Sweden and Germany were the early pioneers of diving and produced all but one of the Olympic champions before the First World War. The exception was George Sheldon (USA), the very first Olympic diving champion in 1904. It was not until 1920 that the United States celebrated another Olympic diving gold medallist but from then on it was USA all the way for decades on end. After Richmond Eve (AUS) won the last plain highboard event in 1924 every single Olympic diving title fell to the Americans until Joaquin Capilla (MEX) won the platform in 1956. The genesis of that long era of USA supremacy can be traced back to Sweden.Ernst Brandsten (pp 77 and 92), who finished seventh – and sixth among Swedes – in plain high diving at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, emigrated to California and coached a dynasty of champions of the stamp of Clarence Pinkston, Al White and Pete Desjardins. Brandsten inherited the traditions of Sweden’s diving pioneers and introduced revolutionary ideas of his own, achieving such success in more than 30 years at his base at Stanford University that they called him “the father of diving in the United States”. Working with fellow coach Fred Cady (p92), he introduced a more flexible laminated board with a movable fulcrum, which gave higher bounce and enabled his charges to execute more difficult dives. Cady, who enjoyed comparable success in southern California for 33 years, coached Olympic diving champions Harold Smith, Michael Galitzen (Mickey Riley), Georgia Coleman and Marjorie Gestring, as well as swimming gold medallist Buster Crabbe.
Brandsten’s laminated board gave way to aluminium, notably Norman Buck’s “Buckboard” which was used at the 1952 and 1956 Olympics. Then came the “Duraflex”, designed and developed by another American, Ray Rude, which provided still greater flexibility and enabled divers to perform additional twists, somersaults and rotations. Rude, an aircraft engineer, made his first board from a rejected aircraft wing panel and developed it in the 1950s. Among those who tested it was Gary Tobian, who gave advice on its development and won the 1960 Olympic springboard title on the “Duraflex” board. With the addition of the “Maxiflex” a decade on and then the “Maxiflex Model-B” (nicknamed “The Cheeseboard”), Rude’s boards have continued to hold sway.
From the poolside, Lyle Draves, Dick Kimball and Ron O’Brien maintained USA dominance after the Second World War. Draves coached his wife Vicki Manalo Draves, Pat McCormick and Sue Gossick to Olympic gold. Kimball coached Olympic champions Bob Webster, Micki King and Phil Boggs as well as his own son Bruce, Olympic platform silver medallist in 1984, while O’Brien’s greatest champion was Greg Louganis, whose early career was guided by fellow Olympic champion Sammy Lee.
China superseded the United States as top diving nation and in the 1980s Louganis was the only one to beat them consistently. Dmitry Sautin (RUS) took over as chief male challenger in the 1990s and Alexandre Despatie (CAN) joined him at the turn of the century. Among the women, the main challenge came from Russia and Australia, the latter themselves trained by Chinese coaches. Otherwise, China has exerted a hegemony comparable only to that of the US in their heyday. Leading architect of that success was Xu Yiming. From 1984 to 2000, when Xu stepped down after the Sydney Games, China’s Olympic diving medal haul was 14 gold, 11 silver and 4 bronze. The World Championship count was 13 gold, 16 silver and 7 bronze.