A springboard lesson in physics

It’s one of those classic, it looks easy until you give it a try, sports. When done correctly, diving, at any level, is graceful. Every day, the members of the Mercer Island High School diving team aspire to achieve such grace. But, as head diving coach Penny Yantis is quick to point out, diving is much more difficult than it looks.

“Diving is physics,” she said, summing up how to coach, teach and perform diving in three words. “If you can understand physics, you can teach it. There is the perception that it’s easy, but it’s difficult to master. You need a lot of training to be proficient.”

There are six Mercer Island divers, whose experience ranges from many years of club and high school swimming, to a few who started just months ago: Hunter Stevenson; Bryan Maruhashi; Cody Hall; Connor Nielson; Skylar Sharpe and Charlie Young. Of the six, all are seniors, except Hall and Nielson.

For Yantis, who has been coaching since 1998, the job is more than just Mercer Island and certainly more than just teaching. Since she took on the position, she has been the coach for all of the Bellevue high schools, as well as Mercer Island, meaning that rather than practicing separately with their respective teams, the divers form a mini-team that practices together but competes apart. That is just one of the aspects which makes the swim team experience different for the divers than their other Islander teammates.

“It’s rewarding,” said Yantis. “They compete against each other, but also support each other. I’ve seen some really great friendships come out of it.”

The boys feel the same way, citing the dual-school practice setting as one of their favorite aspects of being a diver.

“We get to meet other guys. It’s really cool,” said Stevenson, a first-year diver who joined the team because it looked like fun and because his dad dove for MIHS.

“It’s good to have a bigger support system,” said Sharpe.

At the Washington high school level, there are three varsity slots per team, and the 1-meter diving competition counts as one event during a regular meet. Every week, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) has a dive of the week, which the divers must work on and perform. The idea is that as the season progresses and divers get more comfortable, they can take on more difficult and technical dives. Each week a diver must show that he or she is proficient in the dive of the week as well as the previous required dives in order to be considered a varsity diver for the week. If the Islanders have more than three members qualified for any particular week, they rotate who dives at which meet.

Compared to other schools and to the girls season, Yantis said the boys divers generally are a self-selected group, with about three to six competing each season.

The season starts off with the basics, learning skills, understanding how to work with the board, not against it (which Yantis said is always tricky for the boys) and then quickly building on the fundamentals. Yantis said making sure those fundamental lessons from early on stick throughout the season can be the most challenging part as the more complicated dives take the focus away from much-needed basics.

“All good divers do hurdles and jumps, but they need lots of board time and lots of repetition and once meets start it’s a really fast season,” said Yantis. “We work on the dive list for the week and basically that’s what we get done. In the post season we polish and work on the new and harder dives.” While outside training or dry land workouts aren’t required for the divers, Yantis said the extra strength and flexibility that those workouts give make for better divers. She said the Newport girls diving team does a lot of that, but not as many of the boys do.

During the regular season Yantis said the focus is practicing dives and compiling the dive list, which is a post-season requirement. Divers need 11 dives to qualify for the KingCo league meet. Any 11 dives works of the various WIAA dives of the week, plus an individuals choice. To make the Sea-King district meet divers must have a qualifying score of 225 points, which Yantis said is equivalent to a strong intermediate diver with experience. To qualify for the state meet a diver has to have earned 300 points, with six options and an 11.6 difficult level.

“Quiet a few put together an 11 dive list, and a couple every year make state from any one team,” said Yantis. This season she expects at least half of the MI divers to make the post season.

Despite the fast season, and because of the nature of the sport Yantis said one of her favorite aspects of coaching is helping the individual find their niche.

“Helping each diver finding that place where they can be successful in their ability,” Yantis said is her favorite thing about coaching. “Whatever diving can mean to them, it’s just one piece of high school and I want it to be a positive one.”

One of the most difficult aspects of diving might not even have anything to do with the sheer physicality of the sport, but the mental side.

“It’s a scary sport,” said Yantis. “It can stop a diver from progressing. If they can’t overcome the fear, they stop.”

As a part of the boys swimming team the Mercer Island divers have become apart of the legacy established in recent years. After four straight state titles, the Island boys swimming team is used to preparing for the state competition, but only until recently did the divers made a big impact in the way the team finished. For the last two years Beau Riebe, a MIHS grad in the class of 2009, won the state diving competition, giving the Islanders an additional leg up.

“Throughout the years we’ve had some great divers,” said Yantis, referring to both the girls and boy teams. “They have contributed mightily to the success and have been role models for others. There isn’t as much exposure for diving, but I think, and most of the parents at the meets would agree, diving makes the swim meets fun. It adds an element of fun.”

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