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Original Issue


Sam Hernandez found it takes more than skill and bravery to dive off the cliffs at Acapulco

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's coming...coming...all" 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 2½ 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.

"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.

The schism between Hernandez and the world of professional diving seemed to be healing itself when in the spring of 1975 Hernandez' entry was accepted for a Maxwell-promoted event in a New Jersey amusement park where three "world championships" were to be decided. However, by the day of the contest Hernandez still had not signed the standard release form issued by the park. Instead he presented an untenable contract handwritten on Holiday Inn letterhead. So, he watched as University of Texas medical student Donnie Vick won all three titles. When the 1975 Acapulco invitations were sent out, Hernandez' name again was not on the list.

Despite the rejection from the Maxwells and no reply from telegrams to Garcia, Hernandez announced in Los Angeles that he was going to Acapulco and would perform a chilling dive never before attempted from the cliffs. Hernandez' specialty, a 2½, involves somersaults and a headfirst entry.

"I don't care how many flips you do," Hernandez said, agreeing with the native divers' philosophy. "If you land feet first, you're not diving, you're jumping. The danger, the beauty, the skill, is in the headfirst entry. If you land wrong, on your head or go over too far from that height, at that speed, you got troubles."

A Los Angeles television station prepared a special spot featuring Hernandez, and raised $400 for his expenses at a benefit luncheon, checks payable to "Friends of Sam Hernandez." (The expenses for the invited divers were paid for by Maxwell Associates.) A resolution passed by the Los Angeles city council honored him "not only for his outstanding achievements, but for his compassion for the less fortunate"—specifically, his work for organizations such as the Sugar Ray Youth Foundation. The proclamation wished him luck in Acapulco.

Hernandez borrowed a car, packed Sue and Sami-Sue in the front seat and drove to Acapulco. He spent his first few days hanging around Hotel El Mirador, which is built on the cliffs at La Quebrada. He would sit on a rock and stare up at the cliff, his legs dangling, like a little boy in a barber chair, twisting a huge souvenir cliff-diving ring. Occasionally he would scribble in a little notebook things like, "Dec. 19, 12:16—tide not so good. 12:18—tide real good."

Three days before the event Hernandez met with the Maxwells and Pat Sucher beside the Hotel El Mirador pool, and argued that his second-place finish the previous year had earned him the right to compete. "Anyone can get lucky," Sucher retorted. With that, Hernandez jumped out of his lounge chair and challenged Sucher to a diving match off the cliff, right then and there. The clash was not surprising. Hernandez had been taught by the ghetto that winning means surviving, while Sucher's personality pattern had also been set at an early age. When he was seven a bone tumor had been found on his thigh and doctors feared he would never walk again. After two operations and months in a body cast, Sucher's father broke the boy's crutches over a knee. "No kid of mine is going to be a cripple the rest of his life," he told the crying youngster.

"We're sick about all this because we bring special divers here to Acapulco," said Norma Maxwell later that day. "Deserving divers, not just qualified divers. Our divers are very happy and very close, and Sam Hernandez is a disrupting influence on them."

None of the divers publicly disagreed with Norma Maxwell, but then they don't disagree with her about anything. She is not an unkind woman—at the 1974 championships she tried to sign Hernandez for the Maxwells' other promotions, and her efforts were marked with obvious concern for his welfare—but she exercises the kind of control that makes her divers glance guiltily over their shoulders when they enter a bar. "You got to play ball with Norma," said one diver.

"The Maxwells are uptight because I won't work for them and they can't exploit my dive," said Hernandez. "They're afraid my 2½ will show their divers up. But if I don't do that damn dive, I might as well not even bother to go back to L.A. and face those kids."

The afternoon after the meeting with Sucher and the Maxwells, Hernandez climbed the cliff and practiced his 2½ from the 65-foot perch, 20 feet below the top. The Maxwells watched him from the hotel terrace.

With time running out, Hernandez dipped into his dwindling fund money for a scattershot series of phone calls to Los Angeles. He called Jack Roth, his coach, and soon the Los Angeles-based Mexican-American Political Association knew of his troubles, as well as the governors of the Mexican states of Baja California and Guerrero. California Senator Alan Cranston's office repeatedly tried to call the Maxwells. The calls were ignored. Hernandez' lawyer flew to Acapulco; he went swimming when he saw he had not gotten the whole story and there was no case. Hernandez visited the Mexican immigration department and returned saying he was told he would be deported if he so much as set foot on the cliff.

As the contest drew closer Sam began grasping at straws. Hearing of the boycott of Mexico by American Jews because of Mexico's vote in the U.N. in favor of a resolution equating Zionism with racism—there were 68,000 hotel cancellations in Acapulco—he concluded that Mexico wouldn't want to further antagonize the U.S. Maybe that would help him. If not, someone told him California Governor Jerry Brown planned to send two men to help. If not, Sue had this friend who knew someone in the CIA and....

