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Jenni Chandler ranks high among the hopefuls, even though she shuns for now the circuslike dives, concentrating instead on such seemingly elementary maneuvers as reverse or backward 1�s. As if to compensate for her easy-does-it style on the springboard, Jenni is a bundle of energy away from it and has a scampish nature that is readily transmitted to others. In Winnipeg for a meet last spring she distributed bubble gum to her fellow divers and had Melissa Briley and Janet Ely racing through the corridors of their motel.
"It's easy to be a kid around Jenni," Ely says. "She's such a hot dog. She'd say, "Let's do handsprings,' and we'd do it. I said to myself, 'Janet, what are you doing? You're 20 years old.' "
But Jenni is utterly serious about diving. Even the bubble gum has its purpose. "There's pressure in meets, but my gum gets me through," she says. "To relax I chew three sticks at once." Rolling her eyes, a favorite mannerism, she adds, "Of course, I may not have any teeth left one of these days."
During last April's AAU championships, Jenni chomped away on her gum while pacing the pool deck in a red terrycloth robe no more than four sizes too large. The image abruptly changed on the diving board. Suddenly her jaw was still, the gum nowhere in evidence. Jenni's face would become angelic, her eyes mirroring the blue of the water below. She would glide into her approach, and her slender figure would rainbow outward, hanging in the air for a breathtaking instant before insinuating itself into the water. And nobody begrudged Jenni the bubble she blew on the victory stand; while her rivals toiled to make hard dives look easy, she had made easier dives look eternal.
It is questionable, though, how much longer she can get by with just doing less difficult dives. Diving is scored by multiplying a judge's award—anywhere from zero to 10 points—by a "degree of difficulty" assigned to each dive. While her rivals gamble on hitting high-degree-of-difficulty dives, Jenni opts for artfulness and consistency. Her strategy has its parallel in prizefighting, in which a boxer is presumed able to beat a puncher—unless, of course, the latter lands one.
What lowers Jenni Chandler's chances is that she is competing against dozens of knockout threats at once. Consequently she and her coach, Carlos de Cubas, are working to upgrade her list of dives. One tougher dive, a 2� pike, was added for this week's meet in Decatur, and others are to follow. But de Cubas will not be rushed.
"My mind is fixed on Montreal," he says. "She will have to do a hard list there, but what happens now isn't important. I don't want her doing dives in competition until we know she's absolutely ready. It is better to hit an easy dive eight out of 10 times than a hard dive two out of 10."
De Cubas has taken the long view ever since Jenni Chandler first came to him as a hyperactive 7-year-old swimmer. At the time he was coaching at the Birmingham Mountain Brook Swim and Tennis Club, having fled not long before from Castro's Cuba. A charming, wavy-haired man cast in the swarthy Latin image of Cesar Romero, de Cubas sized up Jenni as a girl with a future. "She is graceful and very smart," he said. "Someday she will be a champion."
At least he may have said that. "Carlos' English wasn't too good," Jenni remembers. "He'd tell the swimmers to do four laps, only he'd hold up three fingers." His accent remains thick. At a recent workout Jenni was starting a dive when de Cubas, noting a sagging shoulder, called, "Tighten up!" Jenni tried to stop in mid-dive only to tumble helplessly into the pool. Surfacing, she asked, "What'd you say?"