January 29, 2010

Bolstered by first-years, Chicago diving is on the rise

For the uninitiated, watching the dive competition at a Chicago swim meet requires some faith. You can appreciate that the divers are jumping high off the boards, and be impressed by all of the somersaults in mid-air, but when the proud mother in front of you says, “Oh, that was a reverse one-and-a-half tuck!” you mostly have to take that on trust.

That said, if ever there was a time to learn better what the Maroons’ divers are doing, this may be it. Besides revising the University’s record books almost weekly, the current class of first-years has played a central role in Chicago’s wins over some of the DIII’s best squads, and it could soon be in a position to pick up points for the Maroons at the highly-competitive UAA Championship.

Of course, if it takes you a while to figure out all the twists, inwards, and outs of diving, you won’t be alone. Even some meet officials don’t seem to have all the details straight.

“At a recent meet, one [of the three] judges was a swimming official—and swimming officials are not diving officials,” first-year diver John Gallagher said.

According to Gallagher, the swimming official gave out a few scores that were out of sync with the other judges; in one case, the swimming official scored a dive two points higher than his fellow judges—a substantial difference on the 10-point scale.

As it happened, that discrepancy was on one of Gallagher’s dives, and the inflated score worked in his favor. “That really threw the meet off, though,” Gallagher said.

“It is kind of frustrating, but it happens,” first-year diver Becky Schmidt said of the inconsistencies in scoring. “It’s usually better when you can get just coaches, who know what they are doing, to score.”

Gallagher said that errors in scoring are particularly noticeable for the divers, who can tell which aspects of a dive worked and which didn’t, even before they see the results.

“When I dive, I’ll know if I was leaning too far back when I was jumping, or when I was spinning in midair, I’ll know if I bent my legs a little bit,” Gallagher said. “When you’re in the water, before you come up, you already know how your performance was.”

Problematic scoring may be part and parcel of college diving—which is unique among Chicago’s varsity sports, in that its results rest on the subjective evaluations of judges—but it evidently hasn’t hampered Schmidt and Gallagher much this season.

Schmidt, for her part, has won the one- and three-meter diving competitions in all the meets she’s entered this season, including last weekend’s dual meet with D-I UW–Milwaukee. Already she has set school records from both board heights, and done so in the dual-meet and championship-meet formats. (In brief, dual meets require six dives from each board, championships require 11, and so separate records are maintained for the formats.)

“The team here is really fun, and I’m just having a lot of fun the whole time, which I find is helping me do better in general,” Schmidt said. “And I’ve gotten a lot of personal records, which has been fun.”

As for Gallagher, he holds school records in dual-meet one-meter and the dual-meet three-meter—the latter earned with a dive-list that Gallagher himself described as “weak.”

Both Schmidt and Gallagher attributed their early success at Chicago to their high school preparation. Each competed and trained with a club team—Schmidt in Indiana, Gallagher in New York—and they said the caliber of their coaches and teammates provided unusually strong foundations for college competition.

“A lot of the other kids on the Chicago team here have come with no club experience,” Schmidt said. “I’m amazed at how far they’ve come without structured training.”

Schmidt said her club team drilled for technique and form, which are essential to the three main components of a dive: the takeoff from the board, the kick out in the air, and the entry into the water.

Schmidt, who has been diving for almost 10 years—ever since her elementary school gymnastics coach suggested she try it—had extensive experience even before high school. Gallagher, on the other hand, didn’t start until his freshman year, but progressed quickly enough to place 11th at the state meet as a high school senior.

And when it came time to choose a college, Schmidt and Gallagher, like so many other Chicago athletes, said it was the University’s academics that finally made up their minds.

“Diving wasn’t so much of a consideration,” Gallagher said, describing his college search. “I’d go [to the school] and see the program, and if I could walk on I would, and if I couldn’t, it wouldn’t be a big deal.”

Now, with the bulk of their first college diving seasons behind them, Schmidt and Gallagher have slightly different tracks ahead. Shortly after this weekend’s home meet with DePauw, Schmidt will begin to taper off her training regimen so that she’s rested for the UAA meet in mid-February.

For Gallagher, though, DePauw will mark the last meet of the year. Injury and illness have hobbled him this season, and prevented him from developing the full complement of three-meter dives he would need to compete at UAAs. But Gallagher was hopeful the practice he’d put in this year would have him ready for a full campaign in 2010–2011.

“The main focus of this year is to really learn [the fundamentals of diving],” he said, “so that next year I’d be poised to learn a lot of dives really quickly.”