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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | LOOKING AHEAD
/ WOMEN'S SPRINGBOARD DIVING * 2 A.M. PDT WEDNESDAY;
TV: WEDNESDAY, 7 P.M. - MIDNIGHT, CHANNEL 4

McCormick Was as Gold as It Gets; Now It's Fu's Turn

September 24, 2000|BILL DWYRE | TIMES SPORTS EDITOR

SYDNEY, Australia — The most famous, most successful women's diver in the history of the Olympics will find a nice, comfortable spot on her couch in Seal Beach Thursday night and hope that NBC shows something very close to her heart.

It will be the pursuit of Pat McCormick's Olympic record, something that has stood since the moment she hit the water in late November 1956, in Melbourne. When she hit her final forward 2 1/2 off the platform perfectly that day, in as dramatic a diving competition as there has been in the Games, it brought the woman from the poor side of the tracks a fourth gold medal, an achievement yet to be topped in her sport.

Or even equaled.

That was expected to change in Sydney, when China's Fu Mingxia, with gold medals to her credit in platform and springboard in Atlanta and platform in Barcelona, entered two events here. With victories in the springboard, plus one of the new events this year, the synchronized springboard, Fu would have five gold medals in diving.

But Saturday, Fu's first attempt fell just short when she and teammate Guo Jingjing finished with a silver medal in the synchronized event. That leaves her springboard competition Wednesday as an attempt to tie, meaning McCormick has at least four more years on top, even if it ends up that she has to move over a bit to share the platform.

For McCormick, reached at home Friday night, Fu's record attempt will just be another part of Olympic drama that has become so special for her.

"I'll definitely be watching," she said. "As a matter of fact, when you called, I was sitting here watching some equestrian and crying away. The horses are so beautiful."

McCormick, 70, said that it is flattering to still be considered a prominent Olympian because of her record, but also that she has accepted that her records are there for somebody else to break.

"I'd like her to win Wednesday," McCormick said. "I admire her and I know how hard she has worked. When I was doing it, it was pretty much all I focused on for 15 years of my life."

Just because 44 years have passed since she made her last Olympic trip up the diving ladder, McCormick still remembers the work and sacrifice it takes.

She got her start as a ragamuffin from Seal Beach, who was raised mostly by her mother, when her alcoholic father did not provide support, and somehow found her way to the Los Angeles Athletic Club, where the two greatest swimmers in the world just happened to be training.

"I don't know why, but I just loved to swim," she said. "My mother used to read tea leaves so she could get me a dollar to take the old Red Line trolley car to meets and downtown to the athletic club.

"I remember riding that trolley and being so hungry I could cry, but not having any money for food. I remember, when I was in little meets, my brother used to go along and give pennies to some of the kids in the stands to clap for me."

One day, after being just one of the kids swimming and fooling around with diving at the L.A. Athletic Club, McCormick was stopped by a coach named Eileen Allen and asked to join a group on the sixth floor.

"I went up there, and there were Sammy Lee and Vicki Draves," McCormick said. "I didn't even know the Olympics existed."

Nor did she know that each of her soon-to-be newest friends had won gold medals in the London Olympics in 1948. Draves had become the first woman to win two golds in Olympic diving, a record that would stand until McCormick broke it.

Once McCormick got to know Lee and Draves and what they had done, she was hooked.

"That's all I thought about, all I wanted to do," she said. "I didn't think about winning at an Olympics. I just wanted to go."

Once she went, she won. In Helsinki in 1952, as a wide-eyed newcomer, she took both the platform and springboard golds.

"That first Olympics, just going, is like your first kiss," she said. "I was so young. I remember Sammy Lee sitting around the deck with me, and guys like Bob Mathias and even Jesse Owens would come by and sit around.

"I really didn't understand what was going on, but it was right after the Russians [Soviet Union] got good, and we were neck and neck with them in the medals race. So Sammy and the guys would talk to me and calm me down and tell me, 'Don't worry, Patsy, you'll do fine.' I was so naive, I had no idea what was going on."

Her second Olympics, 1956 in Melbourne, was not as easy.

McCormick was 26, had gotten married, trained right through a pregnancy and headed for Melbourne eight months after the birth of her son, Timmy. She remembers those Games fondly, calling them "the last innocent Games," and remembering how the athletes from each country had their separate kitchens in the village.

"One night, we'd eat with the Mexicans, the next they'd come and eat with us," she said. "We'd go out every night and dance and we thought that nobody knew us, but it really was the Australians, just leaving us alone. It was so nice."

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