In fact, Raoul Garcia received a telegram from a deputy in the Mexican Congress ordering him to allow Hernandez to compete. Garcia scoffed. "It's simple," Garcia said. "I invite you to a party, you come. I don't invite you, you don't come. Sam Hernandez is stupid. He's not a Mexican, he's a pocho [a word akin to half-breed]. No one can come to my country and tell me what to do. If Sam Hernandez pays me 10,000 pesos [$800] entry fee, he dives."

Unaware of the situation, three Hernandez supporters, two women and a teen-age boy, arrived from Los Angeles to watch him dive. They brought with them $200 from the teachers and alumni of Garfield High School, Hernandez' alma mater, and a card saying, "Congratulations on your success." Sue Hernandez, tears in her eyes, told them her husband was banned from the cliff. The trio went to Mass to pray for Hernandez. Bob Maxwell watched them leave the lobby of the hotel and said, "Looks like the whole hearts-and-flowers team is down here."

Half an hour before the diving was scheduled to start, neither prayers nor political pressure had availed. Then it was discovered that two judges had not shown up. The Maxwells drafted Bob Brandt, in Acapulco with his friend Kenny Sitzberger who was providing color commentary for the TV coverage, for jury duty. He accepted the Maxwells' invitation. "It was like sitting in an airplane and having a stewardess come up and say, 'The pilot just died. We need you to fly the plane,' " said Brandt.

Still, there was another judge to appoint. No one was even remotely qualified, except....

Sam Hernandez became the final judge.

The American team consisted of Donnie Vick, the Texan; defending champion Sucher; Al Valadares, the only man in the world to have performed a quadruple somersault from a high-dive platform; Tim McLaughlin, who psychs himself for high diving by gazing toward the ground from the tops of skyscrapers; rookie Brad Garlich; and team captain Rick White, whose background rivals Hernandez'. White is an escapee from Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant district, where he ran with a bunch that used its diving prowess to impress girls at municipal pools. White's first high dive was from about 75 feet—from the Williamsburg Bridge, between Brooklyn and Manhattan. At the time, he and his pals were being chased by a jealous Brooklyn gang.

In Acapulco the divers dived twice—once from the 65-foot perch, once from the top of the cliff. At the completion of the first round, only White, Valadares, Mexican Ricardo Moreno (a two-time winner) and Vick remained in contention. But in the second round poor dives by White and Valadares all but eliminated them.

As Vick stood on a rock at the top of the cliff, a couple of feet higher than the point from which the others had dived, another hassle developed. Moreno threatened to withdraw unless Vick stepped down. Raoul Garcia threatened to disqualify Vick if he dived from that rock. While the Mexican spectators below howled, "Arriba! Arriba!" ("Higher! Higher!") Hernandez and the rest of the judges, positioned across the chasm, voted unanimously to permit Vick to dive from the rock. Norma Maxwell, stationed with the judges, also wanted Vick to stay on the rock, and yelled instructions to that effect to Vick.

Across the way, her husband encouraged Vick to step down. Vick did and, not surprisingly, after practicing from the higher height, his timing was off and his entry into the water sloppy. Moreno followed with a gorgeous swan dive and won the individual championship.

Later, at the bottom of the cliff, Vick, who joined the Maxwells' shows primarily to earn money for medical school, said that what had happened to Hernandez and himself was demeaning to an athletic activity that is already too much of a spectacle and not enough of a sport.

But the spectacle wasn't quite over. Moments after the final dive, while the contestants were at the bottom congratulating each other, Sam Hernandez appeared, almost unnoticed, at the top of the cliff. The splash and the applause and the scattered shouts of "Sam-well! Olé!" from the few Mexicans who saw him dive were the only indications that he had performed his 2½.

Hernandez returned to Los Angeles "exhausted and defeated," as Sue described him. And broke. Wide World of Sports ignored Hernandez in its coverage of the Acapulco championship, which was aired on Feb. 8; that further depressed and disillusioned Sam, because gaining publicity had been one of his intentions. The Los Angeles Mexican-American Political Association named him Man of the Year, but Hernandez saw that recognition as a hollow honor.

He sent a cable to Acapulco challenging Moreno to a dive, mano a mano. At one point Hernandez said that Moreno accepted although conditions were unclear: maybe the dive would be held at the Universal Movie Studios in Los Angeles, maybe the winner would get 53,000 and the loser $2,000. More recently Hernandez has claimed his offer was refused. The challenge still hangs and for all practical purposes, Hernandez has abandoned competitive professional diving.

What has now captured his interest is an unpaid job coaching the four-man diving team—three Chicanos and a black—at Garfield High School, the team that Hernandez had helped form in 1962. Hernandez recently enrolled at USC for the fall semester.

He had come full circle from the day he quit Oregon State to go big time. So ended Hernandez' dream of becoming a world-famous high diver, the first world-famous high diver. Like those silver coins, it now lies buried at the bottom of La Quebrada.