Men often succeed spectacularly at times and in places where common sense tells them they should not even try. On several basic counts, the whole city of Phoenix, Ariz. is an impossibility. In summer the noon sun is strong enough to bore a hole in a man's head, and the Salt River Valley, where Phoenix sprawls, gets enough rain for chuckwallas and lesser lizards but for little else. Yet there are now 600,000 people living handsomely in the valley where barely 35,000 existed 50 years ago. The city of Phoenix has plenty of water, and water-lovers of all the usual aquatic types. In the past five years it has become a favored watering hole and spawning ground of springboard divers. For any watery city a thriving colony of divers is the ultimate flourish—they are a specialized breed, rarely found in abundance anywhere.
The names, faces and forms of Phoenix' divers appear frequently in the papers—everyone in town knows that local girls won six of the twelve places in the last national championships—but relatively few have ever seen the divers in action. Although the city has many pools and many springboards, the divers from all around town—and from distant states—crowd into one unsightly but practical pool operated by a small, determined man named Dick A. Smith. Even without divers, Smith's place would still be the busiest water hole in town.
In a city that wears almost as much neon as Las Vegas, Smith's pool is hard to find. It is hidden in a huddle of one-story buildings, marked only by the words DICK SMITH SWIM GYM painted on a modest sign. There is one obvious flaw in Smith's place: the door isn't wide enough. From early morning until 10 at night, people come and go through it—well-proportioned athletes and cripples, adults of various shapes and all ages, and teen-agers, and a steady stream of tots, dragging and being dragged by mothers. Occasionally a stray dog sneaks in to lap water from the pool, thereby increasing its use beyond even Dick Smith's expectations.
A cottage at the northeast corner of the place serves as a "kindergym" for little children. At the far end of the property, older children queue up for trampoline practice. During peak hours, from the low building on the south side of the pool comes faint music, accompanied by steady thumping and occasional loud thuds. The music and steady thumping indicate that a dance class is hard at it. The sporadic thuds are contributed by judo wrestlers in an adjacent room. In one shallow section of the pool, a class of cripples swims slowly, trying to recover motor power destroyed by accident or disease.
July 22, 1962
In the shallows at the opposite end, a solemn, gaping cluster of 4-year-olds listen to their instructor. If they do not snap to it and learn to open their eyes underwater, the instructor warns them sternly, he is going to melt all the ice cream in the world and put dead flies in all the candy. The instructor interrupts his lecture to recover Cathleen Hallinan, age 4, from the bottom of the pool. Cathleen is a fast learner, and having already mastered the knack of putting her head under, she is now trying to see if she can go to sleep on the bottom. At this moment, on the far side of the pool, 4-year-old Doug Burch, member of an earlier class, has disappeared fully dressed. He is found cave-crawling in an open luggage locker. At poolside 10-year-old Jimmy Collins tells his mother that he wants to skip diving practice because he is pooped. (There is no reason for him to be tired: all he has done that morning is swim a mile and play nine holes of golf.) "You dive," his mother says crisply. "Better to be pooped here than bored at home."
In a corner of the pool a bunch of synchronized swimmers, supine, scull toward each other feet first, creating the image of a flower on the water surface. It is not a perfect flower. The girls vary in age and size, and the littlest petal, Louise Watson, age 7, keeps sinking out of sight. Along one side of the pool there are several movable structures that are too low to be tables and too high for benches. These, like much of the gear at Smith's place, are multiple-use items, serving as rests for arthritics who cannot sit easily, also as starting blocks for swimmers, and as a "penalty box" where springboard divers are sometimes made to perch, like dunces in a schoolroom corner, because they have foolishly balked on the board. The water in Smith's pool usually quiets down about 10 at night, when the last users, wearing scuba gear, crawl out of its depths on their froggy feet. Night is not the perfect time for scuba men to practice purging masks and ditching gear, but it's the only time the depths are free of bodies falling from the springboards above.
Springboard diving is an exacting art, best learned in water that is free of flailing novices and the distractions of a hurly-burly crowd, yet the country's best gang of springboard divers flourishes in the unceasing bustle at Smith's place. The prime reason is Smith himself. An experienced diver can make progress on his own, but for all his days he also needs the eyes of a coach like Smith, who has lived long and patiently with the art.
