The End of the Cannonball

For decades, kids have been swan diving, jackknifing, and belly-flopping from the high dives of their community pools. Now a state law is robbing children of this rite of passage.

GROUNDED: Days after these photos were taken at the Texas Pool in Plano, the board had to come down.

Technically speaking, one can execute a cannonball from the side of a pool. Take two steps, leap, kerplunk. But that is nothing.

To unleash a serious cannonball-a super-sonic, atomic, intercontinental, bunker-busting cannonball, a cannonball whose percussive entry and mighty splash strike fear in the hearts of unwary lifeguards and sunbathing spouses alike-to do that, one requires a diving board. Preferably a high dive. One, two, three … kabblashooeeyy!

But you can kiss your cannonball goodbye. A new state code has all but outlawed the high dive.

Since 1964, the city-owned Cottonwood pool in Richardson, on West Belt Line Road, with its 3-meter board, has served as a chlorinated firing range. Forty-two years of cannonballs. And can openers, preacher seats, watermelons, and flying squirrels (to depart from the munitions metaphor). Not to mention, for those who appreciate the splashless entry, jackknives, swan dives, and one-and-a-half front flips.

But not this summer. When the pool opens Memorial Day weekend, the Cottonwood high dive won’t be there. The reason: Section L of Chapter 265 of the Texas Administrative Code, which prescribes clearances for diving boards, depths of water, and slopes of pool bottoms as they rise from deep end to shallow. The new rules became effective in September 2004. To oversimplify, they call, respectively, for greater, deeper, and gentler. Many municipalities gave their noncomplying pools a reprieve last season. But this summer, no exceptions.

Cottonwood had a prickly clearance problem further complicated by a slope violation. So even though Kerry Little, assistant superintendent of aquatics for Richardson, says no one had ever suffered an injury while jumping from the high dive, it had to be torn down this past winter.

“It’s sad. I’m sorry to draw the curtain on this,” says Little, who has worked for the city for 28 years. “We’re trying not to take the fun out of the pool.” They’ll still have two 3/4-meter boards, and Little hopes a new water slide will keep the kids happy. But any kid will tell you that a water slide is no substitute for a high dive.

Not far away, at the Gleneagles Country Club in Plano, Ann Powell, director of pool programs, is planning for a summer without the club’s 1-meter board, also a victim of Section L. “We weren’t happy that we had to remove it,” Powell says. “And I’m sure we’ll have some angry members.”

Mostly, she worries about the jump or dive contest. Every year, Gleneagles throws a pool party for members called Splash in the Dark. “The jump or dive contest is always the biggest hit with the kids. The line is incredible,” she says. But the pool now has just a 3/4-meter boards, and it remains to be seen whether it will generate sufficient hang time. Jump or dive might be dead.

Cast in the role of natatorial killjoy in this sad story is Katie Moore, a registered sanitarian with the Texas Department of State Health Services, the agency responsible for the new rules. While others worry about hang time and water displacement, Moore worries about broken necks-or the potentiality of a broken neck. Or, presumably, in the case of the cannonball, even a contused butt cheek.

“I sympathize,” she says. “I know diving boards are a lot of fun. But why wait until someone is injured?” Moore says “there are studies all over the place” proving that diving boards put swimmers in peril.

To which one is tempted to reply: um, no duh.

Diving boards are supposed to be dangerous. Or “dangerous.” Because with all due respect to the hard-working, well-meaning bureaucrats at the Department of State Health Services, how dangerous can diving boards really be if the City of Richardson can erect one that’s nearly 10 feet tall, then let men, women, and children of all ages and levels of dexterity leap from it for 42 years without breaking a single neck? Diving boards, especially the high ones, are fun precisely because of their implied risk. That is why one climbs the ladder carefully, jumps timidly at first, barely bending the board, and emerges smiling, happy to have survived.

Bicycles are dangerous. Swings are dangerous. Skateboards, Rollerblades, baseball bats, pogo sticks-neck breakers all. But fun.

“To me, it’s such a safety Nazi type of thing,” John Lanius says. “You can’t even find a merry-go-round anymore. We’re protecting our kids out of childhood.”

Before Lanius shares his thoughts on Section L, he has to apologize. He knows he gets a little worked up over it. Lanius sits on the board of the Texas Pool on the Creek, a community pool in Plano, near Collin Creek Mall. The Texas Pool, so called because it is shaped like the state, has had a high dive since it opened in 1962. (It started life as a 3-meter board, then was lowered to 1.7 meters.) Again, 44 years of belly flops and back flips with only a few minor injuries, none of which would have been prevented by the new code. But just weeks before the pool was to open, Lanius, the only lawyer on the pool’s board and thus the point man in the fight to save the diving board, got final word from authorities that it had to go. Since the Texas Pool is a nonprofit, they couldn’t afford to tear down the entire structure. So, when the pool opens, the naked, boardless stand will taunt the hapless children.

“I feel a mixture of anger and sadness,” he says. He has two boys, ages 11 and 9, and a girl, 6. “Last summer, my 9-year-old learned how to do flips off the board, and he was loving it. The boys will have that memory. But my daughter Emily was just getting confident enough to go off the board this summer. Now she won’t be able to.”

One suspects that many years from now, Emily Lanius will wistfully recall her summers spent swimming. In an actual swimming pool. Because studies have clearly demonstrated: water is dangerous.


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