Ken Sitzberger and Jeanne Collier: Diving’s Power Couple in 1964

Jeanne & Ken Tokyo 1
Ken and Jeanne in Tokyo, from the collection of Jeanne Collier

He was a 19-year-old university student from Illinois. She was an 18-year-old high school student from Arizona. They would go on to be diving’s power couple in Tokyo as Ken Sitzberger won gold in the men’s 3-meter springboard diving competition, and Jeanne Collier took silver in the women’s 3-meter springboard competition.

Collier told me that there was some resistance by the coaches to their dating during final preparations for the XVIII Olympiad in Tokyo, but she said there was never really anything to worry about regarding their readiness.

We met in 1962 at a Nationals. He was from Chicago and I was from Phoenix. We had a letter writing campaign. He went to Indiana. I was still in high school. We got to know each other. So as we prepared for Tokyo, he and I hung out together. The coaches didn’t like that. But it was harmless. At that time, we would have time off, talk at meals, but the focus had to be on training.

Ken & Jeanne Wedding
Ken and Jeanne on their wedding day, from the collection of Jeanne Collier

And the results spoke for themselves. Not only did Sitzberger and Collier win medals at the Tokyo Summer Games, they did so in dramatic, come-from-behind fashion.

In Sitzberger’s case, he was trailing USA teammate Frank Gorman going into the penultimate 9th dive of the competition. While Gorman had his worst dive of the competition, Sitzberger had his best, leapfrogging Gorman into the lead. Despite a strong final dive from Gorman, Sitzberger was able to hold on to win. As his coach, Jerry Darda, was quoted as saying, Sitzberger was a confident person, who a year before, despite winning bronze at the Pan American Games, told Darda that he would win gold in Tokyo.

“Kenny said right-out: ‘I’m going to win the gold medal.’  I didn’t want to ruin his confidence, but I asked him how he could be sure.  He had barely made the team and missed fourth by only five points.  But Kenny had analyzed the whole thing, the strengths and weaknesses of the other divers who were ranked one, two, three in the world – they were his competition – and he knew they’d all be going to training camp for a few weeks before the Olympics.  He told me ‘Those guys are going to see me in training camp and that’s going to help me.  They’re going to feel a lot of extra pressure after they see me dive every day.  They’re going to realize I just don’t miss.'”

In Collier’s case, she was trailing her teammate Patsy Willard as they entered the final optional dives, the three dives where the level of difficulty can send you crashing out of the race, or propel you to victory. The reigning Olympic champion, Ingrid Engel-Kramer of East Germany, led the competition from start to finish, and took gold for the second consecutive Olympics. Willard had a 3-point lead on Collier entering the optional dives, as well as the experience of battling the Olympic pressures in Rome four years before. On top of that, Collier did poorly on her first optional dive – “a forward 2 ½ somersault, which was horrible.” But she pulled herself together for a come-back.

“I had a talk with myself. I had the highest degree of difficulty. I had my two highest difficulty dives left and they were to be my best dives.” Collier snatched silver from her teammate. Here’s how Willard and Collier explained the competition’s final dives to AP.

“I did the best I could,” said the dark-haired, 23-year-old Miss Willard, an Arizona State University student, who held second through much of the competition. “I had a very good day Sunday until my last dive which I spoiled and which probably cost me the gold medal. Throughout Sunday’s competition, I thought I could manage to maintain my lead on Miss Engel-Kramer, but then I fumbled the last dive.”

“I really can’t tell how you how I did it,” an elated Miss Collier said. “I’m still too excited.”

“You were great, Jeanne, just great,” Patsy told Miss Collier after her final dive. It was the most difficult attempt throughout the competition, a reverse 1 1/2 somersault wit 1 1/2 twist. She had a high score of 17.42 and moved from third to second.

“You got the silver and you deserved it,” Miss Willard said.

Ken Sitzberger and Jeanne Collier married in 1966 and went on have four children. Sitzberger maintained his connection to diving as a commentator for ABC Sports in diving competition broadcasts before passing away in 1984.

Jeanne Collier_Ingrid_Krämer_Patsy WIllard
Jeanne Collier, Ingrid Engel-Kramer and Patsy Willard at the 1964 Tokyo Games