U.S. Air Force Captain Maxine Joyce (Micki) King is only 27 but in the age-conscious world of competitive diving she is regarded as something of a relic; many of her younger rivals tease Micki by calling her Mother Max. They also tend to regard her with something close to reverence.
"I've been diving 17 years, and that's longer than some of these kids have lived," says Micki, with a motherly sigh. "I know that sometimes they look at me and wonder why that old lady is still diving." One reason is that Micki still enjoys doing inward 2½ somersault tucks and all the other "tricks," as she calls her dives. Another is that she is still the best female diver in the U.S.—perhaps in the entire world. She won the AAU indoor championship earlier this year at West Point, qualified in both springboard (three-meter) and platform (10-meter) for the Pan-American Games and is favored to win her third straight AAU outdoors championship next week at Houston. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Micki wants to win an Olympic gold medal.
In 1968 in Mexico City, with only two dives left, Micki seemed to have a comfortable lead and a gold medal in the three-meter. All she needed were average scores on her remaining dives. (Diving is scored by a supposedly impartial panel of judges who, on each dive, award from one to 10 points; these, in turn, are multiplied by a degree-of-difficulty factor. The judging is based on execution and form, and seven is considered a good score on any given dive.)
"My last dive is always my bread-and-butter dive," Micki says, "so I felt that if I could be at least tied for the lead going into the last one, I'd win it. I knew the next to last dive, a reverse 1½ layout, was the crucial dive. I've won meets on it, but it's very easy to miss. When I climbed up on the board I was nervous, but in a positive way."
August 15, 1971
Before the Olympics, Micki had spent hundreds of hours working on the reverse 1½ layout. "Supposedly you work out enough to perfect it," she says, "but this time, when I went off the board, I knew it was too fast. I knew I would rotate too fast. I had to adjust in the air to keep from missing the dive completely. In order to slow the dive down I had to put my arms in the air early to elongate myself and to slow the rotation." But when Micki put out her arms she felt a sharp pain in her left forearm. She had hit the board. "The thud was so loud it echoed through the whole building," she recalls. "I don't see how anyone could have kept from hearing it. I can still hear it now, and it makes me sick."
But somehow only two of the seven judges and few of her fellow competitors knew that Micki had hit the board. "So I decided to fake-it-make-it," she says. "When I landed in the water I knew I was hurt. I felt very faint and cold and I went into a mild form of shock. But I tried to act like everything was O.K." The scores ranged from 4½ to 7. Micki was now in second place but still in contention.
Her coach, Dick Kimball of the University of Michigan, pulled Micki out of the pool and led her behind a curtain, where she was given smelling salts and ice was applied to the cut on her forearm. She had less than 10 minutes before the last dive, a difficult reverse 1½ with 1½ twists. Later, when it was learned that one of the bones in Micki's forearm, the ulna, was broken, her doctor told her that she should not have been allowed to make her last dive. "But I never had any thoughts of scratching," says Micki.
Because of the pain, her final dive was a disaster. Instead of winning the gold medal she finished fourth, with no medal at all. "My immediate reaction was anger at myself for blowing it," she says. "The disappointment didn't hit me until the next day, when I saw the American flag go up at one of the presentation ceremonies." At first the press and fans thought Micki had choked. It wasn't until late the following day when she showed up with a cast on her arm that her misfortune became public knowledge.
Micki wore her cast 108 days, and by the time she had returned home and settled back in her job she had decided to retire from competitive diving. "But as fate would have it," she says, "the 1969 indoor nationals were at Long Beach, only 23 miles from my apartment in Hermosa Beach. I went as a spectator for the first time in eight years or so, and sitting and watching was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life. After that I talked to Dick Kimball and he said, 'If you feel that way maybe there's some diving left in you.' So I proceeded to call the sports office at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas and they said it was great that I wanted to dive again. They also said they would arrange for me to compete in the World Military Games in Pescara, Italy."
With that meet, in June 1969, Micki's comeback began. She was the first woman ever to compete against men in the military swimming and diving championships, and she finished fourth in springboard and third in platform. "I was amazed at how quickly everything came back," she says. "I even had to learn two new dives that normally are done only by men."
