Before Title IX, an IU diving coach changed the life of Olympic medalist Cynthia Potter

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Cynthia Potter did not receive a varsity letter from Indiana University until 1997, or 25 years after she represented the Hoosiers in diving. That was not a letter that changed her life, though.

A letter from IU diving coach Hobie Billingsley did.

When she was 13, Potter, a Houston resident, was sent a letter by Billingsley asking her to travel to IU to train. Except she never received it. Her coach did, and she thought Potter was too young for that.

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Four years later, in 1968, as the diver was about to enroll at the University of Texas, the Potters’ home phone rang. It was Billingsley. He asked her – directly this time – if she would come to IU.

“And I said, ‘What for?’ “ Potter recalled. “I didn’t have any idea what he was talking about.”

Cynthia Potter shown prior to her coverage of diving at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
Cynthia Potter shown prior to her coverage of diving at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

Billingsley coached some of the best in the world, and Potter had an idea about that. The Olympic Trials were coming up, and she could enroll as a student and prepare. As far as she was concerned, she said, “This is the ticket to life.”

So the diver told her mother: I am going to IU.

“She looked at me like I had three heads and said, ‘You are not!’ “

Indiana swim coach Doc Counsilman reasoned Indiana could accept up to three female divers without detracting from time spent coaching the men. So the Texan became a Hoosier.

It was a fateful decision.

By the end of summer, Potter had become national champion and finished fourth at the trials, making her an alternate for the Mexico City Olympics.

She went on to finish with 28 U.S titles, most ever in women’s diving. She made three Olympic teams, won a bronze medal on 3-meter springboard  in1976, was a three-time world diver of the year.  She has been a diving TV analyst since 1984, plus a coach, judge, ambassador and fund-raiser.

“It didn’t just change my life. It re-directed my whole being,” said Potter, 71.

“The stars all aligned for me in a way. I would not be who I am today, or be involved in the things I’ve been involved in for the last 50 years, if it hadn’t been for that phone call and that letter.”

It has been 50 years since introduction of Title IX, the civil rights legislation prohibiting gender discrimination at educational institutions. Potter did not benefit from the law but is gratified so many women have.

When she was coming out of high school, she said:

“You could not continue in the sport of diving if you were going to college. There was nowhere to do that. Or at least I didn’t know there was.”

There were no college athletic scholarships for women. No weight room or training room. No paid travel.

But Potter had a coach and a dream.

“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” she said. “I wouldn’t go back and change things. There were certain things I did that I would do differently now. But that’s the case for everybody.”

Potter represented the Hoosiers in an actual meet once. She charitably characterized it as “pretty amusing.”

The Big Ten does not formally recognize women’s conference championships before 1982, but there actually was a Big Ten meet 10 years before that.

A Big Ten meet was organized — not on a Big Ten campus, but at Normal, Ill. Potter said Hoosier swimmers and divers piled into white station wagons for the 205-mile drive and packed themselves in a hotel room, dragging mattresses off the beds. No funding, remember?

The pool was too shallow and too cold. Potter said one diver cracked teeth when hitting bottom.

“I remember freezing our tuchuses off,” she said. “We couldn’t get warm. But we had a good time.”

Potter won Big Ten titles on 1- and 3-meter . . . and in the 400-yard freestyle relay, an occurrence unimaginable today for a diver. She said the judges were white-clad physical education teachers who knew little about diving.

“They basically gave me 10s on every dive I did,” she said. “I think I could have done some cannonballs and still won.”

Potter, the third of five sisters, was exposed to multiple activities as a child: art, piano, ballet, tennis, volleyball, track and field, horseback riding. Her father required them to find something they liked, and Potter loved the water so much she persuaded the family to build a backyard pool. Her father died when she was 9, but his influence remained

“He never really got to see my success in diving. At least not on this earth,”  Potter said.

She was diving as early as age 4.  She began at the Shamrock Hilton pool, which in the late 1940s started one of Houston’s first swimming teams, and at the indoor Tropicana Pool near Hobby Airport. Potter competed for the girls swimming team at Lamar High School because there was no diving program.

She was first exposed to elite divers when, at age 13, she went to  Fort Worth for a meet to qualify for the AAU nationals.

“I couldn’t believe how good these divers were,” she said. “I wanted to be like all of those girls, women. I was in shock. I was hero-worshiping when I went to that competition.”

Unexpectedly, she qualified for the 1964 nationals in Pittsburgh and made finals on 1-meter. That is where Billingsley noticed her.  Coincidentally, that is also where the IU coach noticed Lesley Bush.

In a matter of six months, Billingsley took Bush from afterthought to Olympic champion. It was the biggest upset in diving history. Potter said Bush has long been a mentor.

Potter did not travel to the 1968 Olympics but made it in 1972. In Munich, she said, she was distracted. Even worse, she hit her foot in a practice dive off the tower and was so badly bruised that she had to be carried to and from the Schwimmhalle. She competed while medicated, finishing seventh on 3-meter and 21st on 10-meter.

Four years later, she won her lone Olympic medal at Montreal.

Diving off a tower took a toll on her body, and she eventually discontinued that. She had elbow tendinitis, a wrenched arm, pulled shoulder muscles and torn back ligaments.  She took an eight-month layoff from the sport in the mid-1970s, during which she studied ballet in attempt to become more graceful in diving.

Sandwiched around her Olympic bronze were a bronze in the 1975 Pan American Games and silver in the 1978 World Championships. She won the last of her national titles in 1979, off 1-meter. She would have competed at the Moscow Olympics if not for the 1980 boycott.

Her entry into TV came about because of her Hoosier connections. IU diver Ken Sitzberger was going to cover diving for ABC at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, and the network wanted an analyst for women’s diving. Sitzberger suggested Potter.

She auditioned and landed the job. Sitzberger died before the Olympics, so ABC asked Potter to cover men’s diving, too. She has been a TV fixture ever since.

If she had not enrolled at IU and continued diving, she said, she probably would have gone to Texas and joined a sorority.

“That structure kept me from going off the rails a lot of times,” she said. “And I needed it in my life.”

Awarding of an IU letter was belated but welcomed by Potter, who was honored along with other women in a 1997 ceremony on campus. When she competed, she never thought about getting a letter.

And, of course, she never knew how much a civil rights law would transform women’s sports.

“I’m so glad little girls have what they have,” Potter said. “And it’s been tough for everyone to navigate this and figure it out. I’m not resentful about what we were not allowed to do.

“I don’t sit around and play the blame game. That really doesn’t work for me.”

Potter has been married to TV producer Peter Lasser for 26 years and lives in Atlanta. She was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1987.

Contact IndyStar reporter David Woods at david.woods@indystar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidWoods007.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Title IX: Legendary IU diving coach changed Olympic medalist's life