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One of World's Oldest Divers Still Wins Gold at Age 80 : Pico Rivera Man Has Roomful of Medals, Strives for More

October 08, 1987|DICK WAGNER | Times Staff Writer

Up on the three-meter diving board in the noon sun at Smith Park pool in Pico Rivera, Joe Mone prepared to spring backward on legs that looked as if they could not be trusted.

"I keep my balance pretty good," Mone said Monday before polishing the form that won three gold medals in August at the U.S. Masters National Diving Championships in Orlando, Fla.

He dived, entering with a slight splash, in the deep, blue water via a backward layout somersault.

"I don't look like an 80-year-old man, do I?" he said after he struggled to pull his 168-pound body onto the deck.

Mone, indeed 80 and one of the world's oldest divers, wore a brief black bathing suit, above which a ridge of muscles still protruded through skin that long ago lost its tight knit.

Water dripped from his white mustache. His remaining strands of gray hair were matted to his mottled scalp. The brightness pinched his eyes so that only their hazel irises, not their whites, could be seen.

Mone has dived for 67 years, overcoming war injuries and a fall from his daughter's roof in 1976 that shattered both legs. He refuses to give up the sport, despite what age sometimes tells him.

"Each year I tell everybody that I'm going to reach new goals, new horizons, but you still do the same old damn dives," he said. "The only difference is that as you get older you lose your sense of timing for harder dives and your muscles don't seem to work as well.

"Now, when I do a 1 1/2 and open up, I come out flat on my back. So I do more appropriate dives: front dive, back dive, back dive with half twist, front dive with half twist, back layout somersault."

His right arm shook. "A little bit of Parkinson's disease," he said. "It doesn't bother me."

Mone (pronounced Mo-nay), has had a colorful life in and out of the water. Born to a father from France and a mother from Bohemia, he learned to swim and dive in the bathhouses of Cleveland when he was 13.

After graduating from high school, he joined the circus as a vegetable boy. "I think I lost all my tear ducts from peeling and slicing a hundred pounds of onions for the roustabouts and performers," he said.

He joined the Army and was the armed services diving champion in 1926, '27 and '28.

He was a professional comedy diver, entertaining in clown costumes that he made from long underwear.

Hollywood used him as a stunt man.

"I dove 80 feet in 'Mutiny on the Bounty,' " said Mone, who also was one of the pirates tossed into the sea in the Errol Flynn movies "Seahawk" and "Captain Blood."

After an exploding shell claimed the top of one of his fingers in North Africa during World War II, Mone was put in charge of a swimming pool at Ft. Sill, Okla. He persuaded a commander to allow the Women's Army Corps to use the pool.

"I had my four lifeguards and myself inside the fence with 200 WACs," Mone recalled as excitedly as if it had happened yesterday. "It was great. You should have seen all the GIs outside the fence drooling."

Mone later returned to the war and suffered a severe back injury when an ammunition truck exploded during the invasion of France. After recovering, he was named coach of the Army diving team. The first meet was at Nuremberg, Germany, where the pool had a giant swastika on the bottom. Mone said Gen. George Patton ordered the pool drained and the swastika replaced with a Third Army insignia.

When the pool was refilled, Mone and his team entertained Patton.

"I had read an article in Stars and Stripes that Patton's helmet liner had 16 coats of lacquer on it," Mone said. "So when we made our entrance in the pool, I'm in a jailbird suit and I don't have a helmet on. My friend hollers, 'Bubbles, where's your helmet?' and right in front of Patton I say, 'It's in the paint shop getting 20 coats of lacquer.' You should have heard about 16,000 GIs roar with laughter. Patton came down and said, 'Thanks for the ribbing.' "

After the Army, Mone drove a truck for 25 years, hauling cars out of South Gate. "I drove 2 million miles and never had an accident," said Mone, who retired from that job in 1969 and became a cook for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

Mone has a strong love for food, closes each day with a "belt of liquor" and still likes being around women, although he has been married to his wife, Florence, for 44 years.

'Must Have Been 75'

"In Vegas a few years back I'm divin' on the board at the hotel pool and there's a redhead watching me," Mone said. "I says, 'Florence, see that redhead over there. She's gonna come over and ask me if I want a drink.' I dove and came up out of the pool. She's standing there and says, 'I hope you drink bourbon and water.' "

The redhead, Mone said with a laugh, "must have been 75."

Coming in from the pool Monday, Mone ran into his wife, who is not a diver.

"I don't even swim, but I run like hell," Florence said. She confirmed her husband's lady-killer reputation.

"Usually I can't get close to him with all the women hanging around him," Florence kidded.

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