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Olympic Champ Pat McCormick Still Up To Her Old Tricks

By Karen Rosen | Oct. 15, 2012, 6 p.m. (ET)

 Pat McCormick
Pat McCormick competing in 1952

Legendary Olympic diver Pat McCormick had the willpower and talent to win four gold medals at the 1952 and 1956 Olympic Games, but few people know she also had the nerve to be part of a fifth flag-raising ceremony.

That one involved Avery Brundage’s underwear.

Brundage, who at the time was the U.S. Olympic Committee president, was aloof and not particularly popular with McCormick and some of her fellow athletes in Helsinki.

“There were four of us,” McCormick said, “and we decided we were going to put his underwear up a flagpole.”

For someone unafraid of diving off a 10-meter platform, sneaking into Brundage’s room was no problem. McCormick, the ringleader, did tell a USOC official of the plan, enlisting him to stand guard at the door.

“I ran out and we got in line,” McCormick said. “We had gotten all dressed up and we marched out and took our hats off.

“I raised the ‘flag.’ Everybody stopped and thought, ‘Isn’t that sweet?’ — until they looked up. And we got the heck out of there.”

McCormick, now 82, is better known for her exploits at the pool. She was the first person — and still the only woman — to accomplish the diving double-double. McCormick won the 3-meter springboard and 10-meter platform events in Helsinki and repeated four years later in Melbourne just eight months after giving birth to her son, Tim.

McCormick’s daughter, Kelly, born in 1960, went on to earn the Olympic silver medal in 1984 and the bronze in 1988 in springboard diving — the same Games where U.S. diver Greg Louganis equaled her mother’s feat.

 Pat McCormick
 Pat McCormick in 1948

The McCormicks are the only American mother and daughter to have both won Olympic medals. After Seoul, Kelly insisted they get tattoos of the Olympic rings. Pat’s is next to her ankle. “For a while, I was very sensitive about it and I put a Band-Aid over it,” she said.

Now she lets the tattoo show, but if someone asks, “Is that the Olympic symbol?” McCormick will say, “I think so.” If they ask, “Do you know somebody?” she’ll reply, “Sort of.”

“If I said I was in the Olympics, we’d be there an hour.”

However, McCormick is eager to share her story with groups such as the Olympin Collectors Club, where she appeared recently in Atlanta, and with the 10,000 children who are served by the Pat McCormick Educational Foundation.

Her program called “Pat’s Champs” encourages children to stay in school, set goals and chase their dreams.

“So little does so much,” said McCormick, whom the kids call “Miss Pat.” “When they go out of the room, they all hug me.”

McCormick lives in Seal Beach, Calif., near where she grew up as a little daredevil. At age 10 or 12, she would do cannonballs off a bridge. “We loved to jump just before the boat passed under the bridge and we’d just splash them,” she said.

“They’d get complaints about this little girl. The head lifeguard said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll take care of her.’ He called me in and he’d say, ‘You’re off the beach for a week,’ and that’s the worst thing in the world.

“They called me Patsy Pest.”

McCormick also hung out on the Santa Monica and Venice beaches, including Muscle Beach. She was very strong for her age and has a picture of herself lifting two guys on her back.

 Pat McCormick
(L-R) Paula Myers, Pat McCormick and Juno Irwin at Helsinki 1952 Olympics

Although she loved to compete, McCormick thought swimming was boring.

An official of the Los Angeles Athletic Club saw her springing on a diving board when she was 13 or 14 and invited her for a tryout with the team.

McCormick took the trolley and arrived barefoot, “not because I don’t have shoes. I just didn’t think about it.” She couldn’t go in the front door and had to come in via the back elevator, but as soon as she saw divers Sammy Lee and Vicki Draves, she knew what she wanted to do.

The story goes that McCormick performed dives that men were afraid to try. “I loved twisters and I was the first woman to do a lot of dives -- double twisters and 2 1/2s,” she said. “I did the limit we could do. In ’52, I couldn’t use a double twister because the rest of the nations couldn’t do it.”

Terrified at first of the 10-meter platform, McCormick said she split her suit open and was bruised. “But when you’re with your fellow divers, I don’t know if that gives you the strength to not chicken out.”

In 1948, McCormick missed Olympic team by .01 of a point. “We’ve all been there,” she said. “People forget that you’ve got to start at the bottom, and I really started at the bottom. I remember sitting in the showers and crying, ‘Gee whiz, that was just one little foot maybe.’ And then all of a sudden I thought, ‘Wait a minute, the people that are going over really deserve it.’”

McCormick was determined to win two gold medals, and then she remembers getting a big smile on her face and thinking, “Why don’t you do something nobody else can do?’ ”

Even though the United States was then the dominant country in diving, McCormick said it was “ridiculous at that time for a woman to have a dream like that. I couldn’t tell anybody.”

The next day she got up and went to work – six days a week, 100 dives a day.

About six weeks before the Olympic Trials, McCormick agreed to do an exhibition at Edwards Air Force Base, Instead of a 17-foot-deep pool like she was used to, this one had only 9 feet of water.

