Diving History

Water is a natural playground. Where there is water, you'll likely find someone wading, playing, swimming, or diving into it. Plunging into water's depths from nature's platforms has been a source of fun and recreation for countless years.

Early evidence of this timeless activity is a late fifth-century depiction of a young diver at an ancient burial vault in Naples, Italy. Modern history of diving takes us back more than a hundred years to when people simply enjoyed jumping into the water, and dare devils challenged one another to their best and deepest plunges possible.

Plunging competitions began in Britain in 1883 to see who could dive the farthest and deepest. And in the years to come - the fanciest.

The spectacular dives that highlight the Summer Olympics Games began as a combination of gymnastics and plain old diving. Combine the graceful elements of gymnastics with all its flexibility, strength and courage with water, and you have a spectator sport that has drawn people to the summer Olympics since 1904.

There have been many changes over the history of diving. What was once considered too dangerous to be performed at the Olympics, is now routinely performed by the some of the youngest divers!

Let's have a look at the early roots of diving, the development of diving as a sport, and where diving is today.

From Plain Old Diving to.... Fancy That!

In the very early days in the history of diving there were just two kinds of dives: "plain" and "fancy". The plain headfirst dive, known today as a forward dive straight, was done from platforms or wooden planks.

Competitive divers started out performing basic head-first jumps off a platform, known as 'plain diving'. The most common plain dive was called the swan, or swallow dive, similar to today's 'forward dive straight'.

Diving went from simply plunging into the water from a platform, or diving head first, to what became commonly known as "fancy" diving. Performing difficult twists, turns and somersaults and landing in the water started out as a gymnastics training event. Nineteenth-century gymnasts in Sweden and Germany practiced their difficult moves by jumping off equipment and landing in the water. Some argue that the sport of diving is more gymnastics than swimming, but because it involves water it became coupled with swimming. But don't confuse divers with being swimmers - divers are a different breed.

Diving from the Olden to the Golden Years

In 1904, men's platform diving made its debut at the St. Louis Summer Olympics. Two countries competed for world's best diver - Germany and the US, and there were two events: diving off a 33-foot-high platform, and distance plunging.

American diver George Sheldon took the gold on the grounds that he performed his dives more cleanly and gracefully than his German rival, who carried out more difficult moves, but with less precision and grace. This created quite a stir, but in the end it set the standard for how the event would be judged: on its entry and performance of the dive, not on degree of difficulty.

In 1908 the springboard was added to the London Olympics games.

Women's diving was a little slower on the take off. New to the 1912 Summer Olympics was women's platform diving, but it didn't allow for any difficult twists and somersaults. But sure enough, in 1920, women's springboard diving was added. In 1928, women were allowed to perform fancy high dives.

That year, men's plain and fancy diving were combined into one event. Three Olympics gold medals in men's and women's springboard, and men's platform events put US diving on the world map, thus beginning a victorious age for American divers. The history of diving would witness much growth in the complexity of dives over the next 75 years. By 1956, diving competitions required five basic springboard dives, and women's diving enjoyed far fewer restrictions. In all, American divers have claimed 48 Olympics gold medals, and would dominate international diving events from 1920 until the 1980s, when China began to surprise the world.

The Chinese earned five of the eight Olympic gold medals awarded in the 2000 Summer Olympics Games. And in 2008, the Chinese won seven out of eight gold medals in the Beijing Olympics diving events.

The Diving Board

Fancy diving jumped from the platform to the springboard. The earliest springboards were not really springy at all; they were wooden planks covered with coconut matting for traction. Technological advancements to the diving board led to more flexible, bouncier boards, and the sport of diving evolved in its sheer variety and complexity.

Bouncier laminated diving boards were developed to allow athletes to jump higher and create more elaborate moves. This was the combined work of a pair of master diving instructors, Ernst Brandsten (dubbed "father of diving in the United States" by Stanford, University), and Fred Cady, longtime diving coach at the University of Southern California. Brandsten came up with the idea of the "sand pit", or a diving board mounted over sand which allowed divers to practice their takeoffs and techniques in the sand.

Laminated boards gave way to the aluminum "Buckboard", created by Norman Buck, which was used in the 1952-'56 Summer Olympics Games. In the 1940s, aircraft engineer Ray Rude developed a new kind of diving board by mounting an old aircraft wing panel over a friend's swimming pool. The new, "Duraflex" diving board became a favorite among divers in the 1950s as it allowed them to jump higher and develop more advanced moves. It eventually became the standard diving board of the Summer Olympics Games and at universities.

Legendary swimming and diving coach Mike Peppe pioneered successful methods for training competitive divers, which led to swim training programs having a separate diving coach. His contributions to the sport of diving is how he came to be known as the "father of collegiate diving in the United States." Herb Flewwellyn's creation of the "bubble machine" in the 1960s gave divers a safer landing zone by breaking the surface of the water with a massive bed of bubbles.

Technological advancements in training allowed the sport of diving to grow by leaps and bounds. Trampolines and harnesses, dry land boards, mats, and foam pits allowed divers to take their moves literally to new heights.

Diving - Today and Tomorrow

By the second millennium, diving as an international sporting event had grown to include 85 platform dives, more than 60 springboard dives, and four dive positions: straight, tuck, pike, and free.

Synchronized diving was added to the 2000 Summer Games.

World class diving owes its success to the support and availability of diving and training facilities around the globe. The United States has long supported diving at the youth and college level. Most high schools and colleges across the country have diving teams that train along with swim teams. If diving training isn't available at your high school, you might find it at a local recreational facility. Technology, top notch training facilities and support, and the understanding of the bio-mechanics of diving have made the art of plunging into the water the respected sport that it is today.

Diving has come a long way since jumping into the water from tall cliffs or makeshift wooden platforms. What was once a safe way to practice difficult gymnastics moves, is now one of the most popular Summer Olympics spectator's sport. Who can resist the aerial displays of grace, courage, flexibility and strength. Plunging into the water is still a cool way to spend a hot summer afternoon, and is enjoyed by young and old. Whether an international championship event, or just a fun activity for all ages, diving remains a timeless way to cool off, show off, or just have fun.

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