimming and swim performance. Doc thought this would be a great place for Stager to pursue graduate studies. Sounded like a reasonable plan to him.
Stager arrived in Bloomington in the mid 1970s and was fortunate to train with the IU team and work for Doc as an assistant during the summers. As anyone who knew Counsilman can tell you, there was never a dull moment in Bloomington. Within a few hours of arriving in Bloomington, Joel had keys to more aquatic facilities than the dean of the school. He was fortunate to spend many afternoons pondering the endless questions that Counsilman posed. During this time, Doc also introduced Stager to Dave Costill. Dave is a true champion swimmer in his own right, but was also the preeminent sport physiologist in the USA over the last 25 years of the last century. Joel saw in Costill a model for making his own contributions to the sport.
As a graduate student Joel wrote and received an NIH grant that involved studying human ovarian function as a result of intensive exercise programs. This began a series of studies which challenged dogma pertaining to the effects of exercise on human reproductive development. Naturally, his chosen test subjects were competitive swimmers.
This line of research took him to Colorado State University working under Dr David Robertshaw, a well respected and very intuitive scholar whose multiple interests allowed further pursuit of topics tangential to swimming. The role of body fatness in swim performance, bone mineral content, energy expenditure, developmental pace and intensive exercise are a few of the topics Robertshaw encouraged and supported Stager to explore during this time.
In 1984 Indiana University called and offered Joel a chance to return to Bloomington. With the promise of a new lab and the chance to work again with Counsilman, the move was made. Several projects were initiated and the direction of the research moved towards cardiopulmonary performance during heavy exercise. Projects included several pertaining to altitude and acute mountain sickness. Several projects took Stager to Mount McKinley for research at high altitude. The interest in swimming put aside for the time being.
Gradually, however, the focus of the research in Joel's lab shifted back towards applied physiology and the various problems facing swimmers and coaches. This was in part, stimulated by his two children and wife being involved in swimming, introduction and friendship with Dave Tanner, and his volunteering to provide coaching support to the local high school program. One unanticipated outcome of the research was the increased visibility within the sport and an increased number of former swimmers within his graduate program. With tenure behind and USMS as an avocation, Joel began to blend avocation with vocation. In the 1990s, Joel began a productive association with Jim Steen at Kenyon College which eventually blossomed into research pertaining to strength, power, and swim performance. In the meantime, competitive swimming was reintroduced to his life style as a member of "Doc's team" and the IU Masters swimming program. Joel won several national titles and top world rankings over the next decade in the sprint events. He has finally accepted that his physiology (and training practices) preclude him from being successful at any event beyond 100 meters!
Joel continues to contribute to the science of swimming by co-editing (with Dave Tanner) and writing the "Handbook of Swimming" recently published by the IOC through Blackwell publishing. He serves the American Swim Coach Association by acting as the Editor in Chief of the Journal of Swimming Research. He serves on the advisory board for USA Swimming and USMS Sports Medicine committee. He acts as the director of the Counsilman Center for the Science of Swimming at IU and coaches a local age group club. His research is currently funded by USA Swimming and USMS and his research team is working on several projects that involve competitive swimmers and USMS members. He is enthusiastic about the possibility that swimming not only improves the quality of life, but the length of life as well. The proof is in the pudding and it remains to be seen whether or not this later hypothesis is born out. At this point, Stager concludes, that as far as he is concerned, he can provide substantial anecdotal evidence that his own quality of life has been improved by swimming. No regrets, he says. And besides, he could never quite get that French accent working for him anyway.