Taking a Dive 

A swan (dive) song on the disappearance of spring boards.

When I moved last year, I was told the pool at my new building, out of all those in Midtown, had the last diving board. The diving board wasn't anything special: white, five feet long, maybe a foot off the ground. At the time, I didn't think too much about it (too cold), but in the back of my mind, I was excited. How long had it been since I'd gone off a diving board? How long had it been since I'd even seen one?

When I was younger, kids at my neighborhood pool were allowed to swim in the deep end only after swimming an especially harrowing length. There was no stopping allowed, no grabbing hold of the sides. But as soon as we thought we could make it, we'd march over to the lifeguard's chair and tell her we were ready.

The shallow end was a simple world of bright-orange water wings, wobbly handstands, and lounging mothers who did not want to be splashed. Babies swam in the shallow end. The deep end was where all the fun was: playing sharks and minnows, doing flips under the water, and --most importantly -- going off the diving board.

We did splash-contest cannonballs and sleek jackknives, butt bumpers, cartwheels, and, more often than you would think, funny walks where we'd pretend to fall into the pool.

Then there were the big boys: the front flips, the back dives.

I never quite got the hang of the back dive. I remember one evening when my father and sister tried to teach me off the side of the pool. The trick is to form a triangle with your hands in front of you, then watch the triangle as you throw your arms over your head. Chicken that I was, though, mine always went off to the right, resulting more in a side dive than a back one.

Those days are long gone. Diving boards at municipal pools, hotels, apartment complexes, and even private homes have almost all disappeared, probably banished to the land of drive-in movies and skating rinks.

The city's new $2.5 million Ed Rice Aquatic Center opened this month with six lap lanes and zero-depth entry (which means the pool can be walked or waded into) but no diving board. Of the city's 16 pools, Bickford, Westwood, Douglass, Willow, and Gooch Community Centers have spring boards.

"When we do renovations at the pools, we clean up the deck and redo the concrete," says David Han, the city's aquatics manager. "We do not put the diving board back in." He says he could name about 100 swim coaches in the area but not a single diving coach.

"The new pool goes from zero depth to five feet. So, for this reason, we don't have a board. We need a minimum depth of 12 feet for a board," says Han. In recent years, insurance companies have put more stringent regulations in place regarding how deep a pool has to be to have a board. The cost of liability insurance has also gone up, meaning that even if the pool is deep enough for a board, the owner's pockets usually aren't.

It's too bad, really. This year marks diving's 100th anniversary as an Olympic sport. But how can young athletes be exposed to the sport if all the boards are gone? I'm not saying diving boards aren't dangerous -- the only thing holding back my back dive was the fear of cracking my head open -- but anything can be dangerous if used improperly.

As part renter of the last diving board in Midtown, I thought it might make a good story for our annual summer issue: diving board as endangered species. The day my editor said yes, I went home to cruel irony: The board had been removed, leaving four holes where it had stood.

I saw the apartment manager a few days later and asked if the board was gone for good. (I was hoping that it just needed repairs and was "in the shop.") She said yes, that an insurance agent had inspected the building and said in no uncertain terms that the board had to go.

Is the diving board gone for good? It certainly looks that way, and there are so few simple pleasures in life already.

Some years after I told the lifeguard I was ready for the deep end, I sat in my own lifeguard chair at an Olympic-size pool. The diving well was 14 feet deep and included two boards, one 10 feet off the ground. It was here I learned how to do a swan dive.

I'm not saying it was a good one, but there's something amazing about the swan dive. One moment you are solidly on your feet and the next you are flying, back arched, arms outstretched, airborne. Then, just as suddenly, you are slicing through the water. To get to experience three states of matter -- earth, air, water -- so quickly was incredible.

I'm not sure when I'll get to feel that way again.

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