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Not yet out of her braces, 15-year-old Jenni Chandler is springing into prominence as a world-class diver

For a while there it seemed Jenni Chandler couldn't even jump off a diving board without being hailed as some kind of prodigy. References to her age—she had just turned 14—were rampant when she placed eighth in the three-meter springboard last September at the World Aquatics championship in Yugoslavia. The talk grew more insistent after she won the same event this past April at the AAU national indoor championships in Dallas. Wearily, Jenni complained, "If one more person says 'And she's only 14,' I think I'll scream."

After all this, it was particularly fitting that when their daughter's birthday came around in mid-June, Terry and Kay Chandler threw a party on their cattle ranch in the rolling Alabama farmland east of Birmingham. Dark clouds sent rain splattering into Jenni Chandler's backyard diving well, but the mood inside the red-brick, hilltop farmhouse was festive. As Jenni's parents, two sisters—Laurie, 12, and Mindy, 4—and friends chorused "Happy Birthday," out came the white cake aglow with candles. Jenni gave one look, then cried, "Oh, Mother!" The vanilla inscription read AND SHE'S ONLY 15.

Jenni Chandler is young to be a champion diver, but who can blame her for feeling grown up? In the conviction that her smile works better without them, Jenni sometimes discards her retainer braces, and one of these days she may similarly dispose of the wad of bubble gum she is usually chewing—perhaps by pasting it on the underside of some Maxiflex board. Once so skinny she was nicknamed "Stick," Jenni is now a lissome 5'6" with saucerlike blue eyes framed by tumbling hair the color of molasses.

Jenni also is poised and graceful beyond her years off the three-meter board. Nobody much cares that she has not even gotten around to competing in 10-meter platform, the other major diving event. Pat McCormick, the only diver to win four Olympic gold medals, declares, "Jenni has more class and style than any other diver." And Bob Clotworthy, also an Olympic champion and now coach at the University of Texas, adds, "Jenni is incredibly graceful. She has a natural feel for the water. She just seems to know where the water is when she's diving."

Despite these raves, Jenni is no better than a long shot to duplicate her Dallas triumph at the AAU outdoor championships now in progress in Decatur, Ala. The site is just a 90-minute drive from Jenni's home, and her father is meet director, circumstances that will surely make her a favorite with the crowd. Precocious though she is, however, Jenni Chandler is just one of a bumper crop of U.S. female divers, many of whom have a solid edge in experience. As Jenni says, "Some of these girls are 18 or 19 or even older."

Her rivals include Carrie Irish and Melissa Briley, a pair of college-bound whizzes; Carrie is already 18, Melissa will reach that advanced age next week. There also is Christine Loock, well preserved at 20, a premed major at SMU and the best of the many women now diving for men's teams on U.S. campuses. She placed ninth in both one-and three-meter springboard at this year's Southwest Conference meet, but dismisses her team role by noting with a worldly air, "The men have more strength, but I've got prettier legs." Then there are such creaky veterans—all are in their early 20s—as Cynthia Potter, Janet Ely and Jerrie Adair Talbert.

If these creatures are not exactly matronly, the diving situation has nevertheless changed since the 1936 Olympics, when Marjorie Gestring won the springboard at 13; she is still the youngest U.S. athlete to win a gold medal in any sport. Nowadays such children are found more often in swimming, in which the need to keep one's face submerged for hours at a stretch frightens off older and presumably more sensible types.

Because theirs is a technique sport, divers can also expect to improve with age. This is especially true of today's crop of women. Owing to livelier boards and growing acceptance of women as true athletes, it seems that every ponytailed moppet is now doing back 2½s and other demanding maneuvers once performed only by men. The trend in women's diving is toward the acrobatic, and legs everywhere bear bruises and scars caused by collisions with the water or, worse, with diving boards. But harder dives are necessary to fend off foreign challengers, East Germans and Russians in particular, who are doing more circus-like dives, too.

"The easier dives aren't enough any more," says Captain Micki King, gold medalist in the springboard at the 1972 Olympics and now coach at the Air Force Academy. "Any girl who expects to win at Montreal in 1976 will simply have to do harder dives."

