A brief historical overview of diving in the United States

In the April issue of Swimming World Magazine, historian Bruce Wigo examines the history of diving in the United States.

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Author’s note: The idea for this article began as a look back at the 1972 Olympic diving trials, 50 years later. But as I began my research, I began to understand the role these Trials played in the history of diving in america and challenges facing sport today. Being too long a story to tell in a single article, you’ll 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 swimming pool built to host the aquatic events of the 1959 Pan American Games. Although Portage Park had excellent diving facilities, it was later decided that the diving trials would take place as part of of a separate event at the nearby Oakton pool in the suburb of Park Ridge.

At the time, Chicago was a diving hotspot, with more than 30 of its outdoor pools offering scuba programs and equipment, including three (Oakton, Rehm, and Portage Park) featuring 10-meter towers. The community’s interest in diving is what made this event such a huge success.


The diving trials, which began three days before the swimming trials, kicked off with great fanfare as organizers tried to recreate the atmosphere of an Olympic opening ceremony. Tiers, which can accommodate a crowd of more than 12,000 people, have been installed around the perimeter of the pool. Local bands and singers were invited to perform and flags were flown representing the home states of athletes over 60.

A few 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 planes constantly flying low and noisy overhead to and from nearby O’Hare International Airport.

“Legend says, remembers diver Craig Lincoln, that a member of the organizing team convinced the air traffic controllers to divert the planes. Whether it’s true or not, we didn’t see or hear a single plane once the competition started. The weather also cooperated, as skies cleared and temperatures soared to 70 degrees. »

Hall of Fame coach Ron O’Brien recalls, “Oakton was a groundbreaking event for diving. It was the first time the dive trials proved it could be a stand-alone event, separate from swimming. And the performance was outstanding. In the men’s events, Mike Finneran earned a one-minute standing ovation from the spectators for his 1-1/2 somersaults with 2-1/2 twists from the 10-metre tower. It was the first perfect 10 of 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,” recalled Todd Smith, former executive director of USA Diving, “was Hopkins, Minnesota, 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 the AAU and NCAA championships, and after winning the trials, he returned from Munich with a bronze medal at 3 meters.


But the big story in the trials was 28-year-old Air Force Captain Micki King, who moved closer to her date with fate when she qualified for Munich by finishing third at 3 meters and second at 10 meters. Four years earlier in Mexico City, she had tackled her penultimate dive leading the 3-meter competition by a comfortable margin. But she broke her arm in a reverse dive and finished fourth. (You can see the cast she wore then signed by football great, Pele, and other Olympic stars at the Olympic Museum in Colorado Springs).

“After spending eight years training for Mexico City, I kind of stole a medal from myself with this freak accident,” she said. “It didn’t haunt me, but it’s mainly the reason why I stay in diving. Plus, diving is always fun for me, and as long as it is, I’m going to keep going. She would return from Munich with the gold medal she had lost in 1968.


It’s been nearly 50 years since diving events took place in suburban Chicago, and much has changed there since then, as has the sport of diving across the country. The Rehm and Oakton Towers have been demolished and the number of public swimming pools with any type of diving equipment has declined – not because of a lack of public interest in silly dives and cannonballs, says Todd Smith, but because of the threat of lawsuits.

As I documented in my book, The Golden Age of Swimming (available at blurb.com), when the United States ruled the Olympic airways from the 1920s through the 1960s, America was swimming and swimming mad. pool. And the pool’s most popular attraction was the diving board.

Literally millions of kids step off the boards each summer, and those who enjoyed the experience the most naturally turned to competitive diving, which provided a broad base for college and Olympic programs across the United States. Audiences have not only been exposed to diving in their local public swimming pool, but also through US Olympic success, water shows, Esther Williams movies, and Larry Griswold’s television appearances as ” crazy about diving”. (If you haven’t seen his act, you can find it on YouTube.)


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, impressive…and the audience loved him. His brave comeback after hitting his head on the board at the 1988 Olympics is one of the great moments in Olympic history.

And television ratings for diving events in Louganis’s day rivaled those for athletics, swimming and gymnastics. Greg’s retirement was a great loss for the sport, but it had nothing to do with what was happening to the sport of diving in American courtrooms, insurance company boardrooms and the rise in power of China.

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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 to the International Swimming Hall of Fame, was President/CEO of ISHOF from 2005 to 2017.