 Pat McCormick
Pat McCormick competing in 1952

“Crash, I hit the bottom; 50 stitches,” McCormick said. “I thought, ‘Oh shoot, that’s a bloody mess.’”

The doctor told her there was no way she would make the Olympic Games. “I said, ‘Sir, is there anything structurally wrong with my head?’ He kind of looked at me and said, ‘No,’ and had this little smile and he said, ‘I’ve never seen such a hard head.’”

When McCormick won her first Olympic gold medal, the 3-meter springboard in Helsinki, she said, “It’s like your first kiss. That’s the only way I can describe it.”

With the Soviet Union returning to Olympic competition in 1952, the United States was battling to stay atop the medal count. After McCormick won the 10-meter platform, her teammates gave her a special flag with the Olympic rings. She still treasures that flag, and in Atlanta lifelong friends and fellow divers Link Mathewson and Gail Prescott helped her show it off at a banquet.

Before the 1956 Games, McCormick had a challenge to overcome if she wanted to repeat as Olympic champ. She was pregnant. “All my competitors said, ‘Oh, goodie, she’ll never make it.’ Well, guess what? I made it again.”

She swam nearly up until the day she gave birth, then her mother and mother-in-law helped take care of Tim. “They were terrified when I came home because I had never taken care of a baby,” she said.

McCormick was told the baby shouldn’t walk around with a glass bottle. “Well, sure enough, clunk, he had a big scrape, so Glenn’s mother went out and got her driver’s license so she could come out and spy on me.”

In Melbourne, McCormick was so far ahead in the 3-meter competition that she didn’t even need to dive in the finals. “It was one of those meets that we dream about.”

The 10-meter event was tougher. McCormick missed a dive and was in fourth place after the first day.

“I remember going back on the bus and crying and thinking ‘OK, kid, you can live a lifetime in a moment and this is it.’”

In the finals, McCormick’s first dive earned only 7s and 8s. Her last dive, a forward 2 ½, had to be the best of her entire life.

“They blew the whistle; I hit that tower so hard, you could see it just shake,” she said. “I spun it, I dropped it and it looked like a cup full of bubbles. I sort of cry sometimes when I think of that. When I popped up I heard 10, 9 ½ and 10.”

With nothing more to accomplish in diving, McCormick retired. She did exhibitions, modeled Catalina swimsuits and made appearances around the world with other famous athletes of her time, including Olympic champions Jesse Owens, Bob Mathias, Al Oerter, Rafer Johnson and Sammy Lee.

“I was always with them, fixing their cummerbunds, seeing that they looked all right,” she said. “I felt like a princess because that’s how I got treated, and they always saw that I got home safely. We had a lot of fun on top of that.”

McCormick earned her college degree, as well as a nursing degree. She regrets never competing in the Powder Puff Derby, although she has learned to fly. “I landed one day with my flaps up and I said, you know what, I’m going to crash and burn, and I’ve got too many things to do.”

She has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and gone down the Amazon. Her bucket list includes body surfing in Hawaii and skiing in Grindelwald, Switzerland, with Tim.

But McCormick’s main focus is her foundation. When 1984 Los Angeles Olympic chief Peter Ueberroth invited her to work for the organizing committee, McCormick agreed if she could speak to schools.

At the first elementary school, she was astonished to hear that some students were earning F-minuses. After someone called them “a bunch of losers,” McCormick said, “Give me 25. I’ll come every two weeks.”

She enlisted area athletes to help. They emphasized five elements: “You’ve got to have a dream, you’ve got to work, you’ve got to fail -- that’s what makes you better -- you’ve got to surround yourself with good people and then you’ve got to help others.”

She worked with them through high school, with 18 graduating.

McCormick has since incorporated the fight against obesity into her program.

She shows the students film of her diving days. “They’ll always say, ‘Who’s that lady up there?’ I turn around and say, ‘All right you guys, that’s me.’”

The grandmother of six feels that she could do everything modern divers do today if she had the equipment (springier boards) and training methods used now. “I’m competitive enough,” she said.

McCormick also said she would enjoy the relatively new disciplines of synchronized diving, which she performed in exhibitions.

After a 12-year Olympic diving medal drought, the United States won four medals in London – three in synchro diving, plus David Boudia’s gold in the 10-meter platform.

While McCormick said daughter, Kelly, a diving coach in Federal Way, Wash., stays more active in the sport, she keeps up. With the United States realizing that other countries were concentrating on serious training, McCormick said, “That pushed us to really put our act together.”

About a month ago, McCormick was in a sports museum looking at a picture of herself from 1956. She was thinking back on the awards she won, such as The Associated Press Athlete of the Year and the Sullivan Award.

“Each generation has its superstars and legends,” she said. “As I was standing there, a little girl was peeking around the corner. She’d peek at the picture and look over at me again, and all of a sudden she came over to ask me for my autograph. I said, ‘Do you know who I am?’ She said, ‘I think you used to be Pat McCormick.’

“When you think about it, if you’re not a ‘used to be,’ you really haven’t accomplished much.”

And McCormick’s not finished.

Karen Rosen is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.

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