Off the Beam and into the Pool

April 06, 1992
April 06, 1992

Table of Contents
April 6, 1992

Figure Skating
Baseball 1992
Point After

Off the Beam and into the Pool

Olympic gymnast Phoebe Mills is on her way to becoming an Olympic diver

The Elfin university of Miami diver who led the women's platform event at the All-American Diving Invitational in Austin, Texas, on Jan. 11 was living up to her reputation as a nerveless, highly focused competitor. Before each of her dives she stood on the landing below the 10-meter tower, breathing deeply and visualizing her performance, unmindful of the competitor taking off above her.

This is an article from the April 6, 1992 issue

Then she climbed the last few steps, walked to her starting position at the edge of the platform and stood motionless for an instant before springing off and slicing into the water. After each dive she surfaced to more applause and ever higher scores, yet her friendly but somewhat distracted expression changed little. In between dives, to kill time, she read a book.

What made the scene remarkable was that this wasn't a veteran diver; it was Miami freshman Phoebe Mills, appearing in her first big collegiate meet. Most of the other divers knew about her, but not from diving. They had last seen Mills nearly four years ago in a gymnast's leotard, appearing live on television from the Seoul Olympics, at which she won a bronze medal on the balance beam.

But by the next-to-last day of diving at the All-American, her new rivals were used to seeing her in a swimsuit, too. Competing against many of the country's top women platform divers, Mills, 19, 5'1" and 100 pounds, missed nary a dive and eventually finished third in a field of 43, beaten only by 1988 Olympic bronze medalist Wendy Lian Williams and two-time defending NCAA platform champion Courtney Nelson.

This achievement came only a year and a half after Mills tried her first dive off the platform. "Our little Phoebe is learning in a hurry," says her coach at Miami, Randy Ableman, one of many who believe Mills stands a good chance of being the first U.S. Olympic gymnast to become an Olympic diver. Divers and coaches who have been watching Mills have talked about the 1996 Games for some time, but Ableman isn't putting anything past her. "I should knock on wood," he said at the All-American, "but if everything keeps going the way it's been going, she'll be close to making the Olympic trials this year. If you'd asked me even a week or 10 days ago, I would've had a different answer."

Mills's first step toward the trials will be the Phillips 66 Zone A championships this week in Rockville, Md. The top four men and women finishers in each of three diving events will advance to the Phillips 66 Nationals in two weeks in Ann Arbor, Mich., and the top 12 in platform and three-meter springboard there will qualify for the Olympic trials June 17-21 in Indianapolis. "If Phoebe dives at the level she's capable of, she should make it to the trials," says six-time Olympic coach Ron O'Brien, who introduced Mills to the platform two summers ago at his diving camp in Boca Raton, Fla. "The women who've been at the nationals before will have an advantage," says O'Brien. "But Phoebe's been around high-level competition for so long that there isn't much that's going to affect her mentally." Only two women platform divers will qualify for the Olympic team, and while no one realistically expects Mills to be one of them, diving fans can't help thinking ahead to the Atlanta Olympics four years later.

"Right now I'm just having fun and learning a lot, and I want to see how good a diver I can be," says Mills, who is characteristically low-key about her progress. "I'm not thinking about what people might expect."

Given her fierce determination, forged during six years of training under the flamboyant Romanian gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi, Mills's own expectations will probably be sufficiently demanding. And the friendly competition among her siblings certainly won't dull her edge. The Mills kids, encouraged by their parents, Chris and Susan (SI, June 22, 1987), are a prodigiously talented brood. Two weeks before the All-American, while Phoebe was at home in Evanston, Ill., for Christmas break, she spent a weekend at the Olympic speed skating trials in Milwaukee watching her 21-year-old brother, Nathaniel, qualify for the U.S. team in the 1,500 meters. Her sister Hilary, 20, barely missed making the women's team. While Phoebe was diving in Texas, her younger sister, Jessica, 17, was competing in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Orlando. Chris and Susan were with Jessica, so they missed the All-American. "I'm sure we'll get to see Phoebe dive a lot," says Susan.

