I don’t remember a time without diving boards in my life. I’ve always loved them. This affection doesn’t extend to heights in general; I’m not interested in jumping off the tallest, most treacherous cliff or platform. I’m talking about a very specific joy that comes with launching your body off a springboard. Bouncy things bring out a playful, childlike quality in some people. I dare you to jump off a diving board angry — it’s impossible.
I live in Austin, which means that a pool is crucial to surviving the Texas heat. I prefer to spend at least three or four days a week in the natural waters of Barton Springs, the legendary public pool. I’ve been diving there since I was a kid — my mom was a Barton Springs lifeguard when she was pregnant with me — and still there’s the tiniest, almost undetectable tinge of fear every time I make my approach. My go-to move is a pike dive. It goes like this: right foot, left foot, skip, bounce, feet together, hips up, head down, hands to toes, legs straight above my head and vwoosh. All of a sudden, I feel weightless as the water rushes past my ears and I’m surging into the depths where no one can see me. I keep coming back for the alchemy of exhilaration, fear and confidence that turns into pride, calm and relief as my body enters the water.
I’ve met so many people in line at the board. I see them weekly, here at our collective Happy Place. On any given day I might run into Linda, who goes by the nickname Lady Go-Diver With a Swimsuit, doing one of her signature tricks, like the Twirling Mermaid, which involves putting water in her mouth and doing a 360 while spitting it out. It’s rare that I don’t see at least one of the Marks, whom I met about two years ago and who are named for the order in which I met them. Mark One is a sweetheart and easy to spot with his white hair and fading tattoos — a classic Austin look. (We’re having a competition this summer to see who can nail a one-and-a-half front flip first — loser buys enchiladas.) Mark Two is a security architect and triathlete. He’s a celebrity at this board, one of the best divers I’ve ever seen. He lands double back flips like it’s nothing. It’s truly incredible to watch. As soon as he shows up, people flock to him for advice on fine-tuning their tricks.
But it’s not just experienced divers catapulting themselves off this plank. On a busy summer day at the Springs, the line might be 30 people deep and consist of all kinds of thrill seekers — experienced divers and novices alike. It’s not uncommon to see 4- and 5-year-olds inching their way to the end of the board. When they finally do jump, the crowd of onlookers erupts as if the home team scored a winning touchdown in overtime.
If it’s a busy day at the pool, my dive might get a reaction, too. Sometimes the audience will clap or even gasp. When I come up for air, I might hear a stranger say, “Did you see that?!” as if they’re surprised to see a plus-size woman in her mid-30s perform this gracefully. But their reaction is just a bonus, because the dive is not for them — it’s for me. It’s proof. Proof that if nothing else, I’ve still got this. You see, I haven’t always had the kindest relationship with my body. I’ve never been small, which means that for most of my life, small is all I wanted to be. Finding clothes that I feel good in, especially in the sweltering heat of a Texas summer, is a challenge every year. But I’ve always felt safe in a bathing suit. Because even when I hate my body, the pool is neutral ground. No matter what kind of day I’m having, what my body has or hasn’t accomplished, I can still dive.
Confidence can be a tricky thing to hold on to. Which is why I started to panic when I started seeing diving boards less and less. The first time I noticed the trend was in 2011, when I heard that my small hometown outside Austin was renovating the public pool where I spent my childhood summers. A massive upgrade was planned for the original pool, built in the 1950s. Word around town was that they were replacing the board with a slide — and not even a cool slide. It looks like something from Toys-R-Us — the kind of cheap plastic contraption that might be fun the first time you play with it but inevitably ends up at the bottom of the toy box. A few years later, when I moved to Oakland, in 2015, it took me nearly five years of searching before I found a public diving board. When I finally saw one at the West Campus Pool in Berkeley, my eyes began to water. I spent the next three hours blissfully diving, feeling the release of years of built-up tension.
Once I started talking about the disappearance of diving boards, everyone had a story for me. Mark Two told me that when he was road-tripping around America, he searched for boards in every town he visited. They were few and far between. When he found one in San Diego, at a Jewish community center, he was devastated to learn that their rules prohibited any fancy dives or flips. As far as I can tell, this is all to do with insurance and liability. Municipalities don’t want to pay higher insurance rates that come with diving boards or get sued for any injuries. But to me, a pool without a diving board is like a theater without a stage. Without diving boards, where will we go to be brave and show off and believe in one another? So if you see a diving board this summer, I encourage you to take the plunge. Who knows how much longer we’ll be able to.
Haley Howle is a writer, editor and podcast producer based in Austin, Texas. Previously she was a senior producer at Pop-Up Magazine.