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"You don't have to be a kid," said Lopez.
"I'm 27," said Hernandez.
"So?" shrugged Lopez.
"I can't read or write."
"We'll teach you."
After hours of government-financed tutoring, Hernandez enrolled at Oregon State through its Equal Opportunity Program. In his first year he made the dean's list with a 4.0 grade-point average and was the school's top diver. He also taught swimming to handicapped children at the local YMCA. He found a goal, to become a diving coach. Sue bore him a daughter—Sami-Sue—and for the first time, his life had a direction.
After two years at Oregon State, Hernandez decided he could make a living diving. He quit college, went back to Los Angeles and prepared for the 1974 Acapulco championship. The event was invitational and Hernandez was unknown outside of collegiate circles, so he called the promoters, Norma and Bob Maxwell, a U.S. couple who, under the name of Maxwell Associates, stage many of the professional high-diving competitions held in North America. Hernandez told them who he was and asked to be invited. They said that the American team had already been selected. Sam said he was going to Acapulco anyhow.
Hernandez and his wife sold nearly everything they owned to raise the money for one-way tickets to Acapulco. They arrived six weeks early and shared an apartment with cockroaches until their money ran out and one of the Mexican divers took them in. Every morning Hernandez sprinted through the sand and surf to strengthen his leg muscles for the big thrust away from the cliff, although there seemed to be no chance that he would be included in the closed competition.
Then, shortly before the event one member of the six-man American team still had not shown up. Norma Maxwell added Sam Hernandez to the American side.
After his loss to Sucher's "perfect" dive, Hernandez saw an evil conspiracy in the judging. Hernandez was the only diver on the American team who didn't work for the Maxwells. Two of the five judges were Mexicans chosen by Raoul Garcia, who co-promotes the event. The other three judges were an American, a Canadian and the Maxwells' son.