On a Thursday afternoon at the Audrey Moore RECenter pool in Annandale — amid the typical cacophony of lessons, public swim and teams practicing — some of the area’s top high school divers performed in the AAA Northern Region boys’ diving championships.
Tuning out the chaos surrounding them, they competed in a finite discipline in many ways at odds with swimming, the sport with which it is almost always linked. Unlike swim meets, where competitors pack on pool decks cheering for teammates and a swell of parents are in the stands shouting for their kids, this competition turns on precision and concentration. Spinning, twisting descents into the pool take the place of outright speed, and results come from judges’ marks, not a stopwatch.
“Athletically the only comparative activity is a push-off start, otherwise they are two completely different sports,” said John Wolsh, head coach of the Montgomery Dive Club, one of the nation’s premier programs. “Athletically, bio-mechanically there is nothing similar. They just share the same facility.”
The Washington area is becoming a hotbed of high school diving, sending athletes to many of the country’s top collegiate programs. Yet there is an obvious disconnect between swimmers and divers, even on their own teams, with divers feeling largely unappreciated by the swim community and swim coaches expressing a lack of understanding for a sport so different from their own. As one area swim coach said, diving is “like figure skating in the middle of a hockey game.”
“It’s definitely tough,” said Yorktown two-time All-Met diver Maren Taylor, who now dives for Texas. “I don’t think any of the swimmers realize how much the divers do for them. I can see even more in college, I just think they just don’t think about it. They don’t realize that diving gets them a lot of points.”
‘We were never included’
As the swim community in the area continues to grow and produce top talent, so too has the metropolitan area fostered some of the country’s top diving prospects. Among others, Taylor and Matt Cooper (Whitman) headed to highly ranked Texas, Mikey McDonald (W.T. Woodson) and Logan Shinholser (Paint Branch) are at Virginia Tech, Meg Hostage (Holy Cross) is at Stanford, and Andy Bradley (Robinson) was a two-time NCAA runner-up in the one-meter diving event for South Carolina.
Several of the area’s current top prep divers — including Robinson sophomore Cory Bowersox, LSU-bound Annandale senior Sean McKinney, Churchill sophomore Timothy Faerber, Walter Johnson sophomore Annie Kastler and Georgetown Prep junior Mike Mosca — are ranked highly in their respective age groups.
Wolsh attributes the area’s growth as a diving power to its large gymnastics community — the sport most similar to diving — and also to the high percentage of community pools with diving teams.
Despite the success, however, many of the top divers have gone mostly without recognition in the high school world — save for the titles they win.
For four years Taylor was the top girls’ diver in Virginia, winning three state championships and four region titles Yet Taylor said she sometimes felt as though she was not a full-fledged member of the team at Yorktown — despite earning the Patriots crucial points during two state championship seasons.
“We practiced at the same pool but we practiced way before them, we never saw them,” Taylor said. “At meets we would dive before them usually. We’d be forced to stay to watch them swim, but they’d never watch us dive. We were never included; I never really felt a part of the team ever.”
For Taylor, the explanation was simple: There is little connection between the two sports. “We get lumped in with them because of the water aspect,” she said. And for those with minimal understanding of diving it is difficult to understand or watch the meets.
The atmosphere at diving competitions bears very little resemblance to swim meets: Swim meets are fast-paced and loud; diving meets are longer, more tempered events with cheering saved for after dives only. The Metros boys’ championship held on Wednesday in Bethesda lasted 4.5 hours.
While swimming is judged based on a simple quantitative measurement, time, diving scores involve a five- or seven-judge panel and degree of difficulty measurements.
It is a highly technical sport that demands flexibility and core strength, but most importantly, according to several divers, mental toughness and fearlessness.
When done right, a dive seems almost artistic, the athlete tightly spinning and twisting, high in the air and close to the board without any jerky movements — “grace or flow,” Mosca said — then entering perfectly in the water with hardly a splash.
To the common eye, however, it’s difficult to tell the difference between a dive that scores a 9 and one that garners a 7.
“It is a lot more confusing for people watching because they don’t know what’s going on as much. It is very technical,” said Bowersox, the two-time Virginia AAA state champion. “Swimming, you kind of just watch it a couple seconds each event; diving, it takes a long time to complete. It can be confusing to watch and you have to know what to watch.”
Yet as divers continue to be successful, there is a hope that the attitude toward the sport is shifting.
Wolsh pointed out that more college programs now have full-time diving coaches. And in the Washington area, as more teams benefit from the talented pool of divers, those athletes expressed optimism that their success is helping to change the relationship between swimming and diving.
Bowersox said his team has been supportive as he has poured in points over the past two years, especially compared to when his older siblings dove in high school. Kastler said her team understands the value of the diving team members. Several Georgetown Prep swimmers attended Wednesday night’s boys’ diving Metros championships to support Mosca.
“I definitely think everyone on the swim team supports what I do,” said Mosca, who transferred this year from New Jersey. “The atmosphere, at least here at Prep, they totally understand it, and when I am at a home meet all the kids are cheering and we all cheer for each other. They always knew there were points [in diving] and I guess they do appreciate it more now that they’re getting more.”