A Brief History of Diving in the United States

Diving Boards

From the April issue of Swimming World Magazine, historian Bruce Wigo examines the history of USA Diving.

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Author’s Note: The idea for this article began as a retrospective look at the 1972 Olympic Diving Trials, 50 years later. But as I started my research, I began to understand the role those Trials played in the history of diving in America and the difficulties the sport faces today. Being too long a story to tell in one article, you will have to wait until next month to read the fascinating conclusion.

The 1972 Olympic Diving Trials were originally awarded in 1970 to the Chicago (Illinois) Park District as a combined Swimming and Diving Trials event. It was to be held at Portage Park in a pool built to host the aquatic events for the 1959 Pan American Games. Although Portage Park had excellent diving facilities, it was later decided that that Diving Trials would be held as a separate event at the nearby Oakton Pool in suburban Park Ridge.

At the time, Chicago was a hot spot for diving, with more than 30 of its outdoor pools having diving programs and equipment, with three—Oakton, Rehm and Portage Park—having 10-meter towers. The community’s interest in diving is what made the event such a great success.

A GALA EVENT

The Diving Trials, which began three days before the Swimming Trials, kicked off with great fanfare as organizers tried to re-create the atmosphere of an Olympic opening ceremony. Bleachers, which could accommodate a crowd of more than 12,000, were set up around the perimeter of the pool. Local bands and singers were invited to perform, and flags flew, representing the home states of the 60-plus athletes.

Days before the opening ceremony, Mother Nature was uncooperative. Temperatures were in the low 50s, and rain was in the forecast. There was also the problem of airplanes constantly flying low and loud overhead to and from the nearby O’Hare International Airport.

“Legend has it,” remembers diver Craig Lincoln, “that a member of the organizing team convinced air traffic controllers to reroute the planes. Whether true or not, we didn’t see or hear one plane once the competition started. The weather cooperated, too, as the skies cleared and temperatures soared to the high 70s.”

Hall of Fame coach Ron O’Brien recalls, “Oakton was a breakthrough event for diving. It was the first time the Diving Trials proved it could be a stand-alone event, separate from swimming. And the performances were outstanding. In the men’s events, Mike Finneran earned a minute-long standing ovation from the spectators for his 1-1/2 somersaults with 2-1/2 twists from the 10-meter tower. It was the first perfect 10 from all seven judges ever awarded in a major competition. Another highlight was the performance of Craig Lincoln, who came out of nowhere to win the 3-meter event.”

“Nowhere,” remembers Todd Smith, a former executive director of USA Diving, “was Hopkins, Minn., where Craig had been the No. 2 diver on his high school team. Only one coach recognized his potential: John Walker of Minnesota. Within two years, Craig was winning AAU and NCAA championships, and after winning the Trials, he would return home from Munich with a bronze medal from 3 meters.”

RENDEZVOUS WITH DESTINY

But the big story of the Trials was 28-year-old Air Force Captain Micki King, who moved a step closer to her rendezvous with destiny when she qualified for Munich by placing third in the 3-meter event and second at 10 meters. Four years earlier in Mexico City, she had approached her second-to-last dive leading the 3-meter competition by a comfortable margin. But she broke her arm on a reverse dive and ended fourth. (You can see the cast she wore afterward signed by the soccer great, Pelé, and other Olympic stars at the Olympic museum in Colorado Springs).

“After putting in eight years of training for Mexico City, I kind of robbed myself of a medal with that freak accident,” she said. “It hasn’t haunted me, but it’s mainly my reason for staying in diving. Besides, diving is still fun for me, and as long as it is, I’ll stay with it.” She would return home from Munich with the gold medal she lost in ’68.

MANY CHANGES IN 50 YEARS

It’s now almost 50 years since the Diving Trials were held in the suburbs of Chicago, and a lot has changed there since then, just like it has for the sport of diving throughout the country. The Rehm and Oakton towers have been demolished, and the number of public pools with any type of diving equipment has dwindled—not because of a lack of interest by the public to do silly dives and cannon balls, says Todd Smith, but because of the threat of lawsuits.

As I have documented in my book, The Golden Age of Swimming (available at blurb.com), when the USA ruled the Olympic airways from the 1920s though the 1960s, America was swimming-and-swimming-pool-crazy. And the most popular attraction at the pool was the diving board.

Literally, millions of kids went off boards every summer, and those who loved the experience most, naturally gravitated toward competitive diving, which provided a broad base for the United States’ collegiate and Olympic programs. The public was not only exposed to diving at their local public pool, but also through America’s Olympic success, water shows, Esther Williams’ movies and Larry Griswold’s appearances on television as “the Diving Fool.” (If you haven’t seen his act, you can find it on YouTube.)

MOST GRACEFUL AND ARTISTIC DIVER OF THEM ALL

And four years after the Oakton Trials, Greg Louganis—the most graceful and artistic diver in history—made his Olympic debut. He was handsome, humble, and his dives were expressive, awe-inspiring…and the public loved him. His courageous comeback after hitting his head on the board at the 1988 Olympic Games, is one of the great moments of Olympic history.

And TV ratings for diving events during the Louganis era rivaled that of athletics, swimming and gymnastics. Greg’s retirement was a great loss to the sport, but it paled in comparison to what was happening to the sport of diving in America’s courtrooms, insurance company boardrooms and the rise of China.

* * *

Part 2: “The City of Fort Lauderdale and the Future of Diving”—After 30 years of declining numbers and ratings, the sport of diving has a bright future ahead of it.

Bruce Wigo, historian and consultant at the International Swimming Hall of Fame, served as president/CEO of ISHOF from 2005-17.

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Steven V Selthoffer
1 month ago

Bruce, how could you? How could you leave out Hobie Billingsley, US Olympic coach and head coach Indiana? And due to his legacy of integrity, excellence and sportsmanship Hobie was honored to state the Judges Oath (from among all coaches and all Olympic sports) at the Opening Ceremonies for the 100th Anniversary of the Olympic Games in Atlanta 1996? What an honor and triumph for integrity and coaching excellence. He is the best of us.

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