How A Career Ends: Olympic gold medalist Jennifer Chandler

How a Career Ends is an interview series in which Excelle Sports contributor Rob Trucks asks medal-winning Summer Olympians about the moment they knew their competitive athletic career was over.

In Montreal in 1976, Jennifer Chandler became the eleventh and so-far final United States citizen to win the Women’s Springboard Diving event at an Olympics. She is also a seven-time national diving champion and a gold medalist at the 1975 Pan American Games.

After earning her BFA in Drawing and Painting from the University of Arizona, Jennifer Chandler returned to her native Alabama where, since 1993, she has worked for HealthSouth, the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, and, currently, the Lakeshore Foundation. She is married to John W. Stevenson, the publisher and editor of The Randolph Leader in Roanoke, Alabama where they live, greatly outnumbered by a variety of farm and domesticated animals.

I started out wanting to be a dancer. I took ballet from the time I was 5, and I think probably that really did help me with my diving career.

My mom was a diver, actually, and she could’ve been really good, but she didn’t have a chance to continue it. She ended up going to work as a young woman, but her first coach was fourth at the Olympic Trials, so she knew her stuff. In any case, after I started taking ballet, my dad bought a horse and I was going to be showing horses in addition to dancing. Well, he went out of town, my mom joined the country club, and I had joined the swim team and already been in a meet by the time he got back. And, to make a long story short, once I got in the water I didn’t get out for about 13 more years [laughs].

My mom suggested that perhaps I consider diving. My first coach was Carlos DeCubas, and he just happened to be at this tiny little Mountain Brook Swim and Tennis Club out in the middle of nowhere, where there was nothing but a potato chip machine and some showers, a locker room. That was about it. Anyway, he told me when I was about 12 years old that if I worked really hard I could be a national champion, and I said, Oh, okay. I didn’t really know what that meant [laughs], but he clearly believed in me, and I adored him. I started diving when I was about 9. It was just serendipity. Right place at the right time.

There was a girl on the diving team, and her name was Farrar Smith. And I thought she was the cat’s meow. I wanted to be Farrar Smith. She was not a very good diver [laughs]. And I would do everything she did. I emulated everything she did: diving out too far, going in with flat feet, all that. I was Farrar Smith. And this is the first summer I dived. Farrar decided halfway through the summer that she was going to quit. Well, I announced to my mom that I was going to quit, too, and she said, I don’t think so. You made a commitment to the team. If you get through the summer and you determine that you don’t want to dive anymore, then that’s another thing, but you will not quit in the middle of the summer. So what happened was, when Farrar was gone, I started listening to Carlos, and I started diving good, and I thought, Well, man, this is fun. And he took a shine to me right away, so we became pretty much inseparable.

When I wasn’t diving in practice, I was diving by myself. I would just go out there all day long. I loved the sunshine. I loved being outside. I loved the water. My favorite part about diving was the flying part. When I was 11 years old, I was asked to go compete at an international age group meet in Belgium. It wasn’t a qualifying meet or anything. There were several kids who were kind of handpicked to go on this trip from all over the country, and that was when I realized, Well, this is not only fun, this is really fun [laughs]. At 11 years old I thought the coolest thing in Belgium was the little tiny scoops of ice cream in those little bitty tiny cones, and then bicycles that had bells on them. People were using their bicycles for transportation, and they had Belgian waffles on the pool deck. What’s not to love when you’re 11? We walked through a zoo to get to the pool. I’m thinking that this is really a cool thing.

Anyway, not only was it a really fun trip, getting to travel to another part of the world, but I also won my meet. So there’s that. That’s a little positive feedback. I thought, Wow. I beat some girls from other countries. That’s pretty neat.

Jennifer Chandler. (photo courtesy of Chandler)
Jennifer Chandler. (photo courtesy of Chandler)

I left home at 13 when Carlos moved from Birmingham-Southern College to Georgia Tech. I moved with him and lived in a dorm 8th, 9th, and 10th grade at Westminster. It wasn’t scary because it just was what I needed to do, and I knew that. Nobody made that decision for me. I asked if I could go.

I’m the oldest of three girls, and my mom was loading us up in the car, and we were driving to Atlanta on Friday, and working out Friday, twice on Saturday and twice on Sunday, and then driving back and doing homework in the middle. My youngest sister was 3, my other sister was probably 10, so it was really a strain on the whole family. My mom was trying to coach me during the week, and that just was not working out. You can tell your mom, No. You can’t tell your coach. Anyway, it wasn’t working, so that’s when I said, Can I go to school over there?

