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The 1959 swimming and diving championships of the Amateur Athletic Union, which were held in Palm Beach, Fla., didn’t exactly look like the diving events that can be seen this week coming out of the Summer Olympics in Rio.
Even though the event was supposed to be the indoor championships, it was held outside due to the heat. And the 200 or so girls and young women of the AAU were representing schools and local clubs, not nations. They wore the same modest one-piece bathing suits that can be seen in many poolside photos from the 1950s, not the sleek and modern suit today’s divers wear. Finally, perhaps unsurprisingly for 1959, much of the attention they garnered—at least in the pages of LIFE magazine—focused a great deal on the looks of the “pretty plungers,” rather than their skill. The burnt cork that they applied below their eyes, to minimize the glare off the water, was compared to eyeshadow.
They could not, LIFE noted dismissively, “disguise the fact that they were athletes second, girls first.”
The pictures that ran alongside the story were black and white, and provided no information about who won or what the events even were. But the photographer, Peter Stackpole, also captured these vivid color images of the divers in action. And, seeing them now, it’s clear that LIFE’s unnamed writer didn’t quite get the point. Decades later, we can’t know how central athleticism was to any of these women’s identities, but they were athletes, no hedging required. Though Stackpole did not record who among his subjects proved victorious, his photos provide evidence that a gravity-defying dive could be as impressive then as it is today.