Jim Stillson is the diving coach at SMU, which is well known for their aquatic program, and has an unusual character in their choice of coaches. One day I finished playing tennis on campus, and noticed a diving meet in progress. Catching only the last hour I was very impressed with the finalist. At the conclusion of the meet things started changing. The formality and discipline disappeared as the athletes started having fun. What crazy stuff they were doing and no lifeguard to tell them no. After it was apparent they were a bunch of clowns; I felt myself wanting to join them. The flying squirrel was too much to take. One diver took a tarp and tied the four corners to his wrists and ankles, making a parachute. From ten meters a belly flop is nothing to take lightly. Just as I thought, he had bit it for sure the tarp filled with air and slowed him down just before impact. It took guts to do that if not a lack of brains. They pushed me over the edge with the nest next trick. Slip N Slide on a mat off of the ten-meter. They came off there backwards on their belly one their back and did trick after trick. That was all I could take. I had shorts on from tennis so I went to join them. My first attempt at joining them on the ladder was met with, “you cannot do this, and my response was “yes, I can. With my persistence, the diver who was a flying squirrel told me, “look if that guy right there says you can then you can,” he pointed to Jim Stillson, the Coach. I climbed down the few steps on the ladder to the tower and walked straight over to him. “I want to do the slip n slide, I said and his response was, “you can’t, and I replied, “yes, I can. To my surprise he said, “ok go ahead. Later he revealed the risk to his career by saying “yes I was not insured and that was a school policy to use the towers. I now know why he looked so pale while I was working up my nerve to slide. I was up there for 15 minutes before I got the nerve. Knees knocking and shaking like a leaf, it was a long way down. (I had clowned around as a teen and so I had some fun diving all through my youth and even developed some limited tricks over those years.) When he realized I was hesitant he insisted I go down the ladder. I protested. Just tell me one more time how to do this slide on my belly and when I come off the end bend at the waste and roll it into a 1 & 1/2. “Yes, he said, “but you do not have to do this. I am sure he was thinking about his career, and not me. By that time I had created a lot of attention and a crowd was gathering to see me bust it. The announcer on a loud speaker asked me my name and with tongue roll he announced my name as a first timer doing the slip n slide dive. The coach said, “roll it up boys, again trying to get me to abandon the challenge, each time looking more worried for his job. “I am going, I insisted and he retorted back, “Go then! Once I started there was no turning back. As I slid on my belly, my head came over the edge first. I remember saying to myself, “Ok now bend at the waist and turn this over slowly as it is a ways down. I went from seeing water to seeing sky all the time looking at my toes. Then came the water again, I had great pike position and lined it up well above the water. With all the adrenaline flowing I hit the water with all I had. I got the dive in, relieved I made my way to the surface. The crowd was ecstatic, I thought I was in the Olympics with all the judges holding up the number 10 on their scoring card. As I emerged from the pool I was met with congratulations telling me I ripped the dive. (Ripping the dive means no splash, as you go in so vertical that you pull the water surfaces in after you leaving no splash). Jim had a relieved look on his face and I was certain I had the same look.
The next spring I called Jim and explained I would have done the sport if I could have. As I explained my passion and the fact that dyslexia kept me from accepting a scholarship offered to me if I made the team.
Picture above from left to right: Greg Luganis, RC and Jim Stillson I did the tryout for the diving team and was accepted. I had to decline embarrassed that I knew I could not take and pass the SAT tests. My mentor who offered me the scholarship when I was just out of high school was as disappointed as I was. He must have seen something in me that I did not discover until many years later. He held the patent on acrylic plastics and was grooming me to join his business as part of his creative team. Attending college and he would pay, was a condition of his offer. After explaining all this, Jim saw the want in my eyes when I said that at 34 I just would like to know how I would have done. He suggested I join a masters program and work out twice a week with some has been divers. I explained I wanted to know what it would have been like to be an elite athlete and that was going to take working at it every day. At that statement, as the summer before when I showed willingness he was without hesitation. Jim invited me to join the varsity every afternoon for practice. He said I would have to work out with the girls’ varsity because the guys were away at a special camp. It goes without saying that I did not miss practice, and I cannot even remember being late. With the girls looking on you have all the motivation you need not top to make a fool of ones self. Let me be clear, I made a fool of myself plenty of times that summer but I learned. Over the next 3 months I honed my skills just as an athlete would. I got better than I ever thought I could have. He was a great teacher and knew just how to get the most out of us. What a coach, I still cherish the memories, and to this day some 18 years later I can still do the dives he taught me. What an experience, it was a once in a life time opportunity! Later that summer, I was invited to join a circus troop for an act that would debut in Canada. Little did I know that when I accepted that offers the view from the tower was nothing by comparison. Looking at a tank (a plastic pool) from 50 and 60 feet made the tower I was on a year earlier look like nothing but a hop. While there are not many people in your life that clearly effect your outlook on life, it is something to behold when you do meet them. Jim Stillson is one unlikely friend; of which I cannot think of my life being the same without him in it. He made a dream possible and because of him I was able to re-live a part of my life I always regretted not choosing the first time around. This was a gift that few people ever get a second chance. Jim I have tried to live up to the honor you bestowed me with your faith in me. I try every chance I get to give back some of what you gave me. I thank you Jim Stillson; you made a memory for me that I live again and again. It is people like you that make life full.
The circus trip is a story for another day. Take a look at the photos, you will want to hear about Canada in person. I still cannot sit in a chair when I take about it. I have a few highlights worth sharing, when you see me, please ask?