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"An athlete, in college or not, is still his own person. He should decide whether loyalty to his school or the opportunity to compete overseas is more important. I know if Rick McAlister had the chance to dive against Russia and it meant missing the NCAAs, I'd let him go to Russia; I'd urge it, because the NCAA would be nothing compared with the experience he'd gain. The school might not get the credit at home, but he'd be a better diver, and as a coach and somebody who wants to see this country produce its best, that's got to be more important. In the end the colleges can hurt the athletes' development in order to maximize their income. That might be acceptable in professional sports but not from institutions pledged to the education and growth of their students. I don't see any problem in team sports like basketball because that's where the real team loyalties are. There are basketball players who would pass up the Olympics for a shot at the NCAA finals, and that's good. It shows that the athletes know where the top competition is, and why are the Olympics important at all if they're not to provide the toughest competition in the world?"
As with other activist athletes, King's motives spring from observing inequities in her own sport: " Klaus Dibiasi of Italy has won the 10-meter platform gold medal in the last two Olympics and is going for a third in Montreal. In the year after Mexico he took part in 30 international meets. I went to two. The guy just has to be hard-boiled. He's probably faced every conceivable competitive situation. Then look at us. In 1973 we had the chance to meet the USSR in Minsk. The Olympic Diving Committee sent around a letter saying there were three ways to go. Number one, the competitors pay their own way. Number two, the competitors pay half. Number three, we don't go. We sent rich divers and didn't win any of the events. And the worst of it is the Russians can't believe it. They think we're putting them down by not sending our best. Somehow we've managed to both foster international misunderstanding, and lose." As a result, King passes a hat for the divers' travel fund wherever she speaks. "I must have talked to every Girl Scout troop in the Midwest," she says. "I have terrible trouble saying no to requests like that. I figure if I have some of the magic, if there is a touch of something about me that people remember and think it would be nice if their children emulated, then why not use that to pay back the sport for what it let me enjoy?"
King enjoys far more than just her own sport, however. She teaches swimming and tennis courses with an easy, bantering style that elicits a sort of devotional boldness from the cadets, as when she asks for a tennis ball and receives a shower of 20.
She looks forward with relish to the first "Superstars" competition for women, to begin Dec. 20 in the Astrodome. Patterned after the multisport contest for men, with $150,000 in prizes, it will bring together the likes of Billie Jean King, Cathy Rigby, Janet Lynn, Robyn Smith, Jane Blalock, Wyomia Tyus and King to sprint, swim, row, cycle, bowl, shoot baskets, throw a soft ball, play tennis and attack an obstacle course.
King has been in training since September. "The agility I've got, but I need the gas to keep going," she says, "so on alternate days I work on endurance, swimming repeats, sprinting intervals, lifting weights, and then do something for technique, like shooting baskets." She ran two miles a day, in combat boots at 7,000 feet, with the incoming freshmen during their six weeks of basic training. ("Yeah, but just a diddly-poo eight-minute-mile pace.")
Her motives in the Superstars competition annoy some pros. She is planning to "kick a hunk of any winnings into the diving travel fund. I see this competition as something I need just now. I have a few rules about fitness, like I'm determined never to get fat—I'm going to be a skinny little old lady—but the main thing is that while it was easy to stop diving, I still want to compete." She speaks of this as she would of an affliction. "I went to Michigan and the Air Force all because of diving. My friends, my self-image have been related to that too, and now it's over. I need a transition period, and going after this thing will help."
Perhaps if she believes her competitive instincts will dwindle, she chases an illusion. More likely they will be invested in the administrative struggle she has already taken up. In fact, it seems that in King's rapt admiration of the prairie falcons the cadets fly as mascots, she has chosen a worthy exemplar for one tilting at officialdom. "So fierce. So regal," she says, watching one drop with outstretched talons upon a clump of rushes on the academy reserve. "They claim that even if you raise one from the egg, and you alone feed it for all its life, still it will never become a pet. It will always hold its distance."