Jan. 7, 2014
Six dives lasting a few seconds each. That's it. That's all the chance divers get to show the judges what they can do. The meet may last several hours, but a diver's actual competition time adds up to less than a minute.
It takes an extraordinary level of skill and mental preparation to handle that pressure and execute difficult dives -- approach, takeoff, elevation, execution and entry, all in mere seconds.
University of Minnesota divers Maggie Keefer and Manny Pollard know how to handle those challenges. Keefer, a senior and seven-time All-American, was the 2013 NCAA 1-meter runner-up and Big Ten Diver of the Year. Pollard, a sophomore, scored in all three diving events at the 2013 Big Ten Championships and has a chance to go the NCAA meet this year.
Approach and takeoff
Keefer, a native of Stillwater, Minn., has been diving competitively since she was 12 years old, including several meets at the University of Minnesota Aquatic Center. She grew up watching her older sister dive and already had a background in gymnastics, a common crossover sport for divers, as she started learning the basics of the sport as a toddler.
"(Gymnastics) really helped my spatial awareness, knowing where I am in the flip," she said. "It was pretty easy to grasp the concept of diving, just because I had already been flipping since I was so young."
Pollard wanted to sign up for gymnastics. As a child, the Troy, N.Y., native watched gymnastics and taught himself how to do some of the things he saw. With a disregard for "Don't try this at home" warnings, Pollard used the couch and bed as mats for his flips. Despite his passion, he still wasn't enrolled in the sport by middle school. So he took a different path.
"I just picked the next best thing and I joined the diving team," Pollard said.
He doesn't feel that the lack of a formal gymnastics background set him back in diving.
"You'd have to relearn stuff," he said. "I think going straight to diving was good for me."
One thing divers learn right away is the importance of visualization.
"Your body wants to do what your mind wants it to do," Pollard said. "If you visualize yourself doing the dive, you're most likely going to do a good dive."
Before her turn on the board, Keefer models her dives, going through the basic motions while standing on the pool deck. Visualizing and modeling are important tools for divers, but there is a fine line between good mental preparation and overthinking.
"I model my dive probably once or twice before," Keefer said. "Afterwards, I don't really think about it. I really concentrate on my breathing. If I'm breathing really fast or I know my heart is racing a little bit faster than normal, I take a couple more deep breaths and I just go."
A lot of practice has led up to that moment. The divers must work on 1-meter and 3-meter springboard and 10-meter platform, so they may not practice every dive every day, but Pollard estimated he performs each dive about 40 times each week. Both he and Keefer named the same key to successful diving.
"Consistency," Keefer said. "Training the same skills over and over and over again. As much as I hate to say it, you really need to train the same skills every day or you're not going to develop proper techniques."
"Even now, everyone on our team is still learning consistency," Pollard said. "What makes the Chinese divers so spectacular is that they can do six perfect dives in a row. We're all just trying to do that. Once we're able to do that, we'll be able to compete at our highest potential."
During a meet, even the routines leading into dives should remain consistent. Pollard listens to music and then thinks about just one or two things diving coach Wenbo Chen told him. Keefer tries to keep her meet warm-ups the same as practice. She has no special rituals. She just models her dive and then gets up on the board.
Once on the board, Keefer must have a steady approach that will allow her to leave the board correctly. Keeping her steps approximately the same size is usually the best way to ensure proper takeoff.
A dive can start from a forward or backward position, or even an armstand on the platform. Standing on the edge of a springboard might be a little intimidating to someone first learning to dive, but those boards are nothing compared to the 10-meter platform. Even when Keefer and Pollard hesitated to stand near the edge of the platform during the photo shoot for this article.
Keefer said that she started the sport at a young enough age to overcome the fear of diving from that height. Pollard said that flipping rather than jumping off the platform makes it less scary, because concentrating on the flip allows him to forget how high he is above the pool. He stays calm by reminding himself that Chen would not make him do anything he isn't ready to do.
"When I'm at the end of the board, I try to tell myself to relax and I try to think about the two things he told me and just let my body do the rest of the work," Pollard said.
