Mr. Billingsley, 95, died on July 16 at a hospice center in Bloomington, Indiana. His story, as he told it, was a success story that surpassed anything he could have imagined growing up in Erie, Pennsylvania during the Depression. the son of a single mother who almost put him in an orphanage because she was too poor to care for him.
“For the sake of my life,” Billingsley wrote in an autobiography, Challenge: How to Succeed Beyond Your Dreams, the YMCA in downtown Erie gave him a free one-year membership when he was 7 years old. It was a ticket off the street into a world of wholesome fun, ping-pong with other boys, and cartwheeling and jumping in tumbling teams.
It was also his ticket to hours of practice in the pool where, at the age of 9, Mr Billingsley taught himself to swim, using thrashing of his arms and legs to propel himself over the shallow end of the water. He was also essentially self-taught in diving, having used primitive diagrams on a bulletin board in the Y as his only early guides.
As a high school senior in 1943, Mr. Billingsley placed third in a national diving championship. He then went to Ohio State University, where he competed under famed swim and dive coach Mike Peppe. Only Peppe would win more individual diving titles as a trainer than Mr. Billingsley during his Indiana career, according to the Swimming Hall of Fame.
He joined IU in 1959 as a dive coach, working with James “Doc” Counsilman, who led the swim team. In 1968, Sports Illustrated declared Mr. Billingsley “by far the best college coach in the country.” His divers won six NCAA and more than 20 Big Ten team championships and 115 national individual titles before retiring in 1989. Between 1964 and 1970, he was named US Instructor of the Year seven times in a row.
Mr. Billingsley developed a methodical approach to scuba diving, a sport that Sports Illustrated described in 1966 as “an ascetic, artistic pursuit ridden by classical prescriptions and fixed ideas.” Despite failing his college physics exam, Mr. Billingsley attempted to replace these “classical principles” with Newton’s laws of motion.
“Diving is no longer an art, it’s now an art and a science,” he told the magazine. “Newton was the greatest dive coach that ever lived.”
Mr. Billingsley was US women’s diving coach at the 1968 Olympics and US men’s coach at the 1972 games. He coached the Austrian team in 1976 and the Austrian and Danish teams in 1980. Olympians who trained and competed under him included Jim Henry, Rick Gilbert, Cynthia Potter, and Lesley Bush and Ken Sitzberger, both gold medalists at the 1964 Tokyo Games. Mr. Billingsley also coached Mark Lenzi, an IU graduate, who won a gold medal at the 1992 Barcelona Games.
Such was his enthusiasm for his athletes, Billingsley recalled, that he once “went to congratulate a jumper on a win and ran into a wall.”
Hobart Sherwood Billingsley was born on December 2, 1926 in Erie. His father was not present in his life, leaving Mr. Billingsley’s mother to raise their two children.
She took her older son to live with grandparents, but the grandparents refused to take Mr. Billingsley in, his daughter Elizabeth Bender said, because he was too “wild.” In desperation, the mother took Mr Billingsley to a local orphanage, St Joseph’s Home for Children, and got as far as the stairs before deciding she could not give up her son.
Mr. Billingsley spent part of his childhood in an apartment behind a hairdresser’s and next to a bar. Noise from the riot next door easily filtered through the thin wall, Mr. Billingsley wrote in his memoir, published in 2017. Once he heard a fatal gunfire. During the cold winters, when the wind blew off Lake Erie and icicles hung from the rooftops like Roman columns, he and his brother would gather firewood for their wood stove. Mr. Billingsley recalled collecting public food items in his carriage or sleigh.
One day he was walking home from school in a snowstorm when he was run over by a driver blinded by the snow. The accident could easily have been fatal, but all Mr Billingsley had was “a few stitches” and a headache, he wrote, and a belief that “God had a purpose for me.”
Mr. Billingsley’s mother could no longer afford the YMCA’s $6 annual dues after his introductory membership expired. He then snuck into the club for nine years, where staff either were unaware of his status or turned a blind eye.
For all the friendliness he encountered at the Y, the place did not fully protect him from the insults that pierced long after he was a child. Despite his prowess on the diving board, the swim coach declined to take him on a team outing to Buffalo that would also include a visit to Niagara Falls. The trainer, Mr. Billingsley wrote in his memoirs, “didn’t think I was cut out to be a jumper.”
“That kind of rejection was very painful for a 12-year-old boy,” he wrote, “and it really hurt when I went to the ‘Y’ the next morning and watched all my friends get on the bus while they were having lunch wore and bathing suits and whooping cough. Heartbroken, I stood on the sidewalk crying my eyes out and waved at them as the bus pulled away. That was another painful lesson I would never forget, and I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t do that to anyone.”
He also decided he would prove the trainer wrong and started diving three or four hours a day, he wrote.
After serving in the Army Air Forces in the Pacific, Mr. Billingsley received a bachelor’s degree in physical education from the State of Ohio in 1951. According to the Hall of Fame, he won both the NCAA springboard low and high titles as a freshman in 1945.
He received a master’s degree, also in physical education, from the University of Washington in 1953. After working as a high school teacher and swimming, diving, and gymnastics coach, he briefly coached at Ohio University in Athens before being hired at IU in 1959.
In addition to his coaching, Mr. Billingsley traveled the country performing in comedic water shows with fellow divers Bruce Harlan, a gold medalist in diving at the 1948 London Olympics, and Dick Kimball.
Mr. Billingsley’s marriage to Mary Drake ended in divorce. They had three children. In addition to Bender of Bloomington, survivors include two other children, James Billingsley, also of Bloomington, and Nancy Farmer of Clermont, Florida; nine grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren. Bender confirmed her father’s death and said it was caused by complications from myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disease.
Among his other contributions to his sport, Mr. Billingsley was the author of a manual, “Diving Illustrated,” that saves future athletes the trouble of learning to scuba dive with just a few pictures on the wall at their local pool.
In his autobiography, he wrote of his abiding gratitude to two men of the YMCA, the director of the boys’ department and his assistant, who he says were “largely responsible for the person I’ve become.”
“I was grateful to the ‘Y’ and these men,” continued Mr. Billingsley, “for taking in a kid like me who was getting depressed, otherwise I probably would have ended up in prison.”