Of course, that's not the way things were planned. Both parents fondly remember sitting quietly with their daughter and Karolyi in the Seoul gymnastics arena after Mills's medal-winning performance, sharing her triumph and talking about her future. "Bela said that now that I'd made it through one Olympics, in the next one I could go for broke and really do well," Mills recalls. She returned to Karolyi's gym outside Houston, her second home since the age of 10, and resumed her training. But the grind of workouts was now compounded by exhibitions, interviews and commercial shoots, and the stress gradually wore Mills down. In the spring of 1989, she began to grow tired and weak with annoying frequency; sometimes she was too fatigued to finish her routines. When the symptoms dragged on into the summer, Mills went to several doctors and was found to have the Epstein-Barr virus, which causes mononucleosis.

Mills went home to Evanston, where she enrolled in summer school. For the first time in years she had no training schedule. She found she liked being a normal teenager, and in the time away from the gym she gained a new appreciation of what she had been missing—and of what she had accomplished. A bronze medal was more than enough to show for the years she had devoted to gymnastics; it was time to move on.

With a promise from Karolyi that she would be welcomed back if she changed her mind, Mills started her junior year at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., a year after the Olympics. To keep busy, she decided to sign up for a fall sport and chose diving. "She had fooled around with it a little when she was eight or nine," recalls Susan. "Actually, I've always thought that if she'd taken up diving first, she might've been even better at diving than she was at gymnastics. Her best qualities as a gymnast—beauty and grace—transfer well to diving." Oddly enough, so does her worst. "For a gymnast, I was considered inflexible," Mills says. "I never had a very archy back." In the gym she always had to do extra stretching work, but her straight back is a diving coach's dream.

At New Trier, diving on the one-meter springboard, she made the transition from gymnastics somersaults—singles and doubles with feetfirst landings—to 1½'s with headfirst water entries. She learned to "spot" the board or the water to gauge her position in the air instead of flipping and twisting by feel. The summer after her junior year, a friend talked Mills into spending two weeks at the camp run by O'Brien and his son, Tim, at the Mission Bay Aquatic Center in Boca Raton.

Mills took to the tower almost immediately, which, in one respect, wasn't a surprise. Unlike flexing springboards—on which techniques that are foreign to gymnasts, like "pressing" and "riding," are employed—the platform doesn't move. Success depends more on strength and momentum, much as it does in the vault and floor exercises in gymnastics. Then again, those events don't require plummeting from 33 feet up. Three years earlier, the Mills family visited the Woodlands (Texas) Athletic Center, and all the older kids except Phoebe jumped off the facility's platform. "I remember her saying something like, 'You'll never catch me up there,' " says Chris, an assistant vice-president of the Chicago and North Western Transportation Company.

Phoebe ended up spending most of the summer and her entire senior year training with Tim O'Brien. He introduced her to Ableman, who had been watching her dive in local meets.

Ableman, 32, a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team who is in his third year at Miami, is relaxed and jovial, and the decided departure from Karolyi's coaching style is fine with Mills. "Randy makes it fun for me," she says. With one of the top collegiate teams in the country, Ableman can afford to take a lighter approach.

On the platform at the All-American, Mills displayed her usual focused concentration. Each time she climbed the tower, increasing numbers of the other athletes and coaches lining the sides of the diving pool began watching. When she hit her fifth straight dive, an armstand double somersault, for scores of 7½'s and 8's, Louisiana State coach Mike Lyden turned from his judge's chair and shot Ableman a look of admiring astonishment. When she nailed her sixth, an inward 2½, for 7½'s, Ableman muttered, "I should give her the Bela Karolyi hug." Instead he gleefully patted her shoulder as they huddled for a review of the dive. Then, as she had after every dive, Mills headed for the sparsely populated end of the pool, where she toweled off, put on a green Miami robe, sat down under a heat lamp and picked up where she had left off in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.

PHOTOBRIAN SMITH/OUTLINEMost Mills watchers think she'll be a diving force at the '96 Olympics.PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHMills's rigid back, a diving asset, hindered her as a gymnast.

Jim Harmon, a free-lancer, has written a number of stories for Sports Illustrated.