Smith is an unusual water-loving specimen who was spawned in an unusual water-loving town. Modern Phoenix gathers its water in eight impoundments in the mountains north and east of the valley, and it is on these reservoirs that weekenders enjoy themselves. In greater Phoenix there are about 10,000 swimming pools, most of them small, irregular jewels adorning the lawns of homes and spiffy motels. There are also about three dozen large pools used by competitive swimmers who are eager and in some cases accomplished.
Neither the reservoirs nor the chlorinated jewels nor the neon lights that wash the big desert stars out of the night sky would be there now except for a novel idea that first occurred long ago to some peculiar Indians called Hohokams. No one knows where the Hohokams came from. They seem to have materialized in the Salt River Valley 1,300 years ago, armed with the idea that all it takes to create an oasis is sweat. With stone tools the Hohokams dug 125 miles of canals, turning 25,000 acres of the valley green. Then into the valley swarmed the Apaches, behaving much as they still do on television. The earnest Hohokams disappeared, and so did the greenery.
The valley lay burning in the sun until an ex-Confederate captain, Jack Swilling, came upon traces of the old Indian canals and figured the idea was worth another try. Not much is known about Swilling except that he married a lady named Trinidad, and was stubborn and, at times, violently persuasive. In the one good photograph of him, Swilling has a hat in one hand and his other hand upraised as if to bash the photographer. The phenomenal, watery city that he started should have been named Swilling, Arizona, or perhaps New Hohokam. But an Englishman wandering by, steeped in whisky and the classics, insisted that Phoenix was the proper name for any town rising in such a searing, Godforsaken place.
Dick Smith, the most famous of the valley's latter-day water-lovers, was born 45 years ago, just about the time the city began to wallow in a bounty of water. Smith looks young and old; he has the features and wide grin of a boy and the creased leather skin of a desert man. His manner is quick, his voice firm and his words rarely wasted. He would make a good tactical officer or drill sergeant except that he is only slightly larger than a dormouse. Smith carries all his 138 pounds just about as he did in the late '30s and early '40s when he was a competitive diver.
In national competition 20 years ago Smith was consistently in the money but was never the best. There are two distinctions that will probably always be his. So far as the records show, he is the only diver who has ever done a double-twisting one-and-a-half somersault from a four-meter platform into a wine cask. He did that shortly after World War II in Lodi, Calif., to avoid disappointing an aquashow crowd when the regular water tank failed. As Smith recalls that night in Lodi, when he pulled out of his spinning somersaults he never saw the wine cask, only the hard ground all around. But he hit the cask and has lived fairly happily ever after.
Smith's second distinction is a dubious one, worth notice because it shows something of the nature of the man. He was certainly the best bowlegged diver the sport has known, but then it has known very few. A detracting feature like bowed legs is reason enough for anyone to pass the sport up without giving it a try. Smith tried, and hard. As a teenager he went to bed at night with his legs lashed tight between splints in an attempt to close the gap between his knees. He learned to go without sleep in the process, but the gap never closed. Still today, when he dives for exercise or for laughs, a slice of desert sky shows between his legs where his knees ought to be. He can still put together a good list of dives, although his three-and-a-half somersault is sometimes only three-and-a-quarter, after which Smith pulls himself out of the pool stinging red.
From boyhood Smith carried a love of horses along with his devotion to diving. He earned his way to a bachelor's and a master's degree at Southern California as a wrangler and as a diver on an athletic scholarship. With legs that fit a horse so well, and look so poorly on a springboard, it is strange that he is now a diving rather than a riding master. It is probably only the nature of the man, like stubborn Jack Swilling and the Hohokams, to want to buck the longest odds. As a 13-year-old, Smith nearly killed himself by diving from a 48-foot tower and striking a rocky bottom. He suffered a concussion, fractured his neck and was paralyzed from the waist down for four months. The doctor consigned him to a cautious, ambulatory life devoid of active sport or exercise, but Smith stole away from home to a local pool and taught himself to swim again, going first a few yards across the corner, then the width of the pool, then the length, and finally venturing back onto a springboard. His family first learned about his secret self-rehabilitation three years later, when the papers reported that 16-year-old Dick A. Smith had won both junior and both senior springboard titles in the state championships.
