A 44-step climb along a circular stairway is required for Zach Cooper to reach his destination at the Forest Park Aquatic Center.
Turning his back to the diving pool 10 meters below, Cooper carefully positions his body into a perfect handstand at the edge of the platform.
He remains inverted, toes pointed toward the sky, for a few seconds before springing into one of his signature dives — a 6245 D back double somersault with two-and-a-half twists.
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His textbook entrance into the water barely makes a splash.
Shortly thereafter, back up the ladder Cooper goes.
Forty-four steps this home-schooled 18-year-old Greenwood resident knows by heart.
Years of dedication and commitment to fine-tuning certain aspects of his craft has turned Cooper into one of the country’s premier divers.
He could be representing the United States at the Summer Olympics this August in Rio de Janeiro.
Cooper is one of 112 divers competing at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials at the Indiana University Natatorium on the IUPUI campus from June 18 through June 26.
He will compete in the men’s individual 10-meter platform as well as the 10-meter synchronized competition with Purdue University diver Max Showalter, who just completed his freshman year in West Lafayette.
The event determines who will represent Team USA at the Olympic Games. Two divers will be selected in the individual men’s 10-meter platform. One team of two divers will be selected in the men’s synchronized 10-meter platform event.
Nationally recognized diving coach John Wingfield has been training Cooper several hours a day since Cooper was 9.
A high percentage of these sessions took place at the IU Natatorium, though the facility’s recent $20 million renovation leveled the playing field somewhat in regards to Cooper holding any sort of home-pool advantage.
“Obviously, there’s comfort with that facility, but we haven’t been able to use it much lately because of the construction,” Wingfield said. “I would say more of a hometown advantage. Zach will be able to have his friends and family there and sleep in his own bed.
“I think his best (Olympic) shot would be the 10-meter individual competition. Max is a new synchro partner right now, so it’s unknown. But you never know. Zach’s commitment to excellence and working very hard on a daily basis are outstanding attributes.”
Making a splash
Parts of the origins of Cooper’s love of diving remain fuzzy to him.
Understandable considering he was six years old when be began.
“Generally, I started diving, I believe, when my mom and I found a poster on a board or something, and one day I decided to try it. Decided I liked it one day and just continued on with it,” Cooper said.
“Honestly, I have no regrets. I wouldn’t want to change anything. I’m really happy where I am right now, and there’s nothing I want to take back because it’s helped me become who I am today. I’m able to achieve what I can today because of those experiences.”
Competitive diving has allowed Cooper to do the kind of traveling and see sights most kids his age don’t get a chance to experience. Whether he makes it to Rio or not, Cooper’s already competed in Canada, Puerto Rico, Australia and Malaysia.
In all likelihood, diving will soon pay for a college education.
Cooper still has his senior year of home-school remaining, but will be a much-sought-after athlete by men’s collegiate swim programs in the near future. He is undecided where he will dive in college.
Cooper said the years of early morning wakeups and long drives north to wherever he’s training at the time have made him a better person.
“My coach is a big part of that. He’s a very big help and inspiration to me,” Cooper said. “He keeps me on track and has helped me through pretty much my whole diving career and life.”
Strong family ties
No athlete of Cooper’s accomplishments gets from Point A to Point B without a supportive family willing to make sacrifices of its own.
His mother, Leslee, said she remembers those countless drives to and from the IU Natatorium and Forest Park, an outdoor facility, when warmer weather arrived. She frequently would sit for four or five hours at a time watching as the oldest of hers and Brad Cooper’s two sons lived out his dream.
“It’s what he does. You just want the best for your child, and you work your hardest to make sure they get to follow their dreams,” Leslee said. “It was a lot of work, but every bit of it was worth it. I would never, ever change a thing about it. He and I became very close.
“I miss the car rides for the bonding. That was the one time since Zach wasn’t a huge talker back then that he would talk to me. Now that he’s matured and is older that he will come home and have conversations.”
As he’s become older, Zach has a better understanding of the time, financial and emotional commitments necessary to get him to this point in his diving career.
He pauses briefly before trying to put it into words.
“They’ve done … a ton for me. My mom drove me until I was able to drive. My dad’s always been there to support me through hard times, my mom’s helped me a lot in school,” Cooper said. “I don’t think I could ever put a price on what they’ve done.
“I don’t think I could ever repay them for how kind they’ve been.”
IF YOU GO
What: U.S. Olympic Team Trials
When: June 18-26
Where: IUPUI Natatorium, Indianapolis
Notable Indiana participants: Zach Cooper, Greenwood, men’s 10-meter individual platform and men’s 10-meter synchronized platform; David Boudia, Noblesville; Michael Hixon, Indiana University; Darian Schmidt, Bloomington, and Sarah Bacon, Indianapolis, two-time state high school champion from Ritter High School.