Terry Laughlin could make anyone fall in love with swimming.
He talked about his sport as if it were art, like poetry or dance. The Total Immersion training method that he developed over his 45-year coaching career didn’t just hone swimmers’ technique; it also encouraged a way of thinking, an approach to life, whose basic principle was to move in harmony with the water, rather than fight it.
Other coaches counsel their swimmers to focus on pulling and kicking. Laughlin, on the other hand, contended that the shape of the body moving through the water was even more important. He’d noticed that swimmers who held a sleek profile during push off traveled farther and faster, with less effort than those who moved less aerodynamically. He wasn’t the first coach to pick up on this, but he was the one to popularize an approach to swimming that capitalized on it.
Laughlin called this approach “vessel-shaping,” a term he picked up in the late 1980s from Bill Boomer, then swim coach at the University of Rochester. Boomer’s mantra, which also became Laughlin’s, was that “the shape of the vessel matters more than the size of the engine.” He thought a swimmer could make greater gains by reducing drag than by increasing propulsion.
Laughlin began his coaching career in the early 1970s at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York. In 1989, after more than a decade of coaching college and club teams and producing 24 national champions, he founded the Total Immersion swim program to work with his most receptive and grateful audience: “adult-onset swimmers,” as he called them—people who’d taken up the sport in adulthood without any background or experience.
“His teaching methods opened up a whole new world to runners and cyclists who wanted to become triathletes,” says Ann Svenson, registrar for the Adirondack Masters.
In 1996, Laughlin published his philosophy of vessel-shaping and mindful practice in the book Total Immersion: The Revolutionary Way to Swim Better, Faster and Easier. Sales were steady, and two decades after that first edition came out, the book’s 2004 update is Amazon’s number one top-seller in swimming titles. The Total Immersion swim clinics, which grew into a small empire of classes and licensed coaches, have reached thousands and thousands of people.
That’s quite an accomplishment for someone whose swimming abilities as a kid growing up on Long Island were so mediocre that he was cut from his grammar school swim team. After two summers spent accumulating laps in pursuit of the Red Cross 50-Mile swim badge, he managed to make his high school swim team. He eventually won a swimming scholarship to St. John’s University in New York. Yet his achievements at the time failed to meet his aspirations, and he concluded that he lacked talent and was unlikely to ever improve much.
So he started coaching. By observing his athletes through underwater cameras and through long discussions with Boomer, he soon became convinced that he could make amazing improvements to performance simply by tweaking technique. That discovery opened up a new world of possibilities to him, and for the rest of his life, he was driven by a passion to share that epiphany with other would-be swimmers.
Total Immersion was mindfulness and focus, practiced in the water. Despite his program’s popularity, Laughlin never became one of those slick, marketing pros. What mattered to him was spreading and expanding upon the ideas. It was only the behind-the-scenes work of his wife, Alice, that kept the Total Immersion business viable. She took care of the bank accounts, management, and other details so that Laughlin could be what his daughter Fiona calls, “the twinkle-toed positive free-spirit legend that everyone loves.”
There’s an old adage that those who can’t do, teach. But Laughlin recognized that teaching and doing are two different aptitudes. It wasn’t merely doing that made him a better swimmer: it was focused practice and attention. It was learning. He believed anyone could learn to swim better and more efficiently, and people who took up the Total Immersion approach regularly called it life-changing.
It was life-changing for Laughlin, too. In 2006, he set U.S. Masters Swimming national records in the one- and two-mile open water cable swims, and was named to that year’s USMS Long Distance All Star team. Over the years, he continued to swim competitively and to do “bucket list swims,” like the one from Corsica to Sardinia he completed in 2015. He sought joy and purpose in the water. “Since I entered my 60s, my racing goals have been to transform a race into a game or work of art,” Laughlin once told the small discussion group where I got to know him.
I’d first met Laughlin in person at the Stanford pool, on a cold, dark morning last fall. I was writing a book about exercise recovery, and he’d invited me to attend a practice at the university. He had opinions about training that he shared freely, with both me and Stanford coach Greg Meehan. Some of his strong views could have come across as criticisms, but that’s not how Laughlin delivered them. His manner was firm, but gentle. He was confident in his ideas.
Laughlin died October 20 of complications from the metastatic prostate cancer. He was 66 and had been living with cancer for two years. He’s survived by his wife Alice, three daughters—Fiona, Carrie and Betsy—and numerous extended family members. He approached cancer like he approached swimming and life. “The more external turbulence I encounter, the more inner calm I must cultivate,” he told his family.
“His influence is far-reaching, and will continue,” says David Barra, co-founder of New York Open Water and a longtime friend. “He made swimming accessible to everyone with a methodical approach that enabled practitioners to monitor their progress precisely and incrementally, but ultimately the goal was always to experience the joy of swimming.”
In the hospital a week before he died, Laughlin’s daughter Carrie asked him to reflect on what he’d learned during his 45-year career. “Everything that I’ve practiced and taught has prepared me for this crisis moment in my life,” he said. A stroke had landed him in the hospital, and he used the mindfulness techniques he’d developed to teach himself to drink again after the stroke hampered his ability to swallow. “My focal points for drinking are: sip; exhale; relax; swallow; repeat,” he said. He treated those sips of water like repeats in the pool—complete with rest intervals.
Laughlin remained optimistic to the end. His relentless positivity, along with his sense of humor and love of baseball, were his defining features, says his sister, Moira Laughlin. Shortly before he died, he told a joke about two friends who had a pact. The first of them to die would return to tell the other whether there was baseball in heaven. So the first guy dies, and he appears to his friend. The good news, he says, is that there’s baseball in heaven. The bad news is that you’re pitching tomorrow.
“He thought that joke was so hilarious,” Fiona told me. “It was the last time I saw him laugh.”
A few days after he died, I received an email from Laughlin’s account. It was an announcement of his death, sent by his family, and like every other Terry Laughlin email, it was signed with a 1990s-era ascii image depicting a swimmer and a tagline that suddenly seemed like a perfect epitaph.
“May your laps be as happy as mine.”
Christie Aschwanden is lead science writer at FiveThirtyEight. Her book about exercise recovery will be published next year by W.W. Norton.