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Local diver chases dream of competing at international level

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To say Zach Cooper is unassuming would be putting it mildly.

The 15-year-old blended into the crowd at a local restaurant recently, teasing his mother, Leslee, and joking about his least favorite school subjects, like any other teen.

But when it comes to diving, Cooper is one of the more extraordinary teens in the nation.

Consider that the Trafalgar resident is one of the top national contenders for a berth on the next USA Olympic diving team, based on his fifth- and fourth-place finishes, respectively, at the summer and winter versions of the national diving championships during the past year.

Cooper’s high placement came in the 10-meter platform event in the senior division, besting all but a handful of the best of the best among USA divers.

Moreover, Cooper has cracked the USA Diving National Team roster for the first time at the senior level, recently qualifying for an international meet next month in Puerto Rico in the 10-meter platform. He is also a top contender nationally in synchronized diving and has been selected to USA Diving’s Future Olympic Force.

The Future Olympic Force is a select group of junior divers who have met a challenging set of criteria and with the goal of competing in the 2016 and 2020 Olympics.

Cooper’s evolution into an Olympic hopeful began at age nine when he started training at USA Diving National Training Center at the Indiana University Natatorium at IUPUI, under the direction of nationally renowned coach John Wingfield.

Although the national center had been discarded in favor of regional centers, Cooper continues to train with Wingfield, who served as head coach of the USA Olympic team in 2008 and was director of the USA Diving National Training Center in Indianapolis for five years. He now handles a small stable of elite-level divers, including defending Olympic gold medalist David Boudia, and is based in the Indianapolis area.

Wingfield said he first spotted Cooper when the then-9-year-old competed for a travel diving club in Indianapolis. He noticed his talent of course, but also his enthusiasm.

“He was very interested in the sport, which is a huge part of it,” Wingfield said. “He had the different attributes we need in an athlete, physical attributes as well as curiosity and (desire) to be a diver. He had the fearlessness, the stick-to-it-iveness and enjoyment of training. Even when he was a little kid he kept going and going and going.

“He always wanted to be on the board and going in the water.”

Under Wingfield, Cooper began training full-time six days a week. His parents, Bradley and Leslee Cooper, withdrew him from Franklin schools in favor of home schooling in order to give him full flexibility for the heavy training and competitive schedule.

Cooper’s rise from an 8-year-old who saw the 33-foot-high tower at IUPUI for the first time and immediately wanted to jump off of it, to the top level of the national diving echelon, has been meteoric. He excelled at the junior level, winning a number of competitions at the junior level, but began to flourish even more upon entering senior competition at just 12 years old.

“I like the harder dives better,” Cooper said. “I was thinking, ‘Yeah, I can take it to the next level, and that will be fun,’ but I had no idea what it was really going to be.”

At 13, Cooper had actually finished second among the senior division in the 2012 nationals, but that meet was missing some of the divers who were preparing for the 2012 Summer Olympics. Taking fifth at last summer’s nationals and then fourth at the USA Winter Diving Nationals, however, were results with no caveat other than the remarkable issue of Cooper’s age, then 14.

“Especially on tower (platform), he’s among the best of the best at that age of those that came before him,” Wingfield said. “Boudia and (Thomas) Finchum (2008 Olympic team member that Wingfield also coached) were probably just a little ahead of him at this age, but that’s the kind of level he’s at. He’s really pushing himself at that age, and he was in the top six at the Junior World Championship in Australia last year, along with being one of the best in the country at the senior level.

“So he’s placing himself well in terms of what he can do for his country in the future.”

Still, Cooper is soft-spoken and even loath to talk about his accomplishments, according to his mother Leslee.

“To him, competing at this level is just what he does,” she said. “He’s never been one to boast about it. He’s very uncomfortable about something like doing an interview.”

Leslee Cooper added that Zach’s brother Jake, a student at Indian Creek High School, also plays an important role in his life.

“His brother helps keep him grounded,” she said. “They have the normal, bantering relationship as brothers, and I know that helps him a lot.”

Wingfield said that grounding, mental toughness and Zach’s friendship with Olympic champion Boudia has also helped the younger diver in his development.

“Remember, he was 12 years old and diving in the senior nationals against much older and more experience athletes, but he never let it bother him,” Wingfield said. “David especially always encouraged him and had him under his wing.”

Wingfield said aerial awareness is one of the keys to the considerable natural talent possessed by Cooper.

“When he’s in the air, he’s like a cat that always finds its feet, only he always finds his head which is really important for a diver,” Wingfield said. “If he’s going to miss, he doesn’t miss by much. He does have a few things he needs to polish, of course. He’s continuing to grow, but really he has handled his growth spurts quite well.

“Usually 14-, 15- or 16-year-old boys will go through periods where they lose understanding of where there body is, but Zach has been impervious to growth spurts. He’s been able to maintain all of that well.”

Wingfield declines to make predictions about Cooper’s competitive future other than to confirm he has every chance to compete at the highest levels.

Leslee Cooper spoke about her hope that in the future Zach will receive a scholarship to dive at a Division I university, something that seems almost a given considering the level he is competing at already. Zach reiterated that making the Olympic team in 2016 and/or 2020 is a major goal. However, he stressed he is mainly thinking about improving on a daily basis and just doing well in competitions as they come along.

“I don’t spend all the time thinking about it,” Zach said. “I just really enjoy diving and all the people I’ve gotten to know through it. It’s a lot of fun, and I just want to keep getting better.”

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