Remembering Joel Lenzi O’Connell

Girl with a Boy’s Name was Ten time AAU Diving Champion

Fort Lauderdale – Joel Lenzi O’Connell was a 10 x National AAU diving champion, and an honoree of the Ft. Lauderdale/Broward County Hall of Fame.  She passed away in Tempe, Arizona on May 10th at the age of 75.

Joel, whose given name was Joeldina, grew up in Fort Lauderdale and was the youngest of three girls. When asked about his daughter’s unusual name, Joe Lenzi told the Fort Lauderdale News that he didn’t want another girl.  He said he wanted a boy and “the doctor told us it was going to be a boy.” So he and his wife went to the hospital expecting a boy with a batch of names ready – all boys.

They eventually feminized her name by calling her ‘Joeldina.  “A combination of my name, her mother’s name and her grand-mother’s name,” he said.

Joel followed her sisters to the old Casino pool and joined the Fort Lauderdale Swimming Association. Coached by Al Gordon, Joel started making her mark early by recording the fastest 10 & under time in the country in the 25 yard breast stroke.  And it wasn’t long before Gordon started comparing her to his first great swimmer, Katherine “Katy” Rawls, known nationally as the “Miami Minnow.”

At the age of 14 Katy caused a sensation at the 1931 US National AAU Championships when she beat Eleanor Holm and broke her world record in the 300 meter individual medley and the next day won the 200 meter breaststroke.  At the same time, she was the AAU National Champion in 1m and 3m diving events.  She would go on to win Olympic medals in both disciplines at the 1936 Olympic Games and in 1937 was named the Associated Press’ Female Athlete of the Year.

The comparisons of Joel to Katy came naturally, as she was the Florida state High champion for Fort Lauderdale’s Pine Crest School in 1m diving four consecutive years beginning in eighth grade (1956-1959), and in the 100 yard breaststroke three years in a row (1957 – 1959).

With the retirement of Al Gordon, Joel turned to Ward O’Connell, a former diver at the University of Miami and coach at Coral Gables High in Miami.  Her improvement under Ward was immediate and dramatic.  As a blond haired, blue-eyed and dimpled sixteen year old she qualified for the US Pan American Games team and then won a silver medal at the Pan Ams in Chicago in the 3m springboard event. It was while training with O’Connell that she decided to drop swimming and focus on diving.

“I used to be a swimmer,” she said,” by they have to watch their diet. I know girls who can’t eat any chocolate. Swimming gives one a big appetite. You know that if you’re just out in the air and water, you get hungry. When your swimming hard, it’s even worse. But divers don’t have to be as diet conscious as swimmers. They can eat just a little bit more.”

“I knew as a swimmer I’d be was he up after high school was over. Divers can go on indefinitely. If I don’t make the Olympics next year I’ll have a chance four years from then and four years after that.”

To continue her improvement, Joel transferred from Pine Crest to Coral Gables so she could train regularly with O’Connell for her senior year of high school. When asked is the move to Miami meant she’s be a “Gables Gal?” She replied, “Gee, NO!.  I’ll always be a Fort Lauderdale girl first.”

Joel cover of This Week

Photo Courtesy:ISHOF Archive

As the Olympic Trials approached, Joel became a darling of the media. She appeared on the cover of “This Week” Magazine, as a favorite not only to make the 1960 Olympic Team, but to win gold in Rome.

Unfortunately, because of the transfer rules of the day, she was declared ineligible to compete in the state championships her senior year.   And then finished a disappointing 3rd in the Olympic Trials, just missing a spot on the 1960 Olympic team.

After graduating from Coral Gables, she followed her coach to Southern Illinois University, where he was studying for his Masters and coaching diving, and she became the only girl on the men’s diving team.  Training with the team, but not competing

“Because of her strength,” said National Team coach Bob Rambo, before the 1961 AAU Nationals, “she’s able to do dives only men are supposed to do. She has the most difficult set of optional dives in the country.”

And at those nationals, Joel won titles in both the 1m and 3m events and was at the top of the list of the AAU All Americans.

Later that year, on December 16th, 1961, Joel and Ward O’Connell were married in Freemont, California where Ward had taken a job teaching physical education high school. Later, he became the diving coach at the famed Santa Clara Swim Club while teaching school. He, then, became the water polo and diving coach at Yale University and and diving coach at Arizona State University for 31 years.

By today’s standards, Joel and Ward’s relationship would be highly questionable, but in those days husband and wife diving teams were quite common and acceptable. Both Vicki Draves, the 1948 double Olympic gold medalist and Pat McCormick, the 1952 and 1956 4x gold medalist were both coached by their husbands. And Joel and Ward lived happily together as a married couple until his passing in 2009.

In 1962, Joel and Ward created a controversy within diving by objecting to coaches of rival divers serving as judges. And this controversy may have had an impact on the rest of Joel’s career.  While she continued to score well and won more national titles, mostly of the non-Olympic 1m event, she never did make it to the Olympic after trying again in 1964 and 1968.  She dove in her last nationals in 1971 and spend many years teaching physical education and coaching gymnastics in Tempe.

According to her sister, Ethelyn Buckley, of Fort Lauderdale, the cause of her passing was Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).  According the American Lung Association Smoking is the leading cause of COPD and Joel was a lifelong smoker.

“I could never understand why or how a girl who was such a great athlete would become a smoker,” Ethelyn said.

But according to a new exhibit in the International Swimming Hall of Fame – “Smoke on the Water” the Tobacco industry manipulated many of America’s most famous female athletes, including hall of fame divers Dorothy Poynton and Georgia Coleman – legendary names when Joel was growing up – to make smoking appear not just glamorous, but healthful.

In 1980, Joel was inducted into the Broward County Sports Hall of Fame, in Fort Lauderdale.

2 Comments

2 comments

  1. avatar

    Joel — You were a joy to know.

  2. avatar

    With researchers finding out chlorine bleach causes COPD….would not her being in water with “chlorine ” also have certainly been a factor in her COPD.

    There are so many chemicals they have found that cause COPD.

    The cigarette stigma regarding this disease has got to stop.
    A cure is needed.

    Research….you would not hinder a cure for cancer, many people with COPD have never smoked a day in their lives.

Author: Bruce Wigo

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