John Conner '51, World-class diver

Writer: 
August 1, 2008

Flying high: Conner in championship form, above, and posing in Duke Hall of Fame room.

 

Photos courtesy of John Conner

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

John Conner started diving in 1939, when he was a nine-year-old attending a regional 4-H summer camp in West Virginia. "I wouldn't go to the shallow end and swim," he says. "I went to the diving-board end because I wanted something exciting."

Later that summer Conner walked away from West Virginia's state 4-H camp with a diving championship and knew he had found his sport. In the sixty-nine years since, his diving has given him a spot in the Duke Sports Hall of Fame and taken him to five continents—most recently to Australia, where he competed this April in the XII FINA World Masters Swimming and Diving Championships in Perth, winning first place in the one-meter dive, second place in the three-meter dive, and setting a world's record point-score of 186.18 in synchronized diving.

The championships in Perth represented Conner's last international competition in the 74-79 age bracket, an arena he has dominated over the past four years. The seventy-eight-year-old earned top honors in one-meter and three-meter diving at the 2004 World Masters Championships in Riccione, Italy, setting point-score world records (of 202.65 and 202.15, respectively) in both competitions.

The following summer, in Edmonton, Alberta, Conner again won first place in the one-meter competition, setting a world's record and eclipsing his previous mark with a score of 279.25. On a whim he also signed up for—and won—the pole vaulting and synchronized diving competitions in Edmonton. "I signed up with this fellow I call 'Crazy Pete' from Fort Lauderdale for synchronized diving," Conner recalls with a chuckle. "And we won that, too."

At Duke, Conner was the Southern Conference diving champion in 1949, 1950, and 1951, earning All-American honors and placing in the top ten at the NCAA tournament in 1949 and 1950. Upon graduating, he joined the Air Force, where he spent two years flying F-86 combat jets with a man named Michael Collins. Collins later went on to join Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong as the third astronaut on the historic Apollo 11 moon landing mission.

After leaving the Air Force, Conner went on to coach diving at Harvard University from 1956 until 1962. "In 1962 Harvard beat Yale for the first time in twenty-three years—by one point," he says. "I figured we wouldn't beat them again for twenty-three years, so I might as well go on to work for New York Life."

This is Conner's forty-fifth year as an agent at the New York Life Insurance Company—the only statistic that comes close to rivaling his seven-decade diving career. "I could retire if I wanted to," he says. "But it's something to do, and it keeps me busy. I could go out and play golf for thirty days, but then I'd be bored with golf."

His wife, Juanita Conner, used to travel with him to diving meets, but she died in January 2004, after forty-nine years of marriage. "August of that year we would have been fifty years, and I competed in a national meet in Chicago on August 20, our anniversary," Conner recalls. "She would have wanted me to go."