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For a while there it seemed Jenni Chandler couldn't even jump off a diving board without being hailed as some kind of prodigy. References to her age—she had just turned 14—were rampant when she placed eighth in the three-meter springboard last September at the World Aquatics championship in Yugoslavia. The talk grew more insistent after she won the same event this past April at the AAU national indoor championships in Dallas. Wearily, Jenni complained, "If one more person says 'And she's only 14,' I think I'll scream."
After all this, it was particularly fitting that when their daughter's birthday came around in mid-June, Terry and Kay Chandler threw a party on their cattle ranch in the rolling Alabama farmland east of Birmingham. Dark clouds sent rain splattering into Jenni Chandler's backyard diving well, but the mood inside the red-brick, hilltop farmhouse was festive. As Jenni's parents, two sisters—Laurie, 12, and Mindy, 4—and friends chorused "Happy Birthday," out came the white cake aglow with candles. Jenni gave one look, then cried, "Oh, Mother!" The vanilla inscription read AND SHE'S ONLY 15.
Jenni Chandler is young to be a champion diver, but who can blame her for feeling grown up? In the conviction that her smile works better without them, Jenni sometimes discards her retainer braces, and one of these days she may similarly dispose of the wad of bubble gum she is usually chewing—perhaps by pasting it on the underside of some Maxiflex board. Once so skinny she was nicknamed "Stick," Jenni is now a lissome 5'6" with saucerlike blue eyes framed by tumbling hair the color of molasses.
Jenni also is poised and graceful beyond her years off the three-meter board. Nobody much cares that she has not even gotten around to competing in 10-meter platform, the other major diving event. Pat McCormick, the only diver to win four Olympic gold medals, declares, "Jenni has more class and style than any other diver." And Bob Clotworthy, also an Olympic champion and now coach at the University of Texas, adds, "Jenni is incredibly graceful. She has a natural feel for the water. She just seems to know where the water is when she's diving."
Despite these raves, Jenni is no better than a long shot to duplicate her Dallas triumph at the AAU outdoor championships now in progress in Decatur, Ala. The site is just a 90-minute drive from Jenni's home, and her father is meet director, circumstances that will surely make her a favorite with the crowd. Precocious though she is, however, Jenni Chandler is just one of a bumper crop of U.S. female divers, many of whom have a solid edge in experience. As Jenni says, "Some of these girls are 18 or 19 or even older."
Her rivals include Carrie Irish and Melissa Briley, a pair of college-bound whizzes; Carrie is already 18, Melissa will reach that advanced age next week. There also is Christine Loock, well preserved at 20, a premed major at SMU and the best of the many women now diving for men's teams on U.S. campuses. She placed ninth in both one-and three-meter springboard at this year's Southwest Conference meet, but dismisses her team role by noting with a worldly air, "The men have more strength, but I've got prettier legs." Then there are such creaky veterans—all are in their early 20s—as Cynthia Potter, Janet Ely and Jerrie Adair Talbert.
If these creatures are not exactly matronly, the diving situation has nevertheless changed since the 1936 Olympics, when Marjorie Gestring won the springboard at 13; she is still the youngest U.S. athlete to win a gold medal in any sport. Nowadays such children are found more often in swimming, in which the need to keep one's face submerged for hours at a stretch frightens off older and presumably more sensible types.
Because theirs is a technique sport, divers can also expect to improve with age. This is especially true of today's crop of women. Owing to livelier boards and growing acceptance of women as true athletes, it seems that every ponytailed moppet is now doing back 2�s and other demanding maneuvers once performed only by men. The trend in women's diving is toward the acrobatic, and legs everywhere bear bruises and scars caused by collisions with the water or, worse, with diving boards. But harder dives are necessary to fend off foreign challengers, East Germans and Russians in particular, who are doing more circus-like dives, too.
"The easier dives aren't enough any more," says Captain Micki King, gold medalist in the springboard at the 1972 Olympics and now coach at the Air Force Academy. "Any girl who expects to win at Montreal in 1976 will simply have to do harder dives."
At stake is the U.S. effort to reassert its longtime superiority in world diving, which was badly undermined at Munich. Apart from King, American divers won just two medals, neither of them gold. Sweden's Ulrika Knape and Italy's Klaus Dibiasi took the platform events, and they remain the world's best off the tower. The prospect is brighter in springboard. The U.S. lost the men's title in '72 for the first time in 52 years, but Air Force Lieut. Phil Boggs, coached last winter by King, has been a world-beater recently. With King's retirement as a competitor, meanwhile, foreigners like Knape and East Germany's Krista Kohler face waves of American women, any one of whom could be No. 1 by 1976.