The U.S. Olympic diving team has already made a splash in London, earning its first medals in over a decade. Maybe that’s because the team has a not-so-secret weapon this year: the Kennedy Shriver Aquatic Center in North Bethesda.
That’s where the 11 athletes who’ll be taking the leap at the 2012 Olympics gathered for their training camp three weeks ago. And it’s where I found myself staring up at several springboards and increasingly taller platforms, all topped with impossibly toned people who can flip their bodies in a million ways before landing in the water with barely a ripple.
To give you a sense of how entrancing this sight was, it took me a solid 15 minutes before I noticed that Greg Louganis had taken a seat on the bleachers a few feet away from me. The 52-year-old legend said that his diving days are over (His current fitness regimen? Spinning and yoga.), so he was there to serve as a mentor.
“I work with them on anything that comes up: stress, expectations, the press, what’s going on with their families,” explained Louganis, who says Olympic success demands a holistic approach.
That approach also includes a lot of hard work, only a fraction of which was on display at the training camp.
Katie Bell, a 24-year-old who competes in the 10-meter platform dive, walked me through her regular routine. “If practice starts at 9, I’m there at 7:15,” she said. She devotes the first part of her morning to an unexpected part of her body: her hair. It needs to be immobile, so she won’t need to touch it for the rest of the day.
She kicks off her warmup by jumping rope and launches into a series of exercises, including arm circles, lunges and heel raises. Although the key to a dive is leg strength, which determines how much height you can get, Bell makes sure not to ignore her upper body.
“If I hit the water the wrong way, and my arms collapse, I could get injured,” Bell said. She does handstand push-ups to make sure that won’t happen.
For her abs, she performs a hollow hold, which is the reverse of a plank. You lie down on your back, then lift your chest, arms and legs off the floor. She adds some alternating leg kicks for more core work. “Doing all of that, you start sweating,” Bell said. “If you’re not, you’re not doing it right.”
Then, Bell, who was also a gymnast as a child, likes to practice every single kind of dive — front, back, gainer, inward, twister — on mats. It’s only after her mat time that she’ll touch the water, where she’ll spend another three hours or more.
Because diving is, for the most part, an individual sport, everyone has a slightly different approach to training. So although Bell and most of the rest of the team gathered on the pool deck to prep, I spotted co-captain Chris Colwill outside going through a series of running drills on a nearby basketball court. He shuffled his feet, jogged backward and, every once in a while, jumped up to the hoop to hang for a few seconds.
“I’ve always taken an unorthodox approach,” said the 27-year-old, who’s headed to his second Olympic Games in the three-meter springboard. “I like warming up outside and that sense of freedom away from everything.” He usually bikes to practice, and if he has access to a stadium, he’ll jump between the bleachers.
Jumping, or plyometrics, is a key part of all of the divers’ training, Colwill said: “Broad jumps. Frog jumps. High box jumps. Lunge jumping.”
But I was still stunned when 5-foot-4 Kelci Bryant, a 23-year-old synchro competitor who won a silver medal this week, told me she regularly jumps up to boxes that are four feet high. “A lot of that is because I was blessed with a lot of fast-twitch muscle fibers,” she said. Another part might be her coach’s strategy for training whenever the teammates find themselves in a facility without a weight room: A 155-pound guy sits on her shoulders, and she squats him for three sets of 10.
The results of this kind of training aren’t just those impressive twists and somersaults, but also plenty of soreness. “Recovery is something I’ve been learning about this year,” 25-year-old Brittany Viola said as she got a massage after practice. The 10-meter competitor focuses on stretching, staying hydrated and doing whatever it takes to keep getting back to the pool, even when that means taking an ice bath. “If you can get though the first two minutes, then you become numb,” she said. “I just keep thinking about the benefits.”
Viola also pursues less punishing forms of therapy, including meditation, reading Scripture and journaling. “I like to visualize things and then release them,” she added.
Diving is a particularly mental sport, USA Diving’s high performance director, Steve Foley, told me. At this point, the team members are physically ready and know the technique, but they need to get comfortable in front of a crowd, because getting unnerved is just about the worst thing that could happen to a diver.
“You’re on your own, and no one can help you,” he said. “When you leave the 10-meter platform, you can make a mistake in one one-hundredth of a second, and it could be a catastrophe.”
Colwill’s technique for handling this pressure is to develop a pattern at every meet. “It was a recommendation from a sports psychiatrist to do that and focus on what’s in front of me. So I have my bag in a certain spot, I walk around a certain chair, I do the same warmup and then I get back on the diving board,” he said.
That way he won’t flip out — at least, not until he’s supposed to.
No divers from the Washington region are making a splash at the London Olympics. But things could be very different in 2016 thanks to the training camp at the Kennedy Shriver Aquatic Center in North Bethesda, said Doug Beavers, program director for the Montgomery Dive Club. Not only did it give his young athletes a chance to meet the top Americans in the sport, but it’s also leaving them better equipped to compete.
In addition to proper aquatic facilities, the Olympians demanded a dry land training area — a place to practice flips repeatedly before getting into the water. “We’ve made do with space on the pool deck, which is really challenging,” said Beavers, who worked out a private-public partnership with Montgomery County to transform rarely used racquetball courts in the Kennedy Shriver complex into such a space just in time for the training camp.
“This is how world-class divers are made,” Beavers said, pointing out the trampoline with an overhead spotting harness, which sits in the middle of one court. “You don’t just try a 31 / 2. I have them spin and see and feel, so they’re gathering all of that data to learn what it’s like to do 31 / 2 somersaults.”
It’s a bit odd to see two springboards and a platform above a gigantic mat instead of water. “They need to do thousands of jumps, so they don’t need to think about it,” Beavers explained. “And this way, they don’t get wet and don’t have to dry off.” Instead of slicing through the water, hands first, the divers can land on the mats on their feet or seated, or a coach can support them, using a harness, as they land in a handstand. The duo of boards also lets synchro divers practice their timing.
Although the driving purpose behind this renovation is to provide better training for divers, there will be opportunities for the rest of us to use it, too. Beavers hopes to schedule classes this fall in tumbling, martial arts and yoga, and rent the facility out for kids’ birthday parties.
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Hallett edits the Fit section of Express.
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