U.S. Air Force Captain Maxine Joyce (Micki) King is only 27 but in the age-conscious world of competitive diving she is regarded as something of a relic; many of her younger rivals tease Micki by calling her Mother Max. They also tend to regard her with something close to reverence.
"I've been diving 17 years, and that's longer than some of these kids have lived," says Micki, with a motherly sigh. "I know that sometimes they look at me and wonder why that old lady is still diving." One reason is that Micki still enjoys doing inward 2� somersault tucks and all the other "tricks," as she calls her dives. Another is that she is still the best female diver in the U.S.—perhaps in the entire world. She won the AAU indoor championship earlier this year at West Point, qualified in both springboard (three-meter) and platform (10-meter) for the Pan-American Games and is favored to win her third straight AAU outdoors championship next week at Houston. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Micki wants to win an Olympic gold medal.
In 1968 in Mexico City, with only two dives left, Micki seemed to have a comfortable lead and a gold medal in the three-meter. All she needed were average scores on her remaining dives. (Diving is scored by a supposedly impartial panel of judges who, on each dive, award from one to 10 points; these, in turn, are multiplied by a degree-of-difficulty factor. The judging is based on execution and form, and seven is considered a good score on any given dive.)
"My last dive is always my bread-and-butter dive," Micki says, "so I felt that if I could be at least tied for the lead going into the last one, I'd win it. I knew the next to last dive, a reverse 1� layout, was the crucial dive. I've won meets on it, but it's very easy to miss. When I climbed up on the board I was nervous, but in a positive way."
Before the Olympics, Micki had spent hundreds of hours working on the reverse 1� layout. "Supposedly you work out enough to perfect it," she says, "but this time, when I went off the board, I knew it was too fast. I knew I would rotate too fast. I had to adjust in the air to keep from missing the dive completely. In order to slow the dive down I had to put my arms in the air early to elongate myself and to slow the rotation." But when Micki put out her arms she felt a sharp pain in her left forearm. She had hit the board. "The thud was so loud it echoed through the whole building," she recalls. "I don't see how anyone could have kept from hearing it. I can still hear it now, and it makes me sick."
But somehow only two of the seven judges and few of her fellow competitors knew that Micki had hit the board. "So I decided to fake-it-make-it," she says. "When I landed in the water I knew I was hurt. I felt very faint and cold and I went into a mild form of shock. But I tried to act like everything was O.K." The scores ranged from 4� to 7. Micki was now in second place but still in contention.
Her coach, Dick Kimball of the University of Michigan, pulled Micki out of the pool and led her behind a curtain, where she was given smelling salts and ice was applied to the cut on her forearm. She had less than 10 minutes before the last dive, a difficult reverse 1� with 1� twists. Later, when it was learned that one of the bones in Micki's forearm, the ulna, was broken, her doctor told her that she should not have been allowed to make her last dive. "But I never had any thoughts of scratching," says Micki.
Because of the pain, her final dive was a disaster. Instead of winning the gold medal she finished fourth, with no medal at all. "My immediate reaction was anger at myself for blowing it," she says. "The disappointment didn't hit me until the next day, when I saw the American flag go up at one of the presentation ceremonies." At first the press and fans thought Micki had choked. It wasn't until late the following day when she showed up with a cast on her arm that her misfortune became public knowledge.
Micki wore her cast 108 days, and by the time she had returned home and settled back in her job she had decided to retire from competitive diving. "But as fate would have it," she says, "the 1969 indoor nationals were at Long Beach, only 23 miles from my apartment in Hermosa Beach. I went as a spectator for the first time in eight years or so, and sitting and watching was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life. After that I talked to Dick Kimball and he said, 'If you feel that way maybe there's some diving left in you.' So I proceeded to call the sports office at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas and they said it was great that I wanted to dive again. They also said they would arrange for me to compete in the World Military Games in Pescara, Italy."
With that meet, in June 1969, Micki's comeback began. She was the first woman ever to compete against men in the military swimming and diving championships, and she finished fourth in springboard and third in platform. "I was amazed at how quickly everything came back," she says. "I even had to learn two new dives that normally are done only by men."