Eric Hanauer — Developed the Grab Start

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Cal State Fullerton swim team, early 1970s. Hanauer on the ladder, near the bottom rung.

Did you know that the grab start—the dive used today—was developed by a Southern California swim coach? Eric Hanauer, former coach of Newport Harbor High School and Cal State Fullerton, described how the grab start began.

“My first real job was at Morgan Park High School in Chicago in the late ‘50s early ‘60s,” Hanauer explained. “We won a couple city championships, which had never been done by the school previously. There was another coach of a suburban school who had a swimmer who had polio and experienced trouble staying steady on the starting blocks. He looked up in the rule books and there was nothing against grabbing the blocks, so this swimmer, just to steady himself, would grab the block and then dive in. It wasn’t done to gain any advantage or anything. His legs weren’t strong enough to support him on the blocks.”

After leaving Chicago for graduate school at UCLA, Hanauer worked there as a volunteer assistant coach for swimming and water polo. His first job after UCLA was as a swimming and water polo coach at Newport Harbor High School.

Hanauer described his time as a high school coach: “We had a sprinter at Newport Harbor named Steve Farmer. He was a really good sprinter but had a tendency to false start. He qualified for CIF finals in the 50 yard free. We wanted to do something to prevent a false start so I remembered from my days in Chicago about grabbing the blocks. Back then, there was a week between CIF prelims and finals and during that week we had Steve work on the grab start. He added something to what I told him and that’s the pulldown which was the essential secret of the grab start at that time. At finals, I called over the starter and referee and Steve demonstrated the grab start. They could find nothing against it in the rule book, so the officials agreed he could use it. That’s what made it an advantage. At CIF finals, Steve got out in front, didn’t hit his turn and get the optimum push off and ended up second.”

After that year, Hanauer was offered the job to start the swim program at Cal State Fullerton and he taught all the swimmers the grab start. Steve enrolled at UC Irvine with coach Ted Newland and showed his team the grab start there.

“It started to go around in Southern California and eventually reached Northern California. Mark Spitz used the grab start in the 1972 Olympics and won seven medals and then it was well known throughout the world.”

Hanauer gave more details on the grab start being developed: “I went to grad school at USC for a Ph.D. in Kinesiology and wrote a paper on the grab start. We filmed a grab start and regular start in slow motion at 120 frames a second and analyzed it. I wrote up the advantages of the grab start for Swimming Technique and it was published in Swimming World magazine. There was a man in Ohio who wanted to make a chart on the grab start. I sent him the film and he drew the steps and I annotated them.”

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“In 1981 I spent a month coaching in Kerala, India, preparing the state team for the national championships and running clinics for the coaches. I had been out of coaching 8 years, so I spent a lot of time at Mission Viejo watching Mark Schubert run his workouts. Mark’s reaction when I told him I was going to India: “Too bad you’re not going to Europe.” It turned out to be a fantastic experience, and triggered a wanderlust that continues to this day.”

Born in Germany, Hanauer said they moved to Chicago when he was three years old. He said he flunked YMCA Tadpole three times, but his mom kept him enrolled until he finally passed on the fourth time. Hanauer swam for his high school and college and “was a PE major and a water rat, so coaching kind of fit.”

“Cal State Fullerton dropped swimming in 1974,” Hanauer said. “A year prior, they moved from DII to DI because of football. Although we made the top 10 in Nationals twice in DII and had many All Americans, the budgets were cut in half for non-revenue producing sports, so Hanauer resigned. He had tenure in Kinesiology and began teaching Diving (scuba, not spring or platform).

From that time on, Hanauer became more involved with diving and is known in that community for his underwater videos and photography. He began writing for dive magazines and his articles are read worldwide. Peter Daland was an acquaintance and Hanauer saw him after several years at the 1984 Olympics, which Hanauer was attending as a spectator. “I told him I was really into diving and Peter asked where I was coaching spring and platform diving. I said, no I’m teaching scuba diving. The sports are in the water but there is so much separation between swim and dive and scuba diving.”

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Hanauer with underwater camera gear, mid 1970s.

From his website www.ehanauer.com:

Although Eric Hanauer made his first dives in Chicago’s lakes and quarries in 1959, he didn’t focus primarily on diving until 15 years later.  In the meantime he was a successful swimming and water polo coach at Morgan Park High School (Chicago) and at California State University Fullerton.  He developed the grab start, which is now used by swimmers worldwide.  

Hanauer founded the scuba program at Cal State Fullerton, and when he moved from coaching into teaching began shooting pictures underwater instead of shooting fish.  He introduced thousands of students to the underwater world during his 35 years as an associate professor of physical education.

In 1977, he broke into a new field with his first article in Skin Diver magazine.  Over the past 30 years, his photos and articles have been published in magazines, books, posters, and CDs worldwide.  He has written guidebooks to the Red Sea and Micronesia, as well as an oral history of diving in America (see Publications page).  Currently Hanauer is primarily shooting underwater video, and his work as been selected for showing in festivals, on the internet, on iTunes, and in TV commercials.  He is past president of the San Diego Undersea Film Exhibition (UFEX).

Born in Stuttgart, Germany and raised in Chicago, Eric was educated in the Chicago Public Schools, then earned a BS in Physical Education at George Williams College, and an MS in Kinesiology at UCLA. His wife, Karen Straus, is also an active diver and underwater photographer. They live in San Diego.

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