There was a bit of a speed bump there, and that’s when you fall in love for the first time. He was two years older than me, and played football. I won the nationals for the first time when I was 14, and after that, well, between then and the next year, I was more interested in getting through with practice to spend time with him than I was really focusing on what I needed to be thinking about. So when I went back to the nationals, when I was defending my championship, I didn’t make the first cut [laughs]. Hello? I thought, Uh oh. So I came back and suggested that we see other people. That wasn’t a popular thing to say, so that was kind of a difficult time. And that is a very common theme for young women in sports. You know, as soon as you get old enough to discover the opposite sex, a lot of people quit. But I was focusing on a goal that Carlos and I had set when I was much younger. I just knew in my heart of hearts that that’s what I had to do. I had to back off and put things back in perspective. And I feel bad about it, but it all turned out okay.

I’ve gone to a lot of spend the night parties where I didn’t get to spend the night [laughs], because I had practice or a meet the next day, and I couldn’t stay up all night with everybody. I mean, that’s what you do when you’re a kid. You stay up all night, and I couldn’t do that. When I was maybe 10 or 11, I went to the AAU USA National Junior Olympics, and we stayed in a dorm on campus at Tennessee. Same deal. We stayed up all night long jumping on the bed and having a big time, and the next day I couldn’t even dive. I mean, it was pitiful. I didn’t make the first cut. So I learned that lesson early on. But I still haven’t snow skied. We were never allowed to do that. You know, you can’t. You’ve just got to put yourself under glass, and make sure you don’t get hurt doing something stupid. It’s easy enough to get hurt doing your own sport.

I mean, I wasn’t anti-social. I went to parties and dances and all that kind of stuff. I got caught smoking behind the gym when I was 13. You know, kind of a normal kid. My teammates and I, we were all doing the same thing. We were doing fun things together, so I didn’t feel like I was some black sheep, or that I was looking with longing eyes over at the happy table that was laughing without a care in the world. I never felt like that. I was so happy with what I was doing. And honestly people would ask me, Do you regret giving up a normal childhood? And that’s like, Well, what I was doing, for me, was normal. My teammates were all doing the same thing, and the only difference is I got to travel all around the world, and go to exciting competitions and meet people and friends that my schoolmates did not have an opportunity to do. So I feel it was just icing. Like, I had it better.

I guess when I was 13 we started talking about the Olympic Games. I’d already been to the nationals, the senior nationals, when I was 12, actually. I didn’t win until I was 14, but I had already been successful in international competition, both as an age grouper and then, after 14, on the senior level.

There was a time when I was diving with Carlos, and I was his only diver. At Georgia Tech he was coaching college kids who were taking diving as an elective. He didn’t have a team at that point. He just had me. So I was diving with my high school in the afternoons, and then I would go dive with Carlos at night at Georgia Tech. So I was diving twice a day, and still going to school. Then on the weekends Carlos would come over to Westminster and we’d dive there. I dived terrible all the time, day in and day out, and Carlos would get frustrated with me, to say the least. Of course, I was frustrated, too, but sometimes he’d get so frustrated that he would leave practice, when I’m the only diver in the pool, which was really kind of devastating.

I was upset. I mean, I called my mom crying. I’m trying as hard as I can, and it’s not working and I’m making him mad and he’s walking out. It’s just not working. I was diving with my high school team, and that was good. When I was diving with Carlos, I was the only one, and that’s really hard, to learn a dive that you’ve never seen anybody else do. I really needed to get into a program where there were divers that were better than me, so I could try to dive up to their level.

Ron O’Brien was a diving coach at Ohio State, and he used to have this summer camp at Decatur (Alabama), so I went to dive with Ronnie that summer I turned 16. I learned some more difficult dives, and when I went to the nationals that summer I made the Pan American team. So I determined that I would continue diving with Ronnie and not go back to Carlos, and that caused some real hard feelings. And I get it. I mean, we were together since I was 9 years old, and now we’re coming up to the Games and I’m diving with another coach. The reason I got to where I got was because of Carlos. Absolutely. When I started diving with Ronnie, he took what Carlos had formed and then took it up a notch in terms of degree of difficulty and some other things. I mean, I wouldn’t have made it to Montreal if it wasn’t for Ronnie either, but Carlos deserves most of the credit.

