The year was 1968. A man named Richard M. Nixon was elected president of the United States, actor Will Smith was born, long hair was coming back in style and Rick Gilbert was named Cornell’s new diving coach.
A lot of things changed over the next four decades. The country saw six more presidents, two Men in Black movies and enough bad hairstyles to fill a couple scrapbooks.
But Gilbert has remained at Cornell — his first and possibly last coaching job.
Gilbert is preparing to retire at the end of the year, finishing 39 years as the head coach of diving. Three of those 39 years were also spent serving as head coach of the entire swimming and diving program.
The three-time high school All-American will end his career at Cornell with fitting acclaim, as his men’s team finished the regular season undefeated and captured the dual-meet championship out-right from perennial favorites Harvard, Princeton and Yale. Originally from Lancaster, Pa., Gilbert and his wife will be moving to his wife’s hometown of Houston. They will be joining their daughter, who serves as an assistant district attorney in Houston as well.
“We’re ready to get out of the snow,” Gilbert said.
A distinguished diver himself, Gilbert graduated from the University of Indiana in 1967 with a master’s degree in physical education, a handful of Big-10 diving titles and an NCAA championship. He went on to dive for the United States in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City — finishing seventeenth in the 10-meter platform.
Due to his passion and involvement in the sport of diving, coaching was easy for Gilbert. “Coaching just came along naturally,” Gilbert said.
But if it wasn’t for the financial stability Cornell offered, Gilbert may have never come to Ithaca at all.
“At the time that I was looking for jobs, Cornell was the only school with a full-time position open,” he said. “Cornell was paying the most.”
Through the years, Gilbert has built an impressive reputation and a lifetime of diving memories.
He once deliberately picked a fight with one of his divers just days before the NCAA championship meet. The diver, Ken Light ’76, had a problem with balking on the board and Gilbert hoped that the fight would distract him and ease his nerves.
“I probably wouldn’t do that now,” Gilbert said.
But the trick worked and Light went on to a personal best ninth place finish.
Another time, his rental car was vandalized a week before his replacement was stolen on successive weekends at the women’s and men’s championship meets at Harvard University.
After the wheels were stolen from the first car, Gilbert said the woman at the rental car agency gave him a lot of grief, saying, “It would have been better if they took the whole thing.” The next weekend, thieves did just that.
“Well, you got your wish,” Gilbert told the woman. “They took the whole car.”
Gilbert is looking at his move as a new challenge.
“I’m going to miss the contact with the kids,” he said. “It keeps you young, as opposed to somebody who goes out into the work force, your colleagues and you age together. Working with college kids all the time keeps us on our toes. Although listening to rap music makes me feel old.”
Gilbert said he would not, however, miss the long team bus rides, during which he was forced to watch “all the chick flicks the women played.”
But after all those years of coaching, Gilbert said he’s ready for a break.
“I’m just going to do nothing for a while,” he said.
The new freedom will give Gilbert more time to devote to his hobby of photography. “It’s like an addiction,” Gilbert said.
He estimated that nine out of ten photographs on the swimming and diving team website were taken by him.
Gilbert has not completely ruled out another coaching job yet, for now he is just ready to get away from it all.
“Somebody tells me why they are going to miss practice and I just laugh and tell them to get a new excuse,” Gilbert said. “I’ve already heard that one before.”