At stake is the U.S. effort to reassert its longtime superiority in world diving, which was badly undermined at Munich. Apart from King, American divers won just two medals, neither of them gold. Sweden's Ulrika Knape and Italy's Klaus Dibiasi took the platform events, and they remain the world's best off the tower. The prospect is brighter in springboard. The U.S. lost the men's title in '72 for the first time in 52 years, but Air Force Lieut. Phil Boggs, coached last winter by King, has been a world-beater recently. With King's retirement as a competitor, meanwhile, foreigners like Knape and East Germany's Krista Kohler face waves of American women, any one of whom could be No. 1 by 1976.

Jenni Chandler ranks high among the hopefuls, even though she shuns for now the circuslike dives, concentrating instead on such seemingly elementary maneuvers as reverse or backward 1½s. As if to compensate for her easy-does-it style on the springboard, Jenni is a bundle of energy away from it and has a scampish nature that is readily transmitted to others. In Winnipeg for a meet last spring she distributed bubble gum to her fellow divers and had Melissa Briley and Janet Ely racing through the corridors of their motel.

"It's easy to be a kid around Jenni," Ely says. "She's such a hot dog. She'd say, "Let's do handsprings,' and we'd do it. I said to myself, 'Janet, what are you doing? You're 20 years old.' "

But Jenni is utterly serious about diving. Even the bubble gum has its purpose. "There's pressure in meets, but my gum gets me through," she says. "To relax I chew three sticks at once." Rolling her eyes, a favorite mannerism, she adds, "Of course, I may not have any teeth left one of these days."

During last April's AAU championships, Jenni chomped away on her gum while pacing the pool deck in a red terrycloth robe no more than four sizes too large. The image abruptly changed on the diving board. Suddenly her jaw was still, the gum nowhere in evidence. Jenni's face would become angelic, her eyes mirroring the blue of the water below. She would glide into her approach, and her slender figure would rainbow outward, hanging in the air for a breathtaking instant before insinuating itself into the water. And nobody begrudged Jenni the bubble she blew on the victory stand; while her rivals toiled to make hard dives look easy, she had made easier dives look eternal.

It is questionable, though, how much longer she can get by with just doing less difficult dives. Diving is scored by multiplying a judge's award—anywhere from zero to 10 points—by a "degree of difficulty" assigned to each dive. While her rivals gamble on hitting high-degree-of-difficulty dives, Jenni opts for artfulness and consistency. Her strategy has its parallel in prizefighting, in which a boxer is presumed able to beat a puncher—unless, of course, the latter lands one.

What lowers Jenni Chandler's chances is that she is competing against dozens of knockout threats at once. Consequently she and her coach, Carlos de Cubas, are working to upgrade her list of dives. One tougher dive, a 2½ pike, was added for this week's meet in Decatur, and others are to follow. But de Cubas will not be rushed.

"My mind is fixed on Montreal," he says. "She will have to do a hard list there, but what happens now isn't important. I don't want her doing dives in competition until we know she's absolutely ready. It is better to hit an easy dive eight out of 10 times than a hard dive two out of 10."

De Cubas has taken the long view ever since Jenni Chandler first came to him as a hyperactive 7-year-old swimmer. At the time he was coaching at the Birmingham Mountain Brook Swim and Tennis Club, having fled not long before from Castro's Cuba. A charming, wavy-haired man cast in the swarthy Latin image of Cesar Romero, de Cubas sized up Jenni as a girl with a future. "She is graceful and very smart," he said. "Someday she will be a champion."

At least he may have said that. "Carlos' English wasn't too good," Jenni remembers. "He'd tell the swimmers to do four laps, only he'd hold up three fingers." His accent remains thick. At a recent workout Jenni was starting a dive when de Cubas, noting a sagging shoulder, called, "Tighten up!" Jenni tried to stop in mid-dive only to tumble helplessly into the pool. Surfacing, she asked, "What'd you say?"

"Tighten up."