When I got married, we hadn’t talked in a long, long time, but when I stepped into the church with my dad, Carlos was the first person I saw, sitting on the back row, right next to where I would be coming in. So that was pretty cool. We were able to get back on the same page but, sadly, a year later, he passed away from lung cancer. This last summer he was inducted into the Georgia Aquatic Hall of Fame, and my husband and I drove to Atlanta, because we wanted to honor him and be there for that recognition.  I hadn’t seen his two sons in thirty-eight, maybe forty years, and we had a blast [laughs]. It was a wonderful reunion. It really was.

We had a big international meet in May, the Trials were in June, and the Games were in July, so I got second in the Fort Lauderdale meet in May by five points to the world champion. And I walked through the parking lot after that meet was over, and it was like a bunch of bricks just hit me in the head. I thought, Holy cow! Wait a minute! That’s everybody that’s going to be in Montreal and I just got second by five points? I could win this meet. I mean, really, I was just walking along by myself, and it dawned on me. Holy cow! I could really do this. I didn’t tell anybody that, though [laughs]. I had it in my head.

I was first in the order. I was always drawn first and it always made me really nervous, so I did a front dive that was maybe a little too close to the board, but after that I settled down. And I didn’t ever watch the scoreboard, and I didn’t watch anybody else dive. It didn’t matter what my scores were, really, because that dive was over and I had to think about the next one. Just the next one, not the next nine. You know, one at a time. So in the end, I hadn’t watched anybody else dive and I hadn’t watched the scoreboard at all, so I had no clue that I had won. I was standing with Ronnie when the scoreboard flashed up the final standings, and that’s when I found out. He didn’t tell me the whole five minutes we were waiting [laughs].

That was the way I could control my nerves, and try to channel my nerves into positive energy rather than letting it spread all over the pool deck. Some divers are motivated by exactly how many points they need to win, but I just figured, I have a finite amount of energy in my body, and if I’m wasting it on something I can’t do anything about, then that’s robbing me of something that I could do something about. That’s just kind of the way I figured it.

I took ten months off and did my senior year in high school, because Montreal was between my junior and senior year. I was pretty wiped out after that.

My parents had moved out to the farm by that point, so I went back and lived at the farm in Lincoln (Alabama). I graduated from The Donoho School, which back then was the Anniston Academy. I was trying to be normal [laughs].

I got teased a little bit. I went to class with 42 people in it that had gone to school together since kindergarten, and so here I come waltzing in my senior year. I had actually gone there three months my junior year. My junior year was pulled right out of a hat. It was the summer after I started diving with Ronnie, so I went to school at Donoho the first three months of my junior year. The second three months I dropped out and moved to Columbus and lived with Ronnie’s neighbor, and went to school in Upper Arlington. And then the third three months I had gone ahead in three classes and dropped out to move to Fort Lauderdale to train for three months for the Trials. I got tutored in my last two classes so, like I said, I pulled my junior year right out of a hat. After the Olympic Games I thought, Well, I need to take some time off, because honestly I was about to have a nervous breakdown. I mean, I was exhausted emotionally and physically. All the attention and people recognizing you when you go every place. I had just turned 17, so it was a little overwhelming.

The teasing part I got over pretty quick. Everybody called me Swimmer, because that’s not what you want to be called if you’re a diver. But it worked out fine. Then, when school was over and it was time to start back in the summer, I just went right back to Decatur and Here we go again.

Jennifer Chandler. (photo courtesy of Chandler)
Jennifer Chandler. (photo courtesy of Chandler)

College was awesome. I loved it. I loved Ohio State. My roommate was from upstate New York and she was on a fencing scholarship, and we could not understand each other. I am not kidding. We had to actually write each other notes because I couldn’t understand her. She had a tennis ball suspended from a string in the corner of the room, and the room was so tiny I was always afraid that I was going to get stabbed if I walked in there while she was practicing. It was hilarious, actually. It really was.

My mom, she took me out for lunch one day, and I could tell there was something up, and I’m like, Mom, what’s going on? She said, Well, I’ve got some kind of bad news. And I said, What? She said, Well, Ronnie’s moving his program to California. And I didn’t miss a beat. I said, Well, when do I go? And that’s what she didn’t want to hear, because she didn’t want me to move all the way out to California. But I went out there, and I was loving that, too.

Springboard was my love all the time. Platform I was scared out of my mind every time I went up there, but it was something that Ronnie wanted me to do. I was scared to death, all the time. I loved to bounce the board and go way, way high, as opposed to dropping like a rock going 35 miles an hour [laughs]. Anyway, back in those days everybody dived springboard and platform. It’s just the way it was.

