McCormick, Pat(ricia) Joan
McCORMICK, Pat(ricia) Joan
(b. 12 May 1930 in Seal Beach, California), first Olympic diver to win four gold medals and first woman named to the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
McCormick was one of three children born to Robert Keller and Harriet Keller. Although a decorated World War I soldier, Robert Keller was an alcoholic who was in and out of the home, leaving Harriet to raise and support the children on her own. She sometimes "read tea leaves"—predicted the future by interpreting the meaning of tea leaves left in the bottom of the cup—to get trolley money for McCormick so she could get to training and competitions.
Born on the second floor above a grocery store, McCormick spent her childhood hanging out along California's coastlines. McCormick and her siblings spent their days at Muscle Beach, becoming friends with the weightlifters who gathered there and performed shows. "Muscle Beach really helped me later as a diver because I became physically strong," McCormick said. "My mother tried to get me to be more ladylike, but I was a tomboy." McCormick spent her free time entering swimming and diving competitions. She honed her skills at the local Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), mowing lawns, cleaning houses, and ironing to earn money for the bus fare. She attended Long Beach City College, where, after thirteen years, she finally earned a degree.
McCormick trained on her own until Aileen Allen, a coach from the Los Angeles Athletic Club, recognized her potential and invited her to train professionally in 1947. From that moment on, McCormick never looked back. She dedicated herself to diving and became one of the most skilled and daring divers of her day. Her resolve for perfection changed the sport and took it to a new level. Her grace and daring in her dives, combined with her intense dedication to perfection and training, upped the standard for all women. Before McCormick, female divers got by more on appearance than ability. McCormick changed that. She only did dives with a great degree of difficulty. She was the first athlete to perform a "double-double"—a double somersault with a double twist. She did dives only male competitors at the time were doing. In order to compete, other female athletes had to work harder, learn harder dives and train harder to reach her level of perfection.
In McCormick's day, training techniques were in their early stages, and there were no gymnastic harnesses of the type that aid today's divers. McCormick had to learn her dives over the open water. When learning new dives, she wore extra T-shirts over her swimsuit so she would not get so many welts from smacking the water at awkward angles.
At seventeen, McCormick missed making the 1948 Olympic team by less than a point. The blow both devastated and motivated her. Now, not only did she want to make the team, but she also wanted to win a gold medal. McCormick dedicated herself to making that dream come true. She made 80 to 100 dives a day, 6 days a week, 12 months a year. McCormick's coach once remarked that other divers may have had more talent, but McCormick had more determination.
On 1 June 1949 she married Glenn "Mick" McCormick, a college wrestler and gymnast who became her coach. As she continued to practice relentlessly, the five-foot, four-inch, 120-pound McCormick became a sturdy and practically unbeatable competitor. At the 1950 Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) national championships in High Point, North Carolina, McCormick swept all three championship titles, including the one-and three-meter springboard and the platform.
Though McCormick was happy with her titles, she was really working toward the Olympics. Just before the 1952 Olympic trials, McCormick cracked her head open on the bottom of the pool and doctors discouraged her from trying out. McCormick, however, was stubbornly determined. She attached a sponge to her head to protect her stitched-up skull and easily made the team, which that year competed in Helsinki, Finland. McCormick brought home a gold medal in both the platform and the springboard events.
McCormick competed again in the 1956 Olympics held in Melbourne, Australia, even though she had missed months of training because of her pregnancy and delivery of her son. For McCormick, the 1956 Olympics still stand out. She recalled the moments before her final dive, which she knew needed to be close to perfect: "I remember walking up those steps—there were 33, I counted every one of them. And all I could think was, 'You can live a lifetime in a moment.'" She knew this was her moment. McCormick again won the gold in both the platform and springboard events, becoming the first Olympic diver to win four gold medals. Since then, only two other divers—the U.S. diver Greg Louganis and Chinese diver Fu Mingxia—have won four gold medals.
Following the 1956 games and the birth of her daughter in 1960, McCormick's marriage began to crumble. Her fame took its toll on the relationship, and the couple grew apart, divorcing in 1973.
Over the duration of her career, McCormick won twenty-seven national championships, and three gold and two silver medals at the Pan American Games. She also won the 1956 Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year Award and the 1956 James E. Sullivan Amateur Athlete of the Year Award.
Although McCormick was a fierce competitor, she was also compassionate. During a competition in 1950 McCormick was diving against Mary Francis Cunningham. After Cunningham surfaced from her final dive, she erupted into tears. McCormick reassured her "that she had done a fine job." The problem was that Cunningham did not perform the dive she was supposed to do. She should have received a zero for the dive, but the judges did not seem to notice what had happened, and McCormick could not bring herself to tell them. McCormick lost the championship. When McCormick's coach admonished her, she said she could not speak up because Cunningham was her friend.
McCormick retired following the 1956 Olympics, saying that the fourth gold was a "sign to proceed with her life." Since retiring, McCormick has become a popular motivational speaker. She still lives in Seal Beach and enjoys volunteering in the local schools. In 1984 she established the Pat McCormick Education Foundation, which raises money to fund programs for at-risk students.
Diving remains a part of McCormick's life. Her daughter Kelly followed her example, winning a silver medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and a bronze at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
While there are many talented divers competing today, McCormick's "double-double"—two gold medals won in two consecutive Olympics—may never be matched. In 1956 McCormick was the first woman to be inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame. The goal of the Hall of Fame is to immortalize the achievements and contributions of those who have distinguished themselves in the sport—especially on an international level. To be honored, you have to do more than just win medals. You have to "give back" to the sport. McCormick did that by opening up a diving camp to help train others.
There is no biography of McCormick, but in 1999 the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles published a fifteen-page interview with her that can be viewed at http://www.aafla.org. Several books, including Al J. Stump, Champions Against Odds (1952); Siobhan Drummond and Elizabeth Rathburn, eds., Grace & Glory: A Century of Women in the Olympics (1998); and Janet Woolum, Outstanding Women Athletes: Who They Are and How They Influenced Sports in America (1998); include information on McCormick's life and career. See also Jerry Hicks, "McCormick Has the Gold-Medal Touch As a Speaker Too," Los Angeles Times (19 Sep. 1996), and Bill Dwyre, "McCormick Was As Gold As It Gets; Now It's Fu's Turn," Los Angeles Times (24 Sep. 2000).