Four years ago, the Greenwood Middle School swimming and diving team was hoping to compete for a county championship, and it needed to pick up points wherever it could.
The Woodmen didn’t have any divers, but they wanted to find someone who could at least score for them in that event. So they turned to seventh-grader Faith Jackson, who at least had some background in tumbling as a competitive cheerleader.
Jackson only got four practices in on the diving board before that meet, but it went well enough that she transitioned away from swimming full-time. Now, as a high school junior, she’s one of the top divers in the area.
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Not all divers made their way to the board in the same way. Whiteland junior Collin Barton was looking for something to do outside of baseball season. Franklin junior Gauge Creech wanted to fulfill his lifelong dream of wearing a Speedo.
Whatever the origin story, several Johnson County divers have risen from those humble beginnings and become, through a difficult and incremental process, some of the best in Indiana. Three locals — Creech, Barton and Center Grove’s Sarah Kempf — are coming off appearances at the state meet last winter, and at least two others, Jackson and Whiteland junior Austin Adkins, are planning to join them there in February.
Reaching that level doesn’t happen overnight. Being able to do a flip from a diving board is just the beginning, and divers have to be able to add elements piece by piece.
Eventually, they need to be able to master enough dives to fill out all 11 rounds of a major meet. Those 11 rounds need to be filled out with two dives from each of the five categories (forward, back, inward, twisting and reverse) and one additional voluntary dive.
To be on the safe side, Jackson estimates that she needs to have about 16 dives ready to go, with one extra in each category just in case.
Creech, who finished ninth in the state last year as a sophomore, follows a similar game plan.
“Recently I’ve been throwing some bigger dives,” Creech said, “but sometimes in a meet you’ll warm up and you’re not really throwing them right or something’s wrong, so I usually have a couple of each different dive to lean back on just in case something happens.”
Over time, the repertoire gradually gets filled up with more and more difficult dives, each of which requires weeks or even months of practicing to master.
“To be able to compete it well, I would definitely say well over two months of really training a specific dive,” Jackson said.
With the sectional meet now less than two months away, most divers have already locked in the majority — if not all — of the dives that they’ll attempt in the postseason. Some of those might not be mastered just yet, but dual meets give divers a chance to fine-tune them in a competitive setting.
“Even if the dive isn’t necessarily ready to compete, I do it anyway just to get a feel for how it would be in a (big) meet,” Barton said.
“That’s how you get better,” Adkins agreed. “Doing dives that are not completely there, but building from what you have of that dive and keep going until you have that dive.”
Creech said that he has a few newer dives that have a harder degree of difficulty, and he’s hoping to have at least some of those ready by season’s end. If they’re not ready, he says, “I know I have a good list.”
Adding on new dives, the Franklin standout says, becomes more difficult as you go along.
“Once you reach a certain level of diving, the next level is so much harder to get past,” Creech said. “Transferring from a dive to a somersault is easier than transferring from a double to a 2½. It just reaches a point where the learning process slows down.”
That process is two-pronged.
There’s the physical side, which requires the development of being able to control your body in the air. For divers such as Jackson, who had a built-in foundation because of her cheer background, that’s usually the easier part.
“The body control and then the core strength and just the being coachable part, that came really easily to me,” Jackson said. “Something that was actually difficult for me to develop was the mental toughness.”
Diving, Jackson says, is “at least 80 percent” mental. While swimmers have the luxury of getting in the water with seven other competitors and ignoring all of the eyes watching them from the stands, divers are alone on the board — on an island, with all eyes focused on them.
Even for the elite divers that have proven they can thrive under that pressure, the nerves are always there.
“I still get nervous before all of my dives, but it’s a lot easier once you know that you can do all of your dives,” Creech said. “But you’re never 100 percent, ‘This is easy.’”
Next month, the pressure will be ratcheted up considerably when sectionals come. The top four finishers in each sectional will then advance to regionals, with the top eight in each regional moving on to state.
Expectations for the county’s top tier are high — for at least five of them, the state meet at IUPUI is the goal. But just like the process of improving as a diver goes step by step, so too is the postseason. Looking too far past step one could lead to disaster.
“I’m afraid that if I get too far ahead, I’m going to get cocky and then I’m going to lose it all at sectionals,” Barton said.
For his Warrior teammate, just getting to take part in the postseason at all will be a good first step.
“Last year, I ended up getting sick at sectionals and didn’t compete,” Adkins said, “so that’s kind of my goal, to not get sick.”
Creech, who is seventh among returning divers from last year and has the second-highest score in the state so far this season behind defending champ Cole VanDevender of Fishers, says his ultimate goal is to place in the top eight this year and earn a spot on the awards podium. If he can break his own school record or even crack the 500-point mark in the process, that’ll be gravy.
It has taken a lot of work for the county’s top divers to get in a position to reach their lofty goals — and there’s a lot more work left to be done in the coming weeks.
“Raw talent only gets you so far,” Jackson said.
Three Johnson County divers are hoping to make repeat trips to the state meet this winter. A look at how that trio fared last year:
Sarah Kempf;Center Grove;286.40;18th