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Lesson 1: A Legend Is True to His Word : Sports: Two coaches taught Sam Hernandez diving for free on one condition: that he do the same for someone else. And now, he is.

June 20, 1995|TRACY JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LOS ANGELES — He has trained with Greg Louganis, plunged from the treacherous seaside cliffs of Mexico and set a world high-diving record.

Sam Hernandez is the only American to twice win the World Class Diving Championships, at which he set a record of 156 feet in 1977 and broke it with a 158-foot dive--a record he still holds--two years later. He also placed first in the Acapulco World Cliff Diving Championships.

But even before he accomplished all this, Hernandez, 51, made a promise to teach diving to children whose families could not pay for lessons.

He has kept his word.

These days, the Legend, as he is known to many, paces alongside the pool at the Rose Bowl Aquatic Center in Pasadena. First-timers in the Teach a School to Swim program there bounce on the three-meter board as he walks the plank, shouting instructions on form and clapping for each pupil who makes the plunge. Hernandez repeats this routine throughout Los Angeles, at diving clinics and as coach of the Rose Bowl's amateur diving team and the varsity diving team at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, his alma mater.

The Los Angeles City Council recently honored Hernandez with a certificate of recognition for sharing his expertise with youths throughout the city.

"It's very rewarding for me to help these kids," says Hernandez, who usually works for free. "Through diving, they learn to reach goals and to challenge themselves. It's wonderful to see a kid accomplish something like that."

As a boy, he would go to the pool at Belvedere Park in East Los Angeles with his mother, who loved to dive. He was 4 when she threw him off the board the first time. Because there was no money for lessons, Hernandez learned to dive on his own, by watching others and attending city-sponsored diving clinics.

When Hernandez was 16, coaches Dr. Sammy Lee and Jack Roth spotted him at a pool in Commerce, where they were training the 1964 U.S. Olympic diving team. Hernandez initially declined their offer to coach him because he couldn't afford the $25 monthly fee.

But the coaches made him a deal: "They said they would take me on for free," Hernandez says, "as long as I promised to do the same for someone else one day."

Now, Hernandez shares his life story in hopes of inspiring a new generation of kids.

"I hear a lot of, 'But I can't,' " he says. "I tell them I was a poor kid and I did it, and they can, too."

He retired from professional diving in 1980. He couldn't justify spending $25,000 to train, he says, when first-place awards paid only $10,000.

He went to work as an aquatic-systems salesman and eventually started his own company, Flo Systems. These days, he divides his time among his company, coaching and his work as chairman of the Los Angeles-based Hispanic Youth and Sports Project, which supports and showcases Latino athletes to help them gain exposure and sponsorship.

The Rose Bowl pool is just six miles from Hernandez's home in Monterey Hills, where he lives with his wife and two children. And it's his second home six days a week. He spends his mornings teaching kids from Ventura to Pasadena the basics of diving and his afternoons coaching promising amateurs.

Somewhere in between, he tries to squeeze in his own 45-minute workout of diving and swimming.

On a recent afternoon, Hernandez takes fourth-graders from Linda Vista Elementary School up to the high dive. He gives instructions, in Spanish and English, on posture and tells the kids to keep their legs straight. He cringes when a dive turns into a belly-flop. While most of the students eagerly await their turn, Hernandez winds up lowering the nervous ones into the water. He's been known to put on a suit and dive in with those too scared to go on their own.

"He helps the kids accomplish things that they don't feel like they can do," says Sheri Stoddard, who oversees the center's aquatics program, which gives away 18,000 swimming and diving lessons each year. "One minute they don't think they can swim to the other side of the pool, the next they're up on the diving boards."

Advanced divers seem as at ease with Hernandez as the novices do. Emily Jackson, 12, has been working with Hernandez for a year and is now among the best divers of her age in the state.

"He's really great," Emily says. "He doesn't force me to do any dives; he walks me through them until I'm comfortable. He's really helped me gain confidence in my diving."

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