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Sunrise softens the ragged edges of Acapulco Bay, and the humid morning breeze creates soft ripples on the water. Crabs tumble over the rocks at the bottom of the cliffs along the shore, first washed up by the waves, then swept away. A cruising hawk's shadow undulates across La Quebrada, a rocky ledge overlooking a narrow, dead-end gorge fed by the bay and bordered on three sides by cliffs so steep the sun will not touch the water until noon.
A boy climbs the face of the tallest cliff. Only the sough of the sea can be heard at the top, 85 feet above the water. The boy stands motionless on the summit, at attention. He raises his arms slowly, stretches them directly in front of his chest, palms down, index fingers touching. He stares ahead, his senses seeking the rhythm of the water rushing into the gorge. He sighs once, a deep breath. From inside him a voice says, "A swell is building...it's coming...coming...all right...now." The "now" is a command. If he leaves the cliff at the wrong instant he will hit the water after the swell has died, and the water's depth will have dropped to only 10 feet, not really enough from that height. He flexes his knees and springs from the edge with all his strength. He must throw himself out 25 feet from the cliff wall to keep from landing on the rocks that extend into the gorge. He points his toes and arches his back and raises his head and spreads his arms and soars. For the next 2� seconds he floats in that position. It seems forever before he brings his arms together and pierces the water at 45 mph.
It is every Acapulco boy's fantasy to become a cliff diver, to execute the perfect swan dive from the top of that cliff. The divers are legendary. Their images on postcards, silhouetted like seagulls against the setting sun, have become the Acapulco trademark. No more than a few Mexicans can dive gracefully from the top, and they are idolized by every street urchin who plays on La Quebrada by day and hustles tourists by night. Mexicans have been diving from the cliff for 43 years, and silver coins that have eluded divers still lie buried in the sand at the bottom of the gorge.
Eight years ago, a group of divers from the U.S. challenged the Mexicans on the cliff. The Americans thought it insane to dive headfirst, and they feared the rocks. They performed somersaults in midair and landed in the water feet first, and they built a platform from which they could launch themselves. Eventually the American contingent found the courage to forgo the platform, but they persisted in making feet-first entries and in the first six annual Acapulco Cliff Diving Championships an American team member won only once, and he was actually an Argentinian. Then in 1974 five Americans placed ahead of the top-scoring native diver.
Mexico had some claim to runner-up that disheartening year, however. A Chicano named Sam Hernandez had finished second. He had been beaten only by a former trampolinist, Pat Sucher, who, on his final dive, had received a perfect score of 10 from each of the five judges. That unheard-of perfect score spawned a resentment in Sam Hernandez' mind that simmered until the 1975 event, held last December. Then, after some new ingredients were added, it began to boil.
Sam Hernandez was born in the brown ghetto of East Los Angeles. He never knew his father. He spent much of his childhood in a welfare line with his mother. A superb athlete, he graduated from high school in 1963, credited with attaining a fifth-grade reading level; his school considered him "educatable but mentally retarded."
Once out of school, Hernandez' life spiraled downhill. He was arrested a few times: once for possession of cocaine, and once after a car chase that ended with undercover police finding 102 kilos of marijuana in his trunk. The dope-related cases were dismissed: Hernandez had only been delivering the cocaine, not selling or using it; he had been set up to drive the car full of marijuana.
Sam Hernandez had been lucky. Luckier at least than his younger brother; after being arrested for possession of pills, he had hanged himself in jail.
Hernandez was divorced from his first wife and remarried. Looking for a fresh start, he and his new wife, Sue, moved to Oregon, where he found a job managing the swimming pool at the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. He also met Ernesto Lopez, a fellow Chicano, who directed the Upward Bound Educational Program at Oregon State.
"I wish I was a kid so I could go to school," said Hernandez.