She sighed. "I thought you said, 'That's enough.' "

Jenni and her coach are close and casual. At the pool, however, de Cubas formally addresses her as Jennifer and she invariably responds, "Sir?" Diving has its frustrations, with a great many variables—approach, takeoff, hurdle, the "trick," the entry—all packed into a split-second sequence. So-called perfect dives, those receiving 10s from every judge, are rare, the only one in recent memory being a backward 1½ somersault with a 2½ twist off the 10-meter tower that Californian Mike Finneran hit at the 1972 Olympic Trials. Consistency requires endless drilling, and Carlos de Cubas is a perfectionist. "Other coaches say, 'That's good enough—go on,' " says Jenni, "but Carlos makes you do it over and over. And it pays off."

Their relationship survived a crisis, thanks partly to Jenni's parents. An attractive couple still in their 30s, Terry and Kay Chandler were themselves athletes; he was a basketball star at Auburn, she a local diving champion in Atlanta. Terry Chandler went into insurance, doing well enough that he was soon dabbling in cattle, a sideline that prompts Jenni to call him "The Marlboro Man." When Jenni was seven, her father bought her a buckskin quarter horse named Promise, which promptly threw her. It was then that she was taken to de Cubas—by her mother. Her father protested vainly. "At Auburn the basketball and football players received big letters," he said. "The swimmers and divers only got iddy-biddy letters."

But Chandler came to appreciate diving, a conversion underscored both by his chairmanship of the big Decatur meet and by the $8,000 he estimates he has shelled out in a single year for Jenni's lessons and related travel. "It's darned expensive," he complains, but it is clear that if the cost ran twice as high, he would simply go out and sell a few more group-life policies.

The crisis occurred a year after Jenni began diving. Afraid of getting hurt, many youngsters freeze on the board or develop other mental blocks, and something of the sort happened while Jenni was learning a forward 1½. At home she fell into a mysterious trance, sleeping day and night. Doctors could not find anything wrong with her.

Her parents discovered the cause by chance. "You don't have to do that new dive," Jenni was told. She snapped out of the trance. Only then did de Cubas realize he had been pushing her too hard. "She was doing so well, I'd forgotten how young she was," he admits.

Jenni has improved rapidly ever since. In 1972, at 12, she was named best woman athlete in any sport at the U.S. Junior Olympics. In Belgium last year, on one of half-a-dozen foreign trips she has made, she won two titles for 13-14-year-olds at the world age-group championships.

To assure that their eldest daughter would continue training over the summer, the Chandlers have placed de Cubas in residence, allowing him to use their diving well for a series of clinics. Called the Four Seasons Farm and located four miles from Alabama's Talladega Speedway, the 200-acre spread is home to the Chandlers, 150 polled Herefords, three cats, two horses, two dogs and a hamster—and for this summer, anyway, a dozen teen-age divers.

So it was that a recent drive up the ranch's mile-long blacktop road terminated with a colorful sight: rows of bath towels draped across the fences like so many semaphores. On the back lawn Kay Chandler was broiling enough hamburgers for an army. On the pool deck watching Jenni and his other divers from beneath a huge sombrero stood de Cubas. Jenni is an animal lover who enjoys helping her dad pull calves and feed the cattle, but now there is little time for that; she and the others spend four hours a day diving.

"It does get boring," Jenni said, sitting in her living room after eating a couple of hamburgers. "But if I'm doing well, I don't mind. And it's worth it for the chance to go to meets. That part is fun."

Besides doing handsprings in Winnipeg, fun for Jenni Chandler includes cutting up with pals like Carrie Irish. In Belgrade for last year's world championship, they bought roller skates and sneaked away to use them—the sort of stunt calculated to scare an injury-conscious coach to death. Carrie finished sixth in the meet, two places ahead of Jenni, largely on one dive—a reverse 2½ tuck that earned the meet's highest single score. But Carrie can disappoint as well as dazzle. Last spring she won the three-meter at the prestigious Spring Swallow meet in Russia only to show up two weeks later at the AAU championships in Dallas and, in the competition won by Jenni, place a calamitous 27th.

