Terry Laughlin, who was cut from his junior high school swimming team but went on to coach successfully at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point and revolutionize the sport with his teachings, died Oct. 20 at his home in New Paltz.
Laughlin, 66, who was from Williston Park, lost a battle with prostate cancer according to information posted on totalimmersion.net, named for Total Immersion Swimming, the company he founded in 1989 that taught the sport to adults using a then-radical style that became popular over the years for swimmers of all ages and levels.
“His technique is very innovative. He changed the direction of swimming and will continue to do so,” said USMMA men’s swimming coach Sean Tedesco. “The style can be used for all ages. I use it for clinics and for college when I teach. From little kids to Olympians the technique is all the same, if taught properly.”
Laughlin’s “total immersion” method utilizes a ‘fishlike’ style of swimming that emphasizes streamlining bodylines instead of muscling the water with arms and legs.
Laughlin remained a serious swimmer into his 60s and, according to his blog, completed a Corsica-to-Sardinia swim of nearly 10 miles in 4 hours, 31 minutes, with two friends in 2015.
“Some swim for exercise, others for a sense of accomplishment or to achieve personal bests,” he wrote. “Since my 50s, I’ve swum mostly for the sheer pleasure of it. If it’s not fun, why do it? . . . Meaningful goals are never far from mind. But what I want most is to feel engaged in body, mind, spirit — that there’s nothing I’d rather be doing — and to leave the pool counting the hours until I can swim again.”
After a modest high school swimming career in which he never qualified for the New York City Catholic High School Athletics Association championships and swimming four years at St. John’s University without winning any major honors, Laughlin accepted a job coaching at USMMA in 1972.
In his first season, the team’s swimmers won nine of 16 events and set Metropolitan Collegiate Championship records in each race. Ironically, those events were swum at the same pool where he did not place in any events as a collegian. At age 21, the youngest varsity swimming coach at the NCAA level, Laughlin earned Coach of the Year honors. He remained at Kings Point until 1975 and continued coaching college at St. John’s and Army and the U.S. national program until 1988, developing 24 national champions.
“We know what he accomplished here in the ’70s. He brought this team to a high level,” Tedesco said. “When I started here in 2001 we were approached by Total Immersion, his clinic. I took his clinic as a coach to learn a little more about his teaching style and his principles behind effective swimming. I still use some of that today. His legacy is with the athletes he coached. I’ve run into them over the years and they’ll bring up a story about him. He got a lot out of his swimmers.”
Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Laughlin emphasized technique rather than power in his coaching and clinics and though his methods are not universally accepted, he is considered a pioneer in the sport. Among the organizations using his methods are the Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, Air Force and Coast Guard rescue units and U.S. Border Patrol. In addition to founding Total Immersion Swimming, a still active company, Laughlin also published several popular books on swimming.
“There are 350 coaches in 30 countries in the company he founded,” his wife, Alice Lauglin, said. “He made an indelible mark on the swimming world. He really was the swim coach to the world.”
In addition to his wife, he is survived by daughters Fiona, Carrie and Betsy. In lieu of flowers, the family asks for donations to the Total Immersion Swimming Foundation, a philanthropic arm of the New Paltz company.