Alabama native Jennifer Kay Chandler (1959- ) won the gold medal for springboard diving in the 1976 Montreal Olympics at the age of 17. She also competed in the 1978 World Championships and qualified for the U.S.-boycotted 1980 Olympics but retired soon after because of back injuries. She later was a diving commentator on television and director of Outreach Programs for the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.
Chandler was born June 13, 1959, in Langdale, Chambers County, a Chattahoochee River town. Chandler was raised in an athletic family: her father Terry played basketball for Auburn University and her mother Kay was a talented diver. In the early 1960s, the Chandler family moved from Langdale to Athens, Georgia, where her father worked in the insurance business and two-year-old Jennifer learned to swim at the University of Georgia. She is the oldest of three girls.
In 1964, the family moved to the Birmingham suburb of Mountain Brook and joined the Mountain Brook Swim and Tennis Club, which, at the time, was coached by Carlos de Cubas, a former Olympic swimming and diving coach from Cuba. Chandler joined the Mountain Brook Swim and Tennis club's swim team, a pastime that she described as the most fun thing that she had ever done. However, she was soon introduced to diving by her mother. De Cubas quickly recognized Chandler's natural athletic gifts of strength, stamina, coordination, and determination. He convinced her, after some initial reluctance, to switch from swimming to diving. Chandler enjoyed the switch more than she had imagined.
Chandler's growing enthusiasm for diving had nothing to do with water. Diving, was about the thrill of "flying." She reveled in leaping high off the board and then plunging downward. Each flight, as she called it, was the briefest moment, but each was a thrill. The better Chandler became, the more challenging de Cubas became. He showed Chandler the difficult dives she had to master to be a champion. No matter how difficult the practices, Chandler pressed on with relentless determination. Even as she learned how to perform dives with an increasingly higher degree of difficulty, she maintained the elegance and grace that characterized her performances.
Chandler prepared for the Junior Olympics held in Spokane, Washington, by beginning daily practices the summer she turned 12. She not only won, but also was named Most Outstanding Athlete of the event. (In competitive diving, generally seven judges score each dive. The high and low score are discarded. The remaining scores are totaled and this number is multiplied by the dive's degree of difficulty.) The following year, de Cubas left Birmingham to coach in Atlanta and continued to coach Chandler, who drove with her mother to Atlanta each week for training. Chandler soon moved to Atlanta, boarding at a private high school named Westminster. She was de Cubas's only student aspiring for a national championship and there were no other divers in the practice sessions for her to emulate. It became clear that she needed to train in a different program. Chandler finally searched for another coach and settled on Ron O'Brien, a rising young star who coached the Ohio State University dive team.
In 1975, the Chandler family moved to Lincoln, near Anniston, Calhoun County. Chandler moved home and continued to work with her new coach, largely by her mother sending film of Chandler's dives to O'Brien. He analyzed the dives and sent critiques to Chandler. On weekends, Chandler flew to Dallas, Texas, to train for the 1975 Pan American Games, in which she won the three-meter springboard in Mexico City that fall. Next, Chandler set her sights on making the 1976 U.S. Olympic team. She moved to Ohio to practice daily with O'Brien. Just a few months later, she moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where six other Olympic hopeful divers coached by O'Brien gathered for more intense training.
In the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Chandler overcame an intense case of nerves to win the gold medal in the three-meter springboard diving. She led from the first dive and won by nearly 50 points over silver medalist Krista Kohler of what was then the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany.
After the 1976 Olympics, Chandler returned home to Alabama, finished high school, and accepted a diving scholarship from Ohio State University. There, she injured her back performing a back 2-1/2 somersault tuck from the 10-meter platform and was hospitalized for three weeks. She returned to diving after her recuperation. Chandler transferred to the University of California at Irvine in 1978 to continue training under O'Brien, who had taken a coaching job in Mission Viejo, California. In 1979, she reinjured her back but overcame the injury to qualify for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The United States, however, boycotted those Olympic games to protest the Soviet Union's presence in Afghanistan. Chandler retired from diving that year.
In 1987, Chandler graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in drawing and painting from the University of Arizona. She returned to Alabama in 1993 and became the Senior Community Affairs Liaison for HealthSouth Corporation. From 1993 to 1996, she had an executive position with the Birmingham Olympic Soccer organization, which hosted 11 Olympic soccer matches at Birmingham's Legion Field as part of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games. She also has been an expert commentator for numerous national television networks. In 2003, she began working at the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame as director of its outreach programs.
Chandler is a member of the International Swimming and Diving Hall of Fame (1987), the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame (1985),
and the Calhoun County Sports Hall of Fame (2009). She is married to John Wyatt Stevenson, editor and publisher of The Randolph Leader newspaper in Randolph County, Alabama.
Bailey, Tom. Jennifer Chandler: Olympic Champion Diver. Birmingham, Ala.: Seacoast Publishing, 2005.
The Birmingham News
Published March 17, 2009
Last updated October 28, 2011