Fewer willing to take the plunge

Litigation fears, insurance premiums make diving too risky for many pool operators

July 23, 2006|By TOM DUNKEL | TOM DUNKEL,SUN REPORTER

The Calvert Hall College High School diving team in Towson is plunging no more. The three-meter board used by generations of students has been declared unsafe.

The school was renovating its pool, and bringing the existing board up to current code would have required dredging the pool bottom two feet deeper, to 12-plus feet.

"They didn't want to continue the diving program if it wasn't up to regulation," explains Doug Heidrick, Calvert Hall's director of communications. "It's a controversial decision."

Across Maryland and around the nation, the diving board, long a source of bouncy summer fun, is becoming an endangered species, a victim of more inhospitable pools, revised safety rules, litigation fears and insurance costs. The higher the board, the lower its odds of survival.

"The real trend is to build shallow pools: that's 5 feet or less," notes Pamela Engle, who helps oversee pool construction and compliance for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

That means the future belongs to neck-deep lap pools, super puddles that preclude diving of any kind, even the lowly belly flop.

Already, three-meter boards are fast disappearing. Engle says state inspectors don't encounter the high boards very often.

There was a time when big-bounce swan dives, jack knives and cannonballs off the high board were common thrills. Literally and figuratively they represented many youngsters' first tentative, confidence-building leaps of faith. ("Hey, Mom! Dad! Watch this!")

Remember? The gritty feel of the board underfoot, like taking a short walk on sandpaper. Liftoff, followed by a nervous squeal or triumphant yawp. World swirling. Heart pumping. Then splashdown, and entry into that cool, aqua-blue womb of water.

"Those days are gone," declares Brian Loeffler, head swimming and diving coach at Loyola College.

Loeffler can tell diving boards are on the wane by the dearth of talent coming into the collegiate ranks today. His conference-championship meet has as many as 70 competitors in swimming events. For diving, it's roughly 20 women and half that many men.

"There is not as many opportunities for youths to learn diving," he says.

Naval Academy diving coach Joe Suriano believes diving has gotten "a bad rap," pointing out "most of the time alcohol is involved" when serious accidents occur. Beth Drude, president of the Central Maryland Diving League, contends that the "largest problem is dispelling the myth that diving is unsafe."

How did that negative perception take hold? In retrospect, it looks like the domino theory of risk management: a high-profile liability case caused insurance-premium spikes, which triggered revised safety standards and deeper-pool designs, which led to higher construction costs and prohibitively expensive upgrades, which begot a quick-fix solution: ditch the diving board.

The ban-the-board momentum gained strength after a 1993 court case in Washington state.

Teenager Shawn Meneely became paralyzed from the neck down after doing a head-first dive in a neighbor's pool. His family sued the pool builder, diving board manufacturer and the National Spa & Pool Institute, an Alexandria, Va., trade association then promoting safety standards that the builder had ignored.

A jury awarded Meneely some $10 million in compensatory damages.

The National Spa & Pool Institute wound up filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, later to be reborn as The Association of Pool and Spa Professionals.

"On point of law and common sense, there's no reason to find us guilty," says association spokeswoman Suzanne Barrrows. "Trade associations that promulgate standards in the way we do are very aware of Meneely. "

That kind of big-money, high-impact lawsuit gets lots of people's attention. As liability rates increased, so did regulatory oversight. Florida is regarded as the most proactive state. Contractors there, says Barrows, need a special pool construction license; owners must get a special pool-building permit.

Texas is making news because of a crackdown on nonresidential diving boards conducted by the Department of State Health Services. In the past, pools built before 1999 had been given a regulatory waiver.

According to DHMH's Patricia Engle, the key Maryland safety rule requires that the pool diving well be at least 9 feet deep for boards under 20 inches high. For one-meter boards, 10 feet deep. For three-meter boards, 12 1/2 feet deep.

The high dive at Padonia Park Club in Cockeysville was an early revised-risk casualty. About 20 years ago owner Fred Rigger wanted to replace his three-meter board, which dated to when the pool opened in 1962. He had second thoughts after his insurance company informed him the annual insurance premium was jumping to more than $10,000.

Rigger removed the high dive, but for sentimental sake has kept the support stanchion in place, now decorated with artificial palm fronds.

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