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Taking the Plunge

May 7, 2014

Unlike today, when I was in high school physical education was mandatory. I attended Wilcox High in Santa Clara, California. Santa Clara was also home to the famous Santa Clara Swim Center, where Don Schollander trained for the Olympics, winning a combined five gold medals in Tokyo ’64, and Mexico City ‘68. It’s no exaggeration to say our small city took swimming very seriously.

    

All high schools in the region had swimming pools, and Wilcox also had one for diving. Before being allowed to graduate, all male students (sexist I know) were required to pass two water tests. First, we were required to tread water in the lap pool for one hour without touching the sides; touch it and you had to start over. Chubby people float easily and I had no problem bobbing like a cork for an hour, unlike many around me who swallowed water, coughed and struggled to stay afloat. For me, at least, this first test was a snap. The other one proved to be more difficult.

    

In addition to the treading water test, we had to dive from the twenty foot tower rising above the diving pool, and we weren’t allowed to step off the platform. We were required to make the plunge head first. Today this might be considered abuse, but back then the sadists running things figured this was character building and good exercise. Students were known to stand on the platform the entire P.E. session without diving, returning down the steps in disgrace.

    

When my turn came I was terrified. I’d been wearing glasses since the fifth grade and without specs the world was a blur. I fretted about looking down at a blue pool that would seem about the size of a postage stamp. What if I missed the pool to land on the concrete. Of course this wasn’t possible, but I worried about it anyway.

    

Instead of restricting these tests to warm months, they were held all year long. The day for my plunge dawned rainy and cold, with a stiff wind blowing from the north. I prayed the test would be cancelled but my prayers weren’t answered. In the locker room I slipped into my skimpy Speedo and hit the showers. The other guys luxuriated in the steamy spray as long as they could, knowing how cold they’d be once herded outside into the wind. This seemed foolish, so I stood under the shower and gradually turned the water to icy cold to acclimate myself to the temperature outside. Someone bumped into me while we huddled near the door and shrieked, “Shit dude, you’re as cold as a corpse.” At least I wasn’t shivering my ass off when we trooped outside.

    

We lined up at the base of the diving tower. I was third in line. The first guy was a good diver and he sailed off the diving board without a problem. The second fellow ascended the platform, where he remained like an immobile lightning rod in a storm. He climbed back down to give his courage time to percolate before making another attempt.

    

My turn arrived. The metal stairs felt cold on the soles of my feet as I rose twenty feet to the diving board, all the while fretting that when I made contact with the water my swimsuit would pop off like the peel on a plump fava bean. At the top, I paused and looked down as icy fingers of wind pushed me about. (My description of the weather condition is no doubt an exaggeration, but this is what it felt like.) From high up the pool did look to be the size of a postage stamp, a small blue blur. I’d prepared myself for the cold but I still shivered—with fright.

    

My dad used to tell a story about his Navy boot camp days when he was compelled to leap off a tower into a pool of water as practice for diving off the deck of a torpedoed troop ship. The fellow in front of my dad was too frightened to jump and had to be pushed. As I stood twenty feet in the air, shivering in my skimpy Speedo, I wished someone would approach me from behind and give a good push.

    

Like the kid ahead of me, my courage was AWOL. I turned to make the descent of shame. But as I glanced down at the unfocused faces below I knew there was no way I was NOT going to do this. With my heart pounding in my chest I spun around, dashed across the platform and leapt onto the board. Unfortunately, my timing was off; instead of bouncing into the air and soaring like an eagle my ass made contact with the board. I was hurled back upward. And then I began to drop. A week seemed to pass before I tumbled into the water, which I somehow managed to do head first.

    

Unlike Don Schollander, my skills in the pool would never earn me gold medals, but I did successfully completed my diving test. I didn’t die, and far more important I didn’t lose my swimsuit.

 

 

The boy in this Norman Rockwell painting is younger than I was at the time, but this is what it felt like.
     

           