Elevation and execution
Some dives require Pollard to hurtle off the end of the board up into the air to gain extra elevation for the acrobatic maneuvers he wants to execute. Both this takeoff and the ensuing body positions require strength, which Pollard said that he has gained from his weightlifting and conditioning regimen at Minnesota.
The mental aspect of diving is just as important in the air as it is before takeoff. Although the trip from board to water doesn't last long, there is still plenty of time to think.
"Sometimes that can be really detrimental to your dive," Pollard said. "If you think too much, it can ruin what else you're supposed to be doing. Autocorrecting yourself in the air might make the dive worse. Trying to trust yourself is one of the big aspects of the sport."
Divers need to trust their abilities and muscle memory, but also be aware of their surroundings. During high school, Pollard taught himself to get oriented during dives after watching so many divers who had no idea where they were in the air.
"When you're in the air, it's good to open your eyes and see where you are at all times, even though it might be scary," Pollard said.
"I see everything," Keefer said. "I see the water. I see the ceiling. If I'm spinning fast on 10-meter, I'll be doing five somersaults. I know where I am in the air, so that allows me to come out at the right time."
Keefer and Pollard's gymnastics backgrounds - whether formal or self-taught - helped the pikes, somersaults and twists come naturally to them.
As gravity draws Keefer faster and faster toward the pool, she must complete the dive and straighten out. She wants to enter the water with her hands together above her head, her palms flat and facing the water to break the surface tension and make the smallest splash possible.
"I can feel myself going in the hole I create, which feels a lot better than, say, landing flat on my back," Keefer said.
Even skilled divers still have some rough landings, in practice if not in competition.
"Sometimes you forget to close your eyes and it just rushes in your eyes," Pollard said. "Or you breathe in at the wrong time."
Landing at the wrong angle can make the water seem more like rock than liquid. Keefer came away with bruises all over her legs after trying a new dive recently. But before the bruises were gone, she continued to work on that same dive.
"If you are scared of doing dives or don't force yourself to do any dives, then obviously you're not going to get better," she said.
Review and repeat
After each dive during a meet, Keefer and Pollard talk to Chen for corrections before their next dive. They can also get instant visual feedback from the replay screens set up in the diving area. Keefer does not watch replays of her dives during competition and rarely watches video outside of the instant replays at practice.
Pollard, a visual learner, devours video. His laptop holds 1,000 to 1,500 videos of other divers, including his coach and Kelci Bryant, a former Gopher and Olympic medalist. Pollard watches his own performances to see what he needs to correct and goes to Chen to learn how to fix it. Bryant, whom Pollard watched on TV before choosing Minnesota and now calls his "diving mom," is another resource who gives him tips about competition.
Both Pollard and Keefer said that working with Chen has taught them to be better competitors. As Keefer said, "You can be a good diver, but if you're not a good competitor, then you're not going to do that well."
Keefer and Pollard will compete in all three diving events at the Big Ten meet this season. Both have earned conference diver of the week honors this fall, but all the meets so far have mainly been preparation for bigger stages. Pollard hopes to move up in the Big Ten and compete in his first NCAA meet. Keefer has one more NCAA meet to win a national title.
A few seconds' lapse in the middle of a basketball or football championship might be easily corrected. But a few seconds' lapse during a diving championship will most likely lose the gold. Keefer actually finds that pressure helpful. When she sees her fellow competitors perform well, it forces her to concentrate and bring out her best.
To achieve greatness, elite divers endure painful landings and water up the nose. They repeat the same dives over and over again. They mediate constant mental battles within their own minds. And all for a handful of dives lasting a few seconds each.
It would be so easy for those seconds to end in disappointment. A slip on the board or a slight untuck of a somersault is all it would take. But that precariousness makes a perfect, straight, splash-free entry all the more exhilarating. In those moments, all the pressure seems worth it.
"When you do a meet and you hit six out of six dives, or five out of six, it just feels good," Pollard said. "When you do your best in the sport, it's just awesome."
Justine Buerkle is an athletic communications assistant at the U of M. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. She is also afraid to jump off the 10-meter platform.
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