There’s something called a bubble machine. When you’re learning a new dive you push a button and a series of holes along the bottom release compressed air up to the top, and it bursts into like four feet of bubbles. Water’s not soft, so that helps to soften the impact a little bit if you land flat. I went in pretty straight, but I bent my knees and arched my back, so basically I just went into a spin. I’m looking at my feet over my head, and that’s not ever good. Basically I sort of squashed my back, from both sides, from my upper body and lower body. I couldn’t get out of the pool by myself. Ronnie had to come get me out, and so that was that. I rested and I did all the stuff that you do to heal your back. All the exercises and icing and all that kind of stuff. Muscle relaxers. So then it got fine and I moved out to California and I was doing a back two-and-a-half on 10-meter. I didn’t have the bubbles on this time, but I did the same thing again. Back two-and-a-half.

[In 1980] I made the team, but we didn’t go. I didn’t dive for ten months, practically, that whole year before the Trials, because of the second back injury. I went back and trained and trained, and I made the team, but then I thought, Well, you know, I’m done. I couldn’t train a hundred percent anymore. I didn’t want to struggle to recreate what I had accomplished at 14 when I was 21.

That second time I came back to Birmingham. I was in the hospital for three weeks. I did traction. I did bed rest. I did heavy duty drugs. That didn’t do anything. It just wasn’t working. I needed to stop.

The one thing I promised myself when I retired was that I was never ever, for whatever reason, at whatever age that I decided it was time to let go, I was never going to second guess that and try to make a comeback. And I didn’t. And I’m so glad.

When I was at the University of Arizona, I started diving, maybe a couple times a week, just for fun. Just doing some of the required dives, the easy dives, and it was fun. I was actually diving good. And so I asked Ronnie. I said, Do you think that if I started training right now I could make the ’84 team? And he said, Without a doubt. Absolutely. And I said, Good. That’s all I wanted to know. Never mind [laughs]. I just wanted to know. When he said, Yes, I thought, Well, that’s good enough. I don’t need to go through all that.

Jennifer Chandler. (photo courtesy of Chandler)
Jennifer Chandler. (photo courtesy of Chandler)

I dream about diving all the time. Probably seven out of ten of them I’m at a big, big meet like the Trials and I haven’t dived since I retired and I know there’s no way in hell I can do any of those dives anymore [laughs]. And I wake up sweaty, going, Oh no. But you know how that goes, when you’re supposed to be prepared for something and you’re not. Or you don’t think you are. That’s probably when I have those kind of dreams, but I do have some really good ones, too. And I know I’m dreaming it, so I try to stretch it out as long as I can.

My last meet was the Olympic Trials and I made the team. As a matter of fact, because we boycotted those Games, they had some kind of exhibitions that we were going to do, going to China and Japan, I think. But 1980 is when the Chinese showed up on the pool deck with their world class team that could’ve beat anybody, and nobody had ever seen them before. They came out of nowhere, and they were the best in the world when they came out of nowhere.

So I’m not diving anymore after the Trials, right? I’m still not 100 percent over that back injury. So as we get closer to the trip they said, Well, you know, actually this is not going to be an exhibition. This is going to be a competition. And I said, Really? Y’all have fun. I’m not going [laughs]. Because I did not want my last competition to be getting my butt beat by the Chinese. I did not want that to be my last taste of my beloved sport. I was not going out like that, so I didn’t do it. I didn’t go.

At that point I knew I wasn’t going to dive anymore. I knew that we weren’t going to the Olympic Games. I was more disappointed that we weren’t going to Moscow and, again, that’s not a decision that I made. That’s a decision that somebody else made. I was more disappointed about that than I was thinking about, That’s my last dive.

I went back to school and I got my art degree. And this is going to sound as lame as anything you could imagine would ever come out of my mouth, but I just turned 57 and I told myself when I turned 50, This is the decade I’m going to start painting again [laughs]. And I’m going to make it. I’m getting ready to start painting again. What I really want to do is write and illustrate children’s books.

I got with a friend, my first mentor and complete idol in the sport of diving, Janet Ely. I saw her at the Trials this last week, and we’re going to write a book together. She’s also a painter, which is one of the reasons why I became an artist, and Carlos was a painter, which is the other reason I became an artist, so it’s all coming full circle back.

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