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Obituaries

Velma Dunn Ploessel, 88; Olympic diving medalist, PE instructor

May 18, 2007|Claire Noland | Times Staff Writer

Velma Dunn Ploessel, a platform diver who won a silver medal at the 1936 Olympics and went on to teach physical education in the Los Angeles Unified School District for nearly 40 years, has died. She was 88.

Ploessel died May 8 at Presbyterian Intercommunity Hospital in Whittier after suffering a stroke the night before at her home in Downey, her daughter, Nancy Ploessel, said.

At 17, Ploessel (then known as Dunn) finished second in the 10-meter platform event at the Berlin Games -- better-known for the feats of African American track star Jesse Owens under the nose of German dictator Adolf Hitler. She was a mere three-tenths of a point behind teammate Dorothy Poynton Hill, who was competing in her third Olympics.

A few weeks later, the silver medalist enrolled at USC as a physical education major. She recalled those post-Olympic days in a 1988 interview with George A. Hodak for an Amateur Athletic Union oral history project.

"At the end of the first week at 'SC, the head of the department called me in, and she said that she hoped that I wasn't going to continue my competition, because it wasn't ladylike," Ploessel said. "That's the first time I had ever thought of diving as not being ladylike.... I didn't dive for two years."

But she still had her sights on the next Olympics. After earning a bachelor's degree in three years, she trained full time for the 1940 Games, but they were canceled after the start of World War II. She returned to USC for her master's and a teaching credential.

Still, her aquatic life was far from over, even though the 1944 Olympics would also be canceled. She began teaching physical education at Huntington Park High School, where she met her future husband, Howard Ploessel, an outstanding swimmer who managed the pool there and taught swimming.

They were married in 1943. During the war, her husband was stationed at Ft. MacArthur in San Pedro, where he taught fellow Army soldiers to swim. Velma Ploessel transferred to San Pedro High, where, in addition to her regular PE duties, she taught water ballet, synchronized swimming and lifesaving techniques. The Ploessels organized and staged water shows, sometimes featuring swimmers-turned-movie stars Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe, at Ft. MacArthur and other military bases in California and Arizona.

After taking a break from school to have children, Ploessel resumed teaching in 1953 at South Gate Junior High, where she remained until her retirement in 1980. Her husband died in 1968.

Velma Dunn was born Oct. 9, 1918, in Monrovia. Her mother, a schoolteacher, insisted she learn to swim at a young age. She took lessons at the Pasadena YWCA, then learned to dive at the Pasadena Athletic Club after deciding lap swimming was boring.

She got hooked on the sport after attending the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Because most high schools didn't have girls' teams back then, she began competing at Amateur Athletic Union meets with the L.A. Athletic Club. In 1935 she won the junior national championships in diving and the next year finished second in the Olympic tryouts.

Ploessel maintained her Olympic ties later in life, volunteering at the 1984 L.A. Games and participating in the torch relay before the 1996, 2000 and 2002 Games, the last of those at age 83. She had planned on traveling to Beijing for the Summer Olympics next year.

She passed down her love of teaching and water sports to her children. Daughter Nancy is a teacher at Gage Middle School in Huntington Park, and son Dennis is a water polo and swimming coach at Chapman University and a special education teacher in the Los Alamitos School District. They survive her, along with three grandsons, Eric, Jeremy and Bryan.

Services will be private.

claire.noland@latimes.com

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