91-year-old diver makes history at MU pool

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COLUMBIA - Tom Hairabedian always wanted to compete at MU's diving pool. It may have taken longer than he wanted, but he finally got his wish.

Almost 50 years after he received his doctorate degree and coached for the Tigers, Hairabedian launched off the boards and platforms this weekend at his old stomping grounds. Sunday marked the end of the three-day US Master's Diving competition at MU.

Hairabedian said he's his biggest critic, still, after some 70 years of the sport. His 91-year-old frame lacks some of the muscle mass he sported in his championship days. Surgery in his knees has limited him to the simpler dives, but he said he has no problem with that limitation.

"I can still make an entry, and that helps," Hairabedian said smiling.

At 91, Hairabedian is the world's oldest active championship diver. He smiled when asked the secret to his success.

"I dream about it, I visualize my dives," Hairabedian said. "And coaching others helps, you try to do what you teach. I've had thousands on thousands of students.

"Everybody chooses their life, the direction they want to go. If they want to be in athletics...you have to go after it. Athletes, they concentrate on their activity - football, baseball, diving, gymnastics, car racing - whatever it is. You really focus on what you're doing."

The implications of being a a full-time athlete are hard, Hairabedian said, no matter what age.

"Oftentimes that puts others on the side. My wife didn't like that, she wanted more attention," he said laughing. 

Gerry Dunn of US Masters Diving said FINA (French : International Federation of Swimming) had to create a separate age group for Hairabedian, the 90-years-and-older division.

"Tommy is unique, he's an inspiration to us," Dunn said. "He's kind of like the Energizer Bunny. Some of us wake up some days and think about what we have to do, but then we see how Tom does his business and we've got nothing to complain about."

Hairabedian said he still loves diving at this age. He finds something new to work on from week to week.

"It's the challenge, it's always the challenge," Hairabedian said. "I don't focus on what other people are doing."

Hairabedian said he learned a lot of his mechanics - and improved his focus - with mentoring from Sammy Lee. Lee, 95, was the first Asian American to win an Olympic gold medal for the United States. He won the gold for diving off 10-meter platforms in London in 1948 and Helsinki in 1952. Hairabedian said Lee's influence helped him and inspired him to become a teacher. 

"It takes just a hint to tell you the right mechanics to do when you're doing a dive," Hairabedian said. "There's a key on just about every dive. It's always a challenge."

Hairabedian used to dive off hanger decks when he served in the South Pacific during World War II. He recalls he once hurt his shoulder diving, and had to climb up a rope Jacob's Ladder using one arm. Hairabedian said he's working to get back into shape: lifting weights, riding bicycles, running up hills, all to build leg strength. He said he doesn't know how long he'll keep diving.

"Well, I'd like to retire now but they told me I had to wait 'til I'm 102," Hairabedian said, smiling. 102 is a significant number, he said, because that's how old Masters Diver Viola Krahn lived to be until she died in 2004.

"I don't know what I'll be at 102 if I get that far," Hairabedian said.

When Hairabedian was working on his doctorate in education at MU, he prepared a dissertation on what he loved : diving. He studied the movements of ten divers as they prepared and when they were in mid-air. He then gave a quantitative analysis on their diving motions, what worked for them and what didn't. One of those divers, whom Hairabedian met in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is Alan Schenk.

"Tommy is remarkable," the 69-year-old Schenk said. "He's an incentive for all of us to continue to dive. He's given me the incentive to continue to dive."

Schenk and Hairabedian met during the 1966-67 academic year, then lost touch. The two divers crossed paths again in 2005 at a diving championship in Edmonton, Alberta. A friend introduced Schenk to Hairabedian, who said, "I think I've seen you dive more than anyone else in the world." The two have been friends ever since.

"All you've got to do is look at him, and you say, 'Gosh, I want to be like him when I'm that age,'" Schenk said.  "I want to still be able to do the things he's doing when I'm that age. He encourages you."

Schenk said he and Hairabedian make sure they room together on trips.

"As far as influence goes, he wins everything, because like I told him: 'Tom, you gotta win because everyone else in your age group is dead,'" Schenk said laughing.