More by coincidence than anything, Smith's coaching philosophy closely parallels that of the master of the sport, Mike Peppe: in essence, that every dive in the book should be a beautiful flow, a blending of fast actions into a single fluid movement of elegance and grace. Like Peppe, he insists that every diver have a continuing respect for fundamentals. To clean up sloppy board work, Smith's divers frequently practice the front jump, a dive so simple it is no longer used in competition. Smith occasionally puts on a face mask, loads himself with lead and goes below to see if his pupils are honestly stretching for the bottom, rather than "saving" a mediocre dive by contorting the upper body underwater to make the entry of the legs and feet look better. Smith deplores the trend of diving away from beauty toward elaborate, unesthetic acrobatics, but he is a realist. Because the judges these days give points generously for acrobatics, all Smith's girls and boys will have fancy stuff in their repertoires at the outdoor national championships next month. The most noticeable difference between Coaches Peppe and Smith is a minor one of method. Peppe, in the manner of an old world maestro, often will analyze a small raw spot in a dive with a mere word or two and the flick of a hand. Smith is usually more graphic. When a diver goes sloppily through the approach to a dive, Smith customarily bawls out, "Wake up! Wake up! Wake up and see what you're doing with your hands. They look like large paintpots swinging on the ends of your arms."
Twenty-five feet inside the door of Dick Smith's pool there is a bulletin board, and tacked on it, along with minor notices, is a copy of President Kennedy's fitness message of a year ago. The message urged all hands—and schoolhands in particular—to check up on the fitness of American kids and see that they get at least 15 minutes of "vigorous activity" a day. Smith's copy of the message has faded in the desert sun, and it is perhaps as well, because the words hardly begin to reflect the kind of fitness that is practiced daily at Smith's place.
In Smith's mind, no fitness program can be measured by clock time or in foot-pounds. A prescription of 15 minutes of vigorous activity "might become an unwholesome dose of 'short-order drudgery.' " As Dick Smith sees it, no matter how much any activity increases endurance or toughens muscles, it is not worthy exercise unless it also involves some of the wit, courage or desire of the exerciser, thereby creating an individual rather than a strong animal.
The President's message also disturbed Smith because it dealt only with children, as if they were a separate breed, some kind of pet that required exercise apart from adults. At Smith's place there is no discrimination in terms of either age or proficiency. On one side of his pool there are two one-meter springboards barely five feet apart. Around noon of a typical day, on one of these boards, 6-year-old boys and girls are taking their first dives, plunking into the water like small sacks of cement. On the other board the very adult form of a girl rises high into the air, closes into a smart pike, reopens and drops cleanly through a small hole in the water. It is Patsy Willard, Olympian national champion. The girl following Willard up into the same smart pike and cleanly through the same hole in the water is Barbara McAlister, who next week will be spreading good will in Osaka by winning one or two Japanese national diving titles away from Japanese girls. The diver following Barbara onto the board is Jerry Lippman. Nobody has heard of Lippman and no one may ever hear of him again, and Lippman knows this. He is getting a little bald and is past the age ever to hope for diving honors, but he has tried the sport, likes it, and so he joins Dick Smith's lineup of little cement sacks and champions. As he follows Barbara McAlister off the board, Lippman's approach steps are good. His hurdle step is not bad, although he brings one arm through as if it were supporting a tray of dishes. But then, at the top of the dive, he fails to get into a tuck, loses himself and crashes to the water like a mallard shot dead on the rise. The diver who follows Lippman is 14-year-old Lesley Bush, a slender, quiet girl, who in sensitivity and demeanor seems more the sort to succeed playing a cello in a conservatory quartet. Regardless, she is a very gutty performer. Last year, at 13, after only two weeks' practice on a 10-meter platform (the equivalent of diving from a fourth-floor window) she placed sixth at the nationals.
Fitness at Smith's place hangs on the good idea of providing facilities where perfection and imperfection, children and adults, the fit and the halt, the natural athletes and the unlikely ones, all can mix. Within a year or so Dick Smith and a large part of his gang will be moving farther out on the desert to new diggings which will have facilities for two dozen sports, and will be called the Desert Sun Athletic Club. The place and the name will be fancier, but the same common sense has been guaranteed in the prospectus.
Last week, in his second fitness prospectus, presented in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, President Kennedy acknowledged that "special programs were being developed for college students and for adults"—as the old newspaper phrase goes, "Steps are now being taken in Washington." But meanwhile, out on the desert, little, bowlegged Dick A. Smith is still giant steps ahead.