Comments

30 Comments
I would have had to make that walk of shame back down the ladder....
By: Shelly on May 7, 2014
I love swimming but other people do not love to see me in a bathing suit, so it's just as well I never had PE in high school.
By: PT Dilloway on May 7, 2014
OH if only all of us could dive like Rodney Dangerfield did in Back to School.
By: Michael Offutt on May 7, 2014
I had no clue that PE was optional! My son is 39 and I am just now going to be a grandma so I had no clue that had changed. I am shocked! We had swimming in high school, but they put the pool in over at the junior high and we had to walk back outside for a few blocks with damp hair in Minnesota winters! I learned not to touch frozen wet hair because it will crack off. ;)
By: Rita McGregor on May 7, 2014
PE is still required in some states. My son and DIL are both PE teachers and I am happy to report they are not like the PE teachers of old. They teach to the students abilities and concentrate on PE skills people can use for life. THe PE teachers of old did seem to enjoy torturing kids that were not lovers of sport. Hitting the water from 20 feet wrong can be like landing on pavement...crazy to force kids to try.
By: Cranky Old Man on May 7, 2014
oh, my! i'd have flunked the 2nd one totally. good thing my wis. high school didn't have a pool. :)
By: TexWisGirl on May 7, 2014
I hated PE with a passion. "Nice gym teacher" is an oxymoron. I would have broken my leg to avoid the diving requirement, but, of course, it wouldn't have been necessary for this whirly girly. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on May 7, 2014
Thank god we didn't have to do THAT when I was in high school. We only had to TAKE a semester of swimming. I wasn't a bad swimmer or diver (from the side of the pool). But I don't if I would have managed that high dive. As for that Norman Rockwell illustration: I always thought it was well-done but that he left out the humiliation.
By: Mitchell is Moving on May 7, 2014
Ungainly and ungraceful though it was, congratulations that you did it first time around! As for me, little nut that i am, once i got over the fear of water and learned to swim, i loved the diving boards.
By: mimi on May 7, 2014
I, too, hated PE. And I wouldn't have been able to make that dive...
By: Pixel Peeper on May 7, 2014
I'm having a panic attack just from reading that. I had to do that in college. Yes, the drownproofing hour was easy. The leap from the 10 meter platform was not. I flat out refused to try, after watching my friend change her mind mid-leap. She turned to grab the platform, and swung in towards the concrete pool deck. She missed it by inches. The instructor had turned his back as she fell, covering his face with his clipboard. The friend was black-and-blue for a while. We both made a deal to take another semester of beginning swimming with that teacher, and we got our credit. Better yet...we stayed alive!
By: Val on May 7, 2014
We had to do that, the board was only about 10 feet up, but I had a nasty coach. I was standing on the board, and she walked up behind me, then shoved me in. I screamed, mostly from being startled, which, of course, meant I was taking in water when I hit. To this day I can't go on a diving board, I shake so bad. Needless to say, if I could find that coach, I would be glad to give her a Chocolate (Ex Lax) milkshake... I just hope that your tail bone wasn't injured, hitting the board would hurt, I would think! Cat.
By: Cat on May 7, 2014
Oh boy- I would have been petrified of landing wrong and breaking my neck! By the way- As a boy, Schollander moved with his family to Lake Oswego, Oregon.[2] Although his first sporting passion was football, he was too small to compete in high school football.[3] Instead, he joined Lake Oswego High School's swim team, and in 1960, helped lead the team to an Oregon state swimming championship as a freshman.[3][4] That's per Wikipedia! Cheers and happy trails!
By: Kathe W. on May 7, 2014
I've always been as foolish as I am fearless. When at the local (university) pool, my father was watching and I (about 10) wanted to impress him. I thought, How hard could diving off the high-dive board be? I climbed up and dove off, spreading my arms apart in a big swan dive. Sadly, I remained horizontal and landed in the water in a painful bellyflop. Then -- because my foolishness and fearlessness is outdone only by my legendary stubbornness -- I did it twice more. I think my belly stayed red for a week.
By: Lexa Cain on May 7, 2014
It seems hard to believe that some twisted phys ed teacher would require this dive. Yes I know the feeling of not jumping even though I wanted to.
By: red on May 7, 2014
Sounds like my idea f hell. Glad I didn't go to your school!
By: Jenny Woolf on May 8, 2014
yeah, it was tough, but I truly do not think it was sadistic. Anymore than making a kid stand in front of a classroom and give a speech. These are skills we should all be "pushed" to do or face the shame of not screwing our courage to the sticking place. Our overprivileged and under-pushed kids today will have regrets.
By: Tabor on May 8, 2014
I'm sure your PE instructor watched your performance, held up his card and shouted: 10!
By: Tom Sightings on May 8, 2014
Oh wow, that would be scary. I can't imagine having to go through such a thing in school. Remember that movie, Dazed and Confused when all the girls had to go through all of that stuff just to be cool? I can't imagine that stuff, I don't remember stuff like that as a high school kid, I'm pretty happy about that now :) Glad all turned out well though!!!
By: Hey Monkey Butt on May 8, 2014
As much as I adored swimming as a kid, and actually swam for my school, I never conquered my fear of diving in off the board. You did well!
By: LL COOL JOE on May 8, 2014
I loved high diving in our tiny local pool but I think the "high" board was only about 10 feet above the water.
By: Catalyst on May 8, 2014
That story struck me as dangerous, Stephen. I hope today things have changed for the better regarding these PE requirements. You had a lot of courage!
By: Michael Manning on May 8, 2014
I'm appalled they withheld diplomas from the male students who couldn't do this. Really? What if you had a 4.0 otherwise, but a fear of really high heights? Dangit, I'm angry. Nonetheless, I laughed at the way you went down. I'm glad you went down. xoRobyn
By: Robyn Engel on May 9, 2014
I never would have made my way up the ladder. Heights are not good for me. You were a gutsy fava bean. ;)
By: Hilary on May 9, 2014
I never did learn how to dive properly - I have no sense of my body in space. I'm all flailing limbs & screaming :)
By: The Bug on May 9, 2014
I'm not surprised you haven't forgotten that dive! It's awful you were made to do something like that to get your diploma, but for now it's made an interesting post and you did it!! Well done!!
By: Sharon Bradshaw on May 10, 2014
I am getting the shivers just thinking about it. Well done to that young man all these years ago.
By: John on May 12, 2014
Given my lack of prowess in water, I would never have graduated from your school.
By: Bryan Jones on May 12, 2014
Good for you to go through with it. I loved diving when I was young and remember the first dive off of a high board. It looks higher from up top than at ground level. That is fairly ambitious of that school to require a high dive and an hour of treading water. When my kids were little I worked as a swim instructor for the YMCA and only advanced classes even offered diving and not from the high boards.
By: Cheryl P. on May 13, 2014
I feel for those who are truly frightened. Many of today's youth don't know how to play unless they're holding a controller or other device.
By: Daniel LaFrance on May 14, 2014

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