US Diver Don Harper: Melbourne Olympics Silver Medalist and Innovative Technician Passes Away at 85

Don Harper

“I felt like my feet were locked in concrete. I couldn’t move.”

At that moment of truth, at the edge of the 3-meter springboard in his final jump of the competition at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, Don Harper froze. His subsequent dive was sub-par, and Harper dropped from first to second, earning him a silver medal.Don Harper froze

Disappointment was brief for Harper, whose final moment at the Olympics defied the fact that he was ever a man in motion. Relatively diminutive at 5 foot 5 inches tall (165 cm), Harper was a whirling dervish on the trampoline and off the diving board. In addition to his silver medal in Melbourne, the Redwood City, California native was a dominant force in the 3m springboard in the US in the second half of the 1950s, winning five US National championships, two NCAA championships, and five National AAU championships in that category.

Don Harper portraitHarper, who was a star on one of the premier diving programs in the US at the time, Ohio State University, not only excelled athletically, but also academically, graduating from Ohio State with Bachelor, Master and Doctorate degrees in the fields of physical education, health and physiology. Today, researchers use motion capture balls or 3D sensory laser technology, but back then, Harper pioneered a way to capture the detailed motion of a tumble through the air by applying a film camera to his chest.

Harper would then execute a wide variety of spins and somersaults on the trampoline to determine the most efficient and effective form for dives off of the 3m springboard. I could not find any photographic evidence of Harper’s innovative training technique, so I wondered – were film cameras small enough that you could strap one to your chest? But when I saw the Revere Eight 8mm (Model 55), a portable film camera from the 1950s, I could see the possibility.

As an innovative coach and a professor of physiology at Ohio State, Harper continued to influence divers the world over. Harper passed away on December 6, 2017.