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May 25, 2017


"Female Fish Named Susie" - A Real 1936 Astoria, Queens Diver Shares Her Story

Kelly Mullally, Sue Plunkett, and Patricia Furstman 

Kelly Mullally recently purchased four of our Astoria Diving Club t-shirts over two orders. We had to find out why!

Kelly’s great-grandmother, Sue Plunkett (nee Hernstorf), was born in 1922 and moved to Astoria with her family when she was three years old. She was 14 the year both the Triboro Bridge and the Astoria Pool opened. “It was an exciting time for the youth in the area,” Sue said. “It was the new hangout. I was so excited about the high diving board! It was thrilling.”

Diving at Astoria Pool

Sue even got to experience some of the 1936 Olympics trials, which were held at Astoria Pool. “It was awesome,” she said. “I kept thinking to myself that someday I would be in there.”

That same year, Sue was hand-picked by Vic Zoble, the Astoria Pool Supervisor, for the swim team. Zoble was a trainer and diver and mentored a lot of children who swam at the pool. He would watch as the children took turns launching from the diving board. “If he liked what he saw,” Sue said, “he took you off to the side and would teach you. That’s how I started.”

A female fish named Susie

The diving pool was an exciting – if slightly scary – place to be. From the diving board, the surface of the water in the 16-foot deep pool was not visible. Children on either side of the pool would splash so that divers could see the point of entry before taking off from one of the three diving boards, which ranged in height from 10- to 32-feet tall. During diving competitions, divers gained points for various styles of dives, including backflips, forward flips, jackknives and forward dives.

Sue began swimming and diving competitively in 1936. Three years later, at the age of 17, she narrowed her activities to just competitive swimming.

“Swimming in a race to beat everyone was my favorite,” Sue said. “Mainly I’d compete in the freestyle 150-meter, 50-meter and 25-meter.”

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During this time period, most of the hotels in New York and Brooklyn had swimming teams who would compete against each other. Sue swam for the Shelton Dolphins, who practiced at the Shelton Hotel on 54th Street during the season. Over the summers, Sue returned to the Astoria Pool to practice.

Hotel Swimmers

Sue, at podium three, prepares to dive into the pool

In addition to competing, Sue had time for more artistic aquatic pursuits. “The Pool Show” was a popular weekly show created by Vic Zoble. One of his creations was the AquaZanies, a group of young boys that would do crazy comedic and acrobatic antics off the diving boards.

“The AquaZanies would start the show, then the fancy divers would come out,” Sue said. “…followed by 18 girls doing water ballet, of which I was a member. It would be set to music and there would be lights that would move from the diving pool and then into the swimming pool to highlight the different parts of the show.”

Sue even got a chance to perform at the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing. Zoble took the girls and the AquaZanies to the fair, where the group was offered $100 a night to perform.

Between swimming, diving and water ballet, Sue even had time to meet her future husband, Frank Plunkett. Frank was one of the original lifeguards at the Astoria Pool, and became Sue’s swim coach. Frank was a competitive long distance swimmer, and would swim from the Rockaways to Coney Island. He and his best friend could swim for miles.

Lifeguards

The original Astoria Pool lifeguards. Frank Plunkett is pictured at bottom left and Vic Zoble is pictured center, standing.

While World War II ended their competitive swimming careers, the pair couldn’t be completely kept out of the water. Frank went into the Army Air Corp at 35 years old and was stationed in Greensboro, North Carolina. He gave swimming lessons to pilots and taught them how to escape ditched airplanes. He and Sue were married in Greensboro in a judge’s chamber in a country jailhouse, and Sue began work in the army camp as a dental nurse. After the war, the couple moved back to Astoria and welcomed two daughters, Pat and Geri, in 1944 and 1945. Frank went into banking while Sue raised the girls. Frank continued to be involved with the water. His friend was a doctor working with Polio victims and Frank thought water therapy might be helpful.

“The doctor was skeptical,” Sue said. “So my husband had his hands tied together behind his back and jumped in the water to prove that your body is buoyant and that it would be less stress on the body than outside of the water.”

Sue and Frank

Frank and Sue

Pat and Geri, of course, began swimming when they were very young. “Our parents would bring us to the pool every weekend and we would have to practice before we could play,” Geri said. “I remember holding onto the edge of the pool and kicking, kicking, kicking.”

At Astoria Pool

While they loved swimming, they didn’t quite have the same bravado as their parents when it came to plunging off the high dives. “I only jumped, never dove,” Pat said. “The 10-foot [diving board] was my favorite. I never went up the 32, it was too scary. I used to think my mother was crazy.”

Children used to line up to jump off the 10-foot board due it’s great spring and height. They would play games like tag off the 10- and 16-foot boards. “It was a big playground,” Pat said. “I loved it. It was the hangout. Me and my sister practically lived there. There was a group of us that always swam together.”

“When we were teens,” Geri said, “We would go to the early swim in the morning, leave the pool when it closed for the hour, buy lunch and wait on line for the pool to reopen for the rest of the day.”

Cool at the poolAstoria Pool, 1959. Geri is pictured peeking over the shoulder of the center lifeguard, while Pat stands at his right.

Pat and Geri even began swimming competitively, following in their parents’ footsteps. Pat and Geri were at the pool almost every day, and had ample opportunity to see their family as well. Cousins lived right across the street, and some worked the concession stands. An aunt was the pool nurse.

The diving pool has been out of commission since the 1970s, a fact that Pat laments. She’s also not crazy about the current popular idea to rework the diving pool into an amphitheater.

“I really think that children should have the opportunity to use the diving boards and the experience we had growing up was wonderful. I think the park is big enough to have an amphitheater besides at the location of the diving board. Dive, have fun, be children.”

Astoria Diving Club tee is printed in limited quantities. Click here to order yours!