Finding common ground in the water


Gerry Dunn,a 52-year-old Masters diver who competes in meets locally and nationally, practices his dives off the three-meter spring board. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
Lenny Bernstein
Blogger January 29, 2013

An interesting thing happens when our kids reach that awkward adolescent age (and by “awkward” I do mean “horrible”): As fiercely as they pull away from us, seeking to establish their independence, we tug back, hoping for just a little more time together.

Sports and fitness provide a limited opportunity. We can show up and cheer at their ballgames. That still falls under the early-teenage code of cool. Some kids of 13 or 14 will also agree to a hike, a run, a bike ride or some tennis with the old man — as long as their friends don’t see it, of course.

Lenny Bernstein writes the To Your Health blog. He started as an editor on the Post’s National Desk in 2000 and has worked in Metro and Sports. View Archive

Then there’s the story of my friend Gerry Dunn, who found common ground with his 14-year-old daughter in the water, and revived his own fitness program along the way.

Two or three times a week, Gerry and his daughter Brighid, who goes by the nickname “Bridie,” fling themselves head over heels off diving boards at the Kennedy Shriver Aquatic Center in North Bethesda. Together.

Gerry, a 52-year-old real estate broker, is a masters diver, just a few months removed from his first local and regional competitions but already training for indoor and outdoor nationals this summer. Bridie is a freshman who has earned a spot on the competitive Churchill High School swimming and diving team and also dives in club meets.

“I did get on the board, I did lose the weight and I did get back in the pool,” Gerry says, the satisfaction evident in his voice. “And I’m spending the time with Brighid. And she may [occasionally] find it a pain in the a--. But I’m cherishing it.”

Some disclosure is in order here. The Dunn family — Gerry, his wife, Nancy, their older daughter, Sean, and Bridie — are friends of ours. We’ve known them almost since we moved to town 13 years ago. They live in our neighborhood and Bridie goes to school with my younger daughter.

I knew that Gerry dived for St. Bonaventure on a partial scholarship 30 years ago, but I didn’t realize that he had taken up the sport again until he mentioned it recently. “During summer swim league, I was asked to be a [diving] judge a couple of times,” he recalled. “You’re judging these kids. Some are very respectful, and then you have the whippersnappers, and the kid in the background who’s saying, ‘Oh my God, this guy doesn’t know what he’s doing.’

“And in my head, I’m saying, ‘You know what, kid, I can do this dive twice as well as you can.’ And then I looked down, and 30 years of drinking and not doing anything had taken its toll.”

Gerry started walking, worked out an exercise program with a trainer at the gym, cut out the alcohol and excess calories and went on a high-protein diet. Between July and September he dropped 25 pounds.

About the same time, Bridie, a soccer player and competitive Irish dancer, went off to diving camp. She came back a convert. Gone were soccer and dancing. She now trains as often as six times a week at the sport she loves.

And then Gerry got this idea about maybe, well, y’know, training, like, together.

“She sort of rolled her eyes, like any teenage kid,” he said. “Like, ‘Okay, Dad.”

They joined the Montgomery Dive Club , which includes both teens and adults, and began practicing. Soon came a breakthrough. “Someone said, ‘That old guy did a reverse one-and-a-half, that’s awesome,’ and Brighid said, ‘Oh, that’s my dad,’ ” Gerry recalled.

A couple of weeks ago, I stood on the pool deck and watched Gerry and Bridie walk to the end of adjacent one-meter boards, turn and balance on the ends with their toes. Then, simultaneously, they sprang high into the air, piked at the waist and back-dived into the water.

“I’ve kind of gotten used to it,” Bridie said when I asked about diving with Dad. “I was mostly scared for him. I was scared he was going to hurt himself. He said he probably would.”

And he did. When he first resumed diving, Gerry would come home with bruises all over his body from hitting the water incorrectly.

“That’s a dive I used to do in college for 8s and 9s,” he said at one point. “Now I’ll score 5s. In my head, I’m still that 18-year-old kid.”

Diving obviously requires significant core strength — a pike is essentially a mid-air double leg lift with nothing to hold on to — and well-stretched muscles. But Gerry says he had forgotten over three decades “how much you need your shoulders, your back and your neck” to complete dives that will score points in competition. He was pretty sore the first month.

Remarkably, Gerry’s not the oldest competitor in the club. Not even close. That honor belongs to Kim Alderman of Arlington, who, at 72, climbed back on the board after a 48-year hiatus in his diving career. That same night, I watched Alderman execute dive after dive off the three-meter board under the watchful eye of coach Wes Mattice.

In addition to the coaching, the divers are taped by cameras on both sides of the pool, which are attached to big monitors set with a 12-second delay. So as they haul themselves out of the pool, they can watch the dive they’ve just completed, almost in real time.

Gerry is now after Bridie to enter some synchronized diving competitions together. Maybe she’ll go for it. Maybe she won’t. Even if she doesn’t, the experience has put him back in the pool, improved his fitness and made him part of the small national community of masters divers, who are less rivals than friendly competitors. After meets they all go out for a meal or a beer together.

At a November meet, Dunn said, he met “20 or 30 other people who were as crazy as I was, so incredibly passionate and friendly and welcoming. . . . It made me want to double down on what I was doing.”

@postmisfits on Twitter

Also at washingtonpost.com Read past columns by Bernstein and Vicky Hallett at washingtonpost.com/wellness . There, you can subscribe to the Lean & Fit newsletter to get health news e-mailed to you every Tuesday.

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