Standing on the frosty flagstone walk outside his home high on a hill overlooking Bloomington, Ind., Hobart Sherwood Billingsley scans the city below, thrusts his arms heavenward and announces, "Get ready, world, here I come." Armed daily with fresh theories and new vigor, Hobie Billingsley is ready to take on the world. The question is whether the world is ready for Hobie Billingsley.
His particular world is that of competitive diving, an ascetic, artistic pursuit that is ridden with classical precepts and fixed ideas. It is into this sacrosanct realm that Billingsley barges with a fistful of radical notions, insisting that "diving is no longer an art, it is now an art and a science."
The wonder is not that Billingsley has survived, for he is a hardy soul, but that he has been so successful while surviving. Rival coaches, who often are vociferous in their denunciation of Billingsley's strange ways, have nevertheless voted him the outstanding coach in the country the past two years. They may not accept all he says and does, yet they respect what he has achieved in his seven years as coach at Indiana University. In the past four years alone, his divers have won titles everywhere—at the AAUs (8), the Big Ten (7), the Maccabiah Games (5), the NCAAs (3), the Olympics (2), the University Games (2) and the Pan-American Games (1).
Billingsley's current showpieces are Ken Sitzberger, the defending NCAA champion in both springboard events, and Miss Lesley Bush, who came to Billingsley shortly before the trials for the 1964 Olympic team as a 16-year-old who had been progressing nicely, though not nicely enough to win a major title. Unlike girl swimmers, who often start breaking records shortly after cutting their teeth, most divers do not master even the fundamentals of their art at the age of 16. At the time she joined the Billingsley camp, Lesley Bush had been aiming for the 1968 Olympics. After five weeks with Billingsley she tried out for the 1964 team, almost qualifying in springboard diving and making the team as a tower diver.
Lesley's mere presence in the tower competition seemed almost foolhardy ("It's 35 feet up the tower and 135 feet down," Hobie says of this event), yet she won. As convincing as her victory was, a few opposing coaches dismissed it as a fluke. Her age and her competitive background, they claimed, precluded any possibility of her winning anything in Tokyo, particularly since she would be pitting her limited experience against East Germany's Ingrid Kramer, an exquisite diver who already had two Olympic gold medals hanging around her neck. In Tokyo, Lesley Bush beat Defending Champion Kr�mer and all the old hands.
Despite Billingsley's successes, the diving world has not taken him to its bosom, largely because, by his own admission, he is very verbose ("I toured Australia for 23 days giving speeches and was never at a loss for words") and very excitable ("once I went to congratulate a diver on winning and ran smack into a wall") and very irascible ("sometimes I get brash, and it's my fault that I don't have any real close friends").
Rick Gilbert, the first prominent performer to come out of the Billingsley school of revolutionary diving four years ago, was disturbed by the shabby treatment accorded his coach at the outset. "I was mad at the way other coaches looked down at him, so I wanted the AAU indoor title for Hobie," says Gilbert, who got mad enough to win. "You'd think they would listen to him and then accept or reject what he had to say, but they wouldn't."
"A lot of people think Hobie is a crackpot," says Bob Clotworthy, 1956 Olympic gold medalist and now coach at Princeton. "I don't think so. He's sort of a renegade, a crusader who will try anything. People resent someone who is progressive, and Hobie is progressive."
Billingsley's progressive thoughts concerning the laws of motion as they apply to diving are the paramount issue in a sport that, before he showed up, had drifted along as unscientifically as a swan on a summer lake. In his coaching the superscientific Billingsley speaks about linear motion, transitory motion and double-axis displacement so easily and convincingly that one would never suspect he got a 22 on his college physics final.
Billingsley might have remained an orthodox coach except that, while hurriedly walking down the street to nowhere a few years ago, he bumped into Isaac Newton. Since then the world of diving has not been quite the same. " Newton was the greatest diving coach who ever lived," Billingsley says. "When I studied what he wrote I found that I didn't know anything."