Pat McCormick, Olympic vaulter from Seal Beach who was the first vaulter to sweep gold medals in back-to-back games, has died
Growing up as a street kid in Seal Beach in the 1930s, Pat McCormick loved the beach, he loved the water, he loved to compete, and he loved to take chances. He had no idea that things like the Olympics existed, and scuba diving was something kids did for fun.
But McCormick used diving to carve out his own special niche in Olympic history, in effect making his decision. Competing at the Summer Games in Helsinki in 1952 and Melbourne in 1956, she became the first, and still the only woman, to sweep the gold medals in back-to-back Games, winning twice on both springboard and platform.
It wasn’t until 1988 that that feat was matched, and then it was a diver, Greg Louganis, who swept Seoul after having done so in Los Angeles in 1984.
McCormick died Tuesday at the age of 92. USA Diving announced Friday.
In addition to talent and a deep desire to succeed, young Pat McCormick had a devilish sense of humor. In Helsinki, he was the ringleader of a practical joke on Avery Brundage, president of the US Olympic Committee and future president of the International Olympic Committee. A stern, aloof, and uncompromising champion of pure amateurism, he was not popular with athletes.
“There were four of us and we decided we were going to put his underwear on a flagpole (in the Olympic village),” McCormick told TeamUSA.org in 2012.
With the help of a USOC official, McCormick sneaked into Brundage’s room, stole the underwear, and proceeded to the ceremony.
“I ran out and we lined up,” McCormick said. “We had gotten ready, we went outside and took our hats off. I raised the ‘flag’. Everybody stopped and thought: ‘Not sweet!’ – until they looked up. And we got out of there.”
By then, McCormick was pretty used to “getting out of there.” Born Patricia Joan Keller on May 12, 1930, she grew up with an older brother of hers while her divorced mother worked as a nurse during the Depression.
“He was a tough little street rat,” he told The Times in 1987. He was also a miniature beach bum. “Growing up, she had always been in the water. . . . I swam in the canals and the harbor. And I would compete with anyone who competes with me.”
She passed Santa Monica Beach and Muscle Beach in Venice, where bodybuilders would throw her during their routines, and she and her brother dove off the Los Alamitos Bridge in Long Beach.
“Sometimes we would wait until the ships came into port and we would do cannonballs, splashing them,” he often recalled. “They called me Patsy Pest.”
Eventually, however, people took note of his diving. At 14, she won the Long Beach women’s 1-meter diving cup and was invited to join the Los Angeles Athletic Club team. In 1948, at age 17, she had her sights set on making the Olympic team, but she missed, by one-hundredth of a point.
“Because of that failure, I started dreaming about the next Olympic Games,” he said. “I was standing there crying after I came up short and that’s when I decided I would win a gold medal at the next Olympics. So I thought, ‘Why not go to two Olympic Games and win four gold medals?’ “
Which is precisely what she did. In Helsinki, she by then married to Glenn McCormick, an airline pilot who served as her coach, McCormick, accustomed to performing dives considered too difficult for women in international competition, dominated. Only, however, after a serious scare. At an exhibition at Edwards Air Force Base about six weeks before the Olympic trials, she hit rock bottom and a large gash opened up on her head. A doctor stitched up her wound and told her that she would have to miss the Olympics.
“I said, ‘Sir, is there a structural problem in my head?’ McCormick recalled. “He said, ‘No,’ and he had a little smile and said, ‘I’ve never seen such a hard head.’ “
In Melbourne, just eight months after giving birth to a son, she was once again dominant in the 3m springboard event, to the point where she didn’t need to dive in the final.
The 10 meter platform event was a different story. Her teammates Juno Irwin and Paula Meyers passed her and McCormick was fourth after the first day’s competition.
She recalled: “I remember. . . thinking, ‘Okay, kid, you can live your whole life in a moment and this is it. “
He scored 7s and 8s (10 is perfect) the next day in the final, moving into the lead in his sixth of seven dives. However, the competition was so close that he needed his last dive, a 2½ forward somersault, to be the best of his life if he was to win. And that was.
“…I hit that tower so hard you could see it shake,” he said. “When I showed up, I heard 10, 9½ and 10.”
He retired from competitive diving after that, having won 27 national championships and a gold medal at the Pan American Games, in addition to his Olympic haul. She would later win the Sullivan Award for Amateur Athlete of the Year and the Babe Zaharias Award for Female Athlete of the Year, among many other awards. She is in several halls of fame, including the US Olympic Hall of Fame and the International Swimming Hall.
She continued to practice scuba diving for several years, modeling Catalina swimsuits, and over a 13-year period, earned two college degrees. Later, after their divorce, he gave motivational speeches, served on the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee in 1984 (his daughter Kelly won a silver medal in diving at those Games), trained therapy dogs, and established the Pat McCormick Educational Foundation for help in -Young people at risk go through school.
He also climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and sailed down the Amazon River.