Carrie can blame at least some of her inconsistency on the lack of a three-meter board in her hometown of New Canaan, Conn., but she has enrolled at Ohio State where she can work year-round. "Carrie's virtually untrained," says OSU Coach Ron O'Brien. "She's quick and dynamic, and she's going to be the best springboard diver in the world."

Other three-meter contenders have had different problems. SMU's Christine Loock, for example, could have made the Olympic team in 1972 except that she hit the board on one of her dives at the Trials. Loock, who has a 3.8 average in premed, is a contender in platform as well as springboard. Then there is her Dallas teammate Cynthia Potter, a 23-year-old Indiana graduate who has won 18 AAU titles, many coming at the expense of archrival Micki King. But the fact that a good number of Potter's triumphs were in one-meter springboard, an event virtually ignored everywhere but in the U.S., causes King to sniff, "She can have them." And while Captain King was winning at Munich, Cindy Potter was knocking herself out of contention. She hit her foot in a practice dive off the 10-meter tower, bruising it so badly that she had to be carried to and from the Schwimmhalle.

Potter, who weighs 98 pounds and is as tightly muscled as a sprinter, suffered other injuries while diving platform, including tendinitis in an elbow, a wrenched arm, pulled shoulder muscles and torn back ligaments. In action again following an eight-month layoff during which she studied ballet, Potter has dropped the platform. "I don't want to sound like a pathetic child, but enough was enough," she says. She has enough regard for the likes of Carrie Irish to beef up her list of dives and she also is influenced by Jenni Chandler. "With me people say, 'That's the way to do that dive,' " Potter says, "but with Jenni, they say, 'Isn't that pretty.' I hope ballet will help me be a more graceful diver."

The event that gave Potter such a beating, the platform, is the equivalent of diving from a four-story building. So who would want to dive off a four-story building? Janet Ely, another of those Dallas-based divers, would. She finished fourth in both three-meter and tower at Munich, but her prospects now seem brightest from the platform. Owing to the inherent risks, but also because of a shortage of indoor facilities, this event is a little less crowded with sensational youngsters at the moment. Ely proved the point by winning the event in the Dallas AAUs despite blowing two dives. "I've been diving platform five years, and I feel comfortable with it. Of course, it still scares me, too," she says.

Ely is pursued by such younger platform divers as Melissa Briley and Debbie Keplar, both of whom, like Ely, aspire to be artists. Melissa, a Houston native who has received an athletic scholarship to the University of Miami, is also a threat in springboard and unless her waist-length hair unravels and trips her—she braids it for diving—she could develop into the most versatile U.S. diver. As a child, Debbie, an Ohio State freshman, suffered a mental block worse than Jenni Chandler's and quit the sport for three years. She stuck to springboard until Ron O'Brien persuaded her to try tower last summer. Five weeks later she won the national outdoor championship at Louisville.

"I still don't know how Ron got me up there," Debbie says with a sigh. Her strength on tower is a ripping, splash-free entry, which has been attributed to her hyperextended elbows—but may also be caused by a desire to get the ordeal over with.

It is Carlos de Cubas' intention to have Jenni perform off the tower, too. First, of course, she must upgrade her springboard list. It might be questioned whether so elegant a diver has the strength or quickness for acrobatic maneuvers, but Jenni says, "My parents give me the old pep talk that you can do anything you set your mind to. I believe it. When I see these little 11-year-olds doing the hard dives, I feel I can, too."

She was less guarded during a break in de Cubas' backyard diving clinic. Some of the divers were in the Chandler house watching Let's Make a Deal on TV. Jenni and a few others were sunbathing. Coming inside, Jenni passed the table where her father was having lunch. She wore a bikini and was eating a grape Popsicle.

"You looking forward to the triple twister, Jenni?" the Marlboro Man asked, referring to one of the dives his daughter is due to learn.

Jenni had paused to examine her extended tongue, which was purple. She licked the Popsicle and rolled her eyes. Her voice was touched with sarcasm.

"Can't wait," she said.