BRIDGEPORT, Pa. — The history of water polo is dotted with legendary figures who made the marks – but many are not widely known to the general fan base for their exploits and contributions.
For fans in the Chicago area, the name Ralph Erickson is likely known for his Hall of Fame career as a swimming and water polo coach at Loyola University Chicago. However, the World War II veteran made a greater mark below the surface as a founding father of scuba-diving.
Erickson, who passed away on May 25, 2006 in Lago Vista, Texas, co-founded along with John Cronin the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), the largest dive training and certification organization in the world.
Born in South Dakota on June 25, 1922, Erickson and his family moved to Chicago during the early 1930s, where the future coach and diving instructor was introduced to the underwater world in Lake Michigan. Becoming a star on his high school swim team at the age of 16, Erickson joined one of the nations most highly respected lifeguard services, the Chicago Park District Lifeguard Service. As a competitive swimmer, he placed third in the 100-yard freestyle event at high school state championships. His swimming skills earned him a scholarship to the University of Southern California, where he swam on the varsity team as a freshman.
However, the attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor changed his plans as Erickson enlisted in the Army and became a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne. His first combat jump over Holland during Operation Market Garden was, at the time, the largest air assault operation in history. While participating in the Battle of the Bulge, Erickson was wounded in combat in the Rhine Pocket; for which he was awarded the Purple Heart. He also received the Bronze Star Medal for meritorious achievement in ground combat against the armed enemy in the European Theater of Operations.
Following the war, he attended Northwestern University, earning a Bachelors of Science Degree in Physical Education (1949) and a Masters Degree in Education, Counseling and Guidance (1953). Over three decades of coaching in Chicago-area high schools and at Loyola University, Erickson led many swim and water polo teams to championships.
Arguably one of the most successful coaches in the history of water polo outside California, he helped the Ramblers compile a 7-22 record in 10 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Championship appearances between 1972 and 1985. Following the program’s inaugural appearances in 1972 and 1976 in which the team tied for Seventh Place, Loyola placed sixth (1977 – 14-9 loss to Pepperdine University in the Fifth Place game), fifth (1978 – 7-6 W vs. Bucknell University), sixth (1979 – 9-5 L vs. Bucknell in the Fifth Place game), eighth (1980 – 8-4 L vs. Bucknell in the Seventh Place game), eighth (1982 – 7-5 L vs. Brown University in the Seventh Place game), seventh (12-5 W vs. Slippery Rock University), seventh (1984 – 10-7 W vs. the United States Naval Academy) and eighth (1985 – 8-6 L vs. Bucknell in the Seventh Place game).
Erickson retired as the swimming and water polo coach at Loyola in June 1987.
However, his most lasting mark was not made on the pool deck, but feet under the surface as a founding father of underwater diving.
In the summer of 1959, he started the Erickson Underwater Swimming School. With a strong desire to share his passion for scuba diving with others, Ralph attended the very first NAUI Instructor Training Course in Houston, TX in 1961 and became NAUI Instructor number 35. In the same year, Ralph wrote his own scuba instruction book, Under Pressure, which he used for his classes.
At a divers’ association banquet in 1961, Ralph met John Cronin (then Midwest Sales Representative for US Divers) and struck up, what would be, a lifelong friendship. Five years later, Erickson and Cronin formed a new diver training organization, aptly named the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), with Erickson as president.
Diver education became Ralph’s passion as he created and implemented the training programs used by PADI. Developing instructional guidelines, performance objectives and student manuals for 11 PADI certification levels Skin Diver through Master Instructor – was revolutionary in the dive industry. Many of Ralph’s ideas that were considered new and radical at the time are now the cornerstone for diver education and the backbone of PADI’s continuing education system to this day.
In 1971, Erickson and Cronin made the decision to move the PADI business to California where it could flourish. Ralph, busy with teaching diving, teaching swimming and coaching water polo at Loyola University, chose to stay in Chicago.
Upon his retirement Loyola in 1987, he continued to train divers and teach swimming as a community service. He owned and operated an International PADI Instructor Training Center in Chicago with business partner Patrick Hammer. It was through the dive center that Erickson trained thousands of divers and hundreds of instructors; often using his favorite training site, Racine Quarry in Wisconsin. Moving to Texas in 1990, Ralph and wife Karen continued teaching up until his death.
Erickson wrote many articles on diving and water sports for trade journals and magazines. He received many awards and honors for his contributions to swimming, water polo and scuba diving. In 1980, Erickson was inducted into the High School Swimming Coaches Association Hall of Fame. In 1986, he received the High School Water Polo Hall of Fame Award and was inducted into the Loyola University of Chicago Athletic Hall of Fame. The Diving Equipment and Marketing Association (DEMA) honored Erickson in 1992 with the DEMA Reaching Out Award for Education and he was inducted into the DEMA Hall of Fame. In 2004, he received the Our World Underwater Achievement Award for his contributions to diving. More recently, he was elected to the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame in 2007.