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Original Issue

The Gary Coopers' Sporting Life

More than an avocation, sports—and the relaxation they afford—are a creed to this veteran star and his family

With Gary Cooper, shown on SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's cover in perhaps the most unusual costume of his long career, the sporting life is more than a casual avocation. It is a complete way of life for him and his entire family and has been since courtship days. When daughter Maria, now 21, came along, the Coopers simply fitted her into the sports picture as casually and naturally as asking a fourth for tennis. From bird-shooting on the ranch to cricket-playing when, as a boy, he lived in England, Cooper has ranged over the whole spectrum of sport not just as a spectator but as an enthusiastic participant.

Mrs. Cooper, the former Veronica Balfe, who is known as Rocky to her friends (and as Sandra Shaw from her acting days), has been as enthusiastic as her husband in her pursuit of athletics. Raised on Long Island in the salty company of yachtsmen like Corny Shields (her stepfather, Paul Shields, is his brother), she progressed to skeet shooting (she won the California women's championship one year), tennis, golf and finally, skiing and skin-diving. Torn between the last two, she awards them equal custody of her year—summer for diving, winter for the snow slopes.

The Coopers found their latest avocation, skin-diving, via the medium of motion pictures. "We saw Cousteau's The Silent World and it mesmerized us," Rocky recalls. They immediately repaired to U.S. Divers Corporation, the Los Angeles branch of a French firm that produces most of the first-rate skin-diving equipment for this country. They wanted the works, they explained. They went through the accepted steps, learned the basic rules of survival and procedure in the new and exciting sport and duly earned their underwater wings.

Experts now, they remain true to the idealistic concept of the sport with which they first embraced it. They scorn spearfishing. "We figure it's the fishes' world and we are intruders in it," explains Cooper. Their delight is in exploring—far and, on occasion, deep. Only this year, the Cooper women—mother Rocky and pretty Maria—plunged to a recorded depth of 110 feet. One of the witnesses was grumpy husband Gary, who bottomed at only 65 feet in his dive. "Damn fools, show-offs," was his considered opinion of the stunt. "Mighta got hurt." His womenfolk serenely smile at him when the subject comes up—as it frequently does when they see to it.

A bad back has curtailed Actor Cooper's skiing activities in recent years, and tennis became such a problem of finding the right congenial companions at the right time that the Coopers have pretty much put that in a closet for the time being. But Mrs. Cooper, who strongly approves of President Eisenhower's emphasis on fitness, also strongly urges that everyone take some kind of sport to give exercising the keenness of fun. "I just don't feel well if I don't have a certain amount of exercise every day," she says firmly.

Daughter Maria, a genuine beauty with the unmistakable bloom of health in her walk and clear eyes, has even taken up bicycling—stationary bicycling which, in the freeway-clogged hills of Los Angeles, is by all odds the safest kind. The Coopers, heeding Dr. Paul Dudley White's creed that a bicycle a day keeps the heart attack away, bought an Exercycle complete with pedometer to measure the miles ticked off in a given session.

But while she urges competitive sports if that will bring the spark of gaiety to exercising, Rocky Cooper strongly disapproves of the competitive urge that destroys the fun of the game. "A terrible thing is to see the way the competitive instinct distorts the features of some women. I used to have the competitive urge when I was younger, and I think that in a man's face the lines of grim resolve can be attractive. In a woman, no."

Of her husband, she says: "He plays golf, for instance, to relax. He doesn't go out to lose his disposition." Cooper assents. "When I go on the golf course I'm happy to break 100. And I like to play with people who treat the game that way. I stay away from those grim golfers. They can ruin an afternoon for anybody."


OFF TO THE DEPTHS, Gary, Rocky and Maria (right) walk down to the craggy shore of the blue Mediterranean with their friend and fellow enthusiast Van Johnson.


UP ON THE SLOPES, the Coopers take a breather on Sun Valley's Ridge Run.


DOWN IN THE DEPTHS, Gary and Rocky explore coral reef formation off Nassau.


UP IN THE HILLS, Hunter Cooper in earlier days relaxes after a bird shoot with his old friend Ernest Hemingway and Taylor Williams, Sun Valley hunting guide.