Off the Deep End

How falling off a diving board changed my life

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
~ John F. Kennedy


They say everything we do boils down to three basic motivations: power, fame and fun. We do things to make money, gain recognition and for enjoyment. For me, high school athletics was all about fame. Sure, I enjoyed playing football and basketball during PE. But being on the team meant cheering crowds, wearing a uniform, earning a letter, and being a star.

But stardom eluded me. I can’t remember more than a couple of instances where I caught a fly ball or won a race and people clapped.

In 1971, I was in my first year of college at the University of Portland, a sedate little university on a beautiful bluff overlooking the Willamette river. UP was not was a top-tier athletics school. The Pilots had a decent basketball team, but that’s about it. So, when I looked into joining the swim team, it looked like something I could do.

Especially when I discovered that they had no springboard divers.

I dove one-meter board in high school and didn’t care much for competitive swimming.

Swimmers spend hour after hour paddling up and back, up and back over and over and over again. Then they go home with their eyes blurry and skin itchy from the chlorine. Not for me.

            Swimming is a sport, but diving is art. I loved diving for the right reasons. It’s beautiful and sensual. I used to dream about diving. It combines flying with swimming, both performed virtually naked. Freud had something to say about that…

            The promise of glory raised its seductive glance and beckoned me thither. I saw a chance to win an easy letter for my look-at-me letterman’s jacket. A sentence on my résumé about participating in collegiate athletics would add a nice touch.

            None of my teammates were exceptional athletes. The pool length at 20 meters wasn’t even big enough. But the coach – though he had never been an athlete himself – had enough enthusiasm to make up for it. He was the Charlie Brown of competitive swimming.

            I joined up.


            I don’t know how he did it, but the coach got us into the Pacific Coast Invitational swim meet, competing against athletes from UCLA, University of Oregon, University of Washington and other powerhouse schools. The coach, all smiles, said he didn’t expect us to win anything. That wasn’t the point. It was to participate and to show everyone our courage.

            No one could deny that signing up to come in last for virtually every event took courage.

            We would not be taken seriously, and any applause would be of the kind parents give to toddlers for learning to poop in the toilet. But I did my part and came in last in the 400-meter freestyle. One of our teammates showered us with glory when he placed 7th in some race in which there were only seven entries.

But I also signed up for the one-meter diving event. Why not?

            By some miracle, I managed to place 3rd. I think the other teams were just letting their last-string divers get some experience while the first stringers – light years beyond my ability – dove exhibition.

            I settled back on the bench, smug in the knowledge that I would come away with a bronze medal for competing in what was, after all, a real collegiate swim meet. My only race was finished and forgotten, overshadowed by my surprising upset on the low board over the Big Boys.

The High Dive

            Then the coach came over. All smiles. He congratulated me on my “victory” and how much it meant to the team and to him personally. I had acquitted myself well in the arena and for the alma mater. Go Pilots! Then he asked whether I had signed up to compete in the 3-meter diving. I hadn’t, I told him. I had never competed in the high dive before, even in high school. The one-meter was all I intended to do.

            “Could you dive 3-meter if you had to?” he asked.

            “Yeah. I suppose if my life depended on it, I could,” I answered. I shouldn’t have said that.

            “You know, it would mean so much to the guys if you entered the high dive as well,” he said.

            “But coach…” I stammered out a string of reasons why diving 3-meter would be a bad idea. I would just embarrass myself and, by implication, the school. I might hurt myself. I wasn’t prepared…

            “I know. No one will blame you if you don’t step up,” he said. “You’ve already done more than anyone could ask.” He paused. “I just don’t want anyone to think we’re quitters.”

All smiles.

He stared at me in expectant silence until I said the only thing I could say under those circumstances. “Okay. I’ll enter the high dive.”

If that decision terrified me, what happened next advanced to deer-in-the-headlights paralysis. As I signed up for the event – which would be the last event of the meet – I was informed that the required dive was a …

…back dive!

The high dive is ten feet up, but a hundred feet down. Or at least that’s how it looks from up there through the clouds. For my first dive – and possibly last one of my life – I would have to teeter on the end of the springboard, jump up into the stratosphere, tilt blindly backward, fall, and hope to enter the water at something approaching the vertical. It hurts to hit the water wrong from one meter. But hitting the water wrong from way up there can knock you unconscious and dislocate joints.

After that, I just filled in a series of easy one-meter dives in all categories. Front 1 ½ somersault, pike position. Front dive layout with a half twist. Back somersault, layout. Reverse somersault, tuck position. Inward dive, pike position. No, wait – layout. What the hell. I’m going to be dead after the first dive anyway. I had never attempted any of these dives off the high board in my life.

The next hour and a half crept by. I shivered on the bench, and not from cold. One of the guys sidled up and asked, “Coach says you’re going to do the high dive. Is that true?”

“Yeah,” I peeped.

“Have you ever dove high dive before?”


He stared at me for a moment, open mouthed, then said, “Gawd! Talk about brass balls!”

That little shot of admiration perked me up just a bit.

Finally, the moment for the last event arrived. They save the high dive for last because it is the most spectacular event. (Actually, it’s the only event in a sport that consists of crawling through water that can be remotely described as “spectacular.”) I think they do that in part to encourage as many people as possible to stay for the entire meet.

This event promised to be not only spectacular, but humorous and death-defying all at once. There would be a dozen or more skilled divers wowing the crowd interspersed with the University of Portland version of an aquatic rodeo clown for comic relief. I briefly wondered where to pick up my red nose, flappy shoes and honky horn.

They pulled aside the lane dividers. Crowds of spectators lined the bleachers. A hush descended as the announcer proclaimed the final event over the PA system.

“Ladies and Gentlemen! We are ready for the final event, the men’s 3-meter springboard diving. Diving for UCLA, Jose Rodriguez. Diving for the University of Portland, Lloyd Sparks.”

Then silence.

I waited, breathless, for him to call out the names of the other divers.

“Required dive – back dive. First diver: Jose Rodriguez.”

That was it. No more divers. Only the two of us had entered the high dive. If I could just manage to fall off the board six times, I’d take 2nd Place! I couldn’t believe my luck!

I don’t know why no one else had entered. Perhaps they all figured there was no point. It wouldn’t change the team standings. Perhaps some of them chickened out. Perhaps they all just wanted to go home and said the hell with it.

But I got up on the board and did my best, performing all six dives without killing myself, and took second place. My score wasn’t even that far behind Jose’s either and I found myself thinking that if I had just tried a few harder dives, I might have won the gold.

Ever since that day, I’ve never hesitated to try for something I wanted just because I thought I would probably fail. I even look back on my failures with pride, knowing the courage it took just to try.

The Takeaway

I’ve come to the conviction that the only way to build true confidence is through accomplishment. All the positive self-talk won’t substitute for knowing in your heart that you had the courage to risk failure and try something hard. Even when you fail, you come away with the knowledge that at least you had the courage to try when others didn’t.

Conquering fear is one of the best things you can do for yourself.

Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure... than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.

~ Theodore Roosevelt