A self-confessed tomboy while growing up in Pontiac, Mich., Micki began diving at the age of 10. Her first formal meet was at the Toledo, Ohio YMCA when she was 15. "I had never seen any girl divers before," says Micki. "I won, but I wasn't cocky because I knew I had a lot to learn. I didn't even know the names of the dives I did."
Her mother wanted Micki to become a figure skater. "I tried it for a while," she says, "but I didn't like the routine. I still can't understand why I got bored with the routines of figure skating but not with those of diving." She enrolled at Michigan in 1962 and became a star goalie in water polo, making All-America in 1962-63. She also began diving for Kimball. "She wasn't very good at first," he recalls, "but I knew she was a good athlete. She dives like a man."
Micki first tried platform diving, which is the scariest experience in the sport, at the end of her freshman year. "I would like to know what makes people jump," she says. "A lot don't at first, you know. They stand there on the edge and finally walk away. Height is the big psychological thing that scares people off. When you hit the water after jumping off the tower, you're going about 40 miles an hour. Sometimes you hit with such force that your shoulders and upper arms turn black and blue. I was scared for three years."
In 1964 Micki became the first woman ever to do a back 1½ somersault with 2½ twists, a tower dive that has since become fairly common. The next year she won her first AAU indoor platform championship. In 1966 Micki pioneered another dive—the reverse 1½ somersault with 2½ twists off the springboard. She also joined the Air Force.
"I wanted something different from the ordinary," says Micki, sounding vaguely like a recruiting spiel. "The Air Force was a chance to have a career and continue diving at the same time. This was something I couldn't find in civilian life."
In November 1966 she was graduated from Officer Training School and commissioned a 2nd lieutenant. Her first assignment after OTS was with the ROTC detachment at Michigan, where she was stationed from 1966 to 1968. This was convenient as she was able to train for the Olympics with Kimball. Now Micki is based at the Los Angeles Air Force Station, where she is in charge of non-appropriated funds. It is an 8-to-5 job in which she oversees the spending of some $12,000 each quarter for athletic equipment and other material not accounted for in the base's budget. She dives on her own time, making the 46-mile round trip from Hermosa Beach ("Most of my neighbors think I'm a meter maid," she says) to the Belmont Plaza pool in Long Beach each evening after work.
"People are under the impression that all I do in the Air Force is dive or play in the damned gym," she says. "I get annoyed because I do have a responsible, full-time job. All I ask of the Air Force is that they give me time off to work out before international meets, which they do."
Micki was given an intangible but impressive reward after winning this year's AAU indoor title at West Point. The presentations were made by Colonel Frank J. Kobes Jr. and, after handing Micki her medal, he stepped back and snapped off a salute. "The great thing was that the cadets were there and they knew what it meant to be saluted by a superior officer," she says. "They went wild, but I was sort of embarrassed."
Micki has a knack for getting into embarrassing situations. Once, after coming to New York to do some public-relations work for the Air Force, she was asked by one of her hosts, a fellow officer, if she would like to have dinner and attend the theater. "I thought that would be great," says Micki, "but when I said yes, he said, 'Good, here's cab fare and there will be one ticket waiting for you at the box office.' Then he decided that wouldn't be very gallant so he and another officer began to argue over which would have to take me. I finally told them just to give me a plane ticket home and forget it."
Then there was the time Micki put on a diving exhibition at Grossinger's, in the Catskills, and kept losing the top of her suit. "Except," she says, "I wasn't worried because it was underwater and I had everything fixed by the time I came up to the surface. This happened on almost every dive but I didn't think anything about it until later, when I went into the game room and discovered that the pool had a big underwater window. All the time I had been putting on my suit and taking it off for those guys in the game room. A couple of them were playing Ping-Pong and I heard one say, 'Well, too bad that blonde stopped diving.' They laughed. I almost fainted."
Micki's present goal is to qualify for the '72 Olympics in both springboard and platform. That would give her two chances to win a gold medal. "I feel like I cheated myself in Mexico," she says. "That's the main reason I decided to come back. And, frankly, I believe I have an advantage over the kids because of my experience. Diving is not an endurance sport per se. It is a technique sport where the mechanics must be learned and overlearned. The only way to get consistency is through repetition, and the older you are the more repetition you have had. So I think an older person diving under the right conditions has an advantage."
In other words, kids, Mother Max isn't ready for the old divers' home quite yet.