By Dr. Ron O’Brien
Eight-Time Olympic Coach
The origin of fancy diving goes as far back as the 17th century in connection with the great gymnastic movement in Germany and Sweden. In the summertime, gymnasts moved their equipment to the beaches, and acrobatics over the water became a part of their activities. Diving, then, is more related to gymnastics than to swimming. However, since swimming and diving both use a water medium, they have naturally become linked.
Platform diving (33 feet high) achieved international notice in the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis when it was included as an event in the men’s swimming program. Springboard diving was added for the 1908 Games in London. Women’s diving was slower to evolve. It was not until 1912 that plain high diving was included in the Olympics, and in 1920, the first women’s springboard contest was conducted. Fancy high diving for women reached international acclaim in 1928.
Germany and Sweden dominated the early competition. It wasn’t until 1920 that the United States reached worldwide prominence in diving by winning three of the gold medals in the Olympics (men’s and women’s springboard and men’s platform events). It was the beginning of a victorious era for the diving in the United States, which has won 47 Olympic gold medals in diving.
Two men have been most important in the development of U.S. diving supremacy. Ernst Bransten, who is called the “father of diving in the United States,” came to this country from Sweden shortly before the 1920s.
Bransten brought with him a vast knowledge of the fundamentals of the sport, along with some revolutionary ideas for developing divers. Among his many contributions was the construction of a “sand pit”—a diving board mounted over sand. This apparatus allows the diver to practice many of the movement patterns of diving, especially the approach and takeoff, more efficiently.
But Mike Peppe, the swimming and diving coach at Ohio State University from 1931 to 1963, did more to promote and develop diving in this country than any other man. By maintaining a strong squad of divers on his collegiate swimming teams and treating diving and swimming with equal importance, Peppe encouraged other schools to emphasize diving in order to compete with his teams evenly.
Peppe’s influence on college programs has resulted in improved facilities for diving, increased practice time, greater respect for the sport, and the birth of a new type of coach—the diving coach. It’s for this reason that many refer to him as “the father of collegiate diving in the United States.”
Since 1904, Olympic diving has changed in leaps and bounds and continues to rapidly progress. The early days of 14 platform and 20 springboard dives have evolved into endless possibilities of twists and somersaults. While a double somersault from the platform was considered dangerous in 1904, today’s divers are completing flawless reverse four and a half somersaults with ease. Those who suggest that today’s diving performance has reached its peak need only look at the past. As new divers take to the springboards and platforms, new breakthroughs in diving often follow.