Diving on the Big Stage

 

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Alex’s goal for the AAU Diving Championships in Orlando:

“Not come in last.”

It turned out to be a wild and emotional experience.

Alex and Shani had flown down to Orlando on Sunday. I flew in Monday night and after a bunch of flight delays, I slithered into the hotel room around 1 in the morning. Shani and I caught up in whispers as Alex slept in the other bed. When we all woke up, we had a very hyper boy on our hands. Alex basically did somersaults on the bed for an hour before we finally headed over to the pool. The schedule was as follows:

  • 7-8 AM: Warm ups
  • 8:30: First round of competition. All divers would do 5 dives.
  • 3:30: Finals. Here is where the top 12 divers from round one would compete for the championships.

And here was the good news: There were only 12 kids in Alex’s age group. So right away we knew that Alex would make the finals. But there was a little bad news: it made his odds of coming in last a lot higher. It made me all the more nervous as the first round started.

To describe round 1, I’d like to take you dive by dive. I’d like to take you through each round and tell you how Alex scored and build up the tension. But I can’t do any of that – because watching this event was completely incomprehensible. Check out this pool…

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There were 14 diving boards and three different competitions all going on at the same time. There were three announcers calling out names and scores, and I could only catch bits of words. Plus, the whole building was a giant aluminum shed that funneled all the splashes, yells, boards, and chattering into a huge echoing roar. It wasn’t until Alex’s third dive that a woman next to us told us to go on the website: cleanentries.com. Check this out…

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It gave us a running scoreboard and ranked the kids in real time. So I mostly watched round 1 on my phone.

But when the dust settled, Alex had done 3 good dives (4s and 5s), 1 lousy dive (3s), and one really nice dive (6s). We knew Alex wasn’t last, but we didn’t really know much else. At 2:00 we got back at the pool for the finals. I wandered over to the scoreboard. And get this…because here’s where things get good.

Alex was now in 4th place. They kept 3 dives from round 1 and somehow this re-scoring had worked in Alex’s favor. This boy wasn’t just going for next to last place – he was in it.

The basic picture was this:

  • There were 2 kids way ahead of Alex
  • There was 1 kid barely ahead of Alex
  • There were 4 kids right behind Alex

For the finals, each kid did only 2 dives. I figured I could actually track this thing and be more in the moment. Because if things went well, Alex had a real shot at the bronze. Here’s my inane scoring sheet.

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Alex was 5th in the diving order. I watched the first 4 kids and tracked them accordingly to where Alex had to be. The kid right before Alex was the one who was in 3rd place, and to my great joy the kid did a mediocre dive. If Alex could execute, he could move up to 3rd place.

Alex stepped up to the board…

Time out.

I’m going to stop and let you know what we didn’t know at the time. See, diving rules are confusing. Alex had warmed up the past hour to get up and do his 1.5 inward. But when the boy got up on that board and heard the announcer say… 

“Now doing a reverse tuck…Alex Nuckols.”

Alex and his coach had screwed up and suddenly Alex learns that he is doing a completely different dive. A major curve ball had been thrown to my boy. But Shani and I didn’t know any of this at the time. All we knew was…

Alex stepped up to the board…

And bombed.

The dive was awful. Legs splayed, body all wrong, big awkward splash. I could hear a few of the scores as they called them out. “2.5…2…2.5…”.

I closed my notebook.

I could see that Alex was in bad shape when he got out of the pool. I watched him go over to his coach. I watched him prepare for his next dive. Even from across the giant pool, I could see that he was crying. Five minutes later, he was coming back up on the board for his second and final dive. He later told me he was still crying as he climbed the ladder.

He went up on that board, took a deep breath and…

THAT is what it looks like to nail a dive. I heard the muffled announcer call out: “7…6.5…7…7.5…”

Look, I’ve seen Alex win a shitload of dive meets and anyone stupid enough to ask me about Alex will hear me brag and beam about him. I’ve had so many proud moments with this sport – but that dive blew them all away. He collected himself and he executed. Damn if I’m not choked up right now as I write about that dive. My boy. Hell yes. Hell, period. Yes, period.

OK…so the meet ends and you also have to realize that Alex has no idea of the score. None. Didn’t know he was 4th going in. Didn’t know anyone else’s scores. All he knew was that he bombed his dive and that his goal was to not come in last. Suddenly, there he was up in the stands in a towel and his speedo and our boy just dove into his momma’s arms. I snuck some shots.

The instant the competition ended, he went right for Shani and he sobbed for a solid 3 minutes.

That’s when I told him he came in 5th.

Turns out a lot of kids cracked under the pressure of the finals. That combined with Alex nailing his second dive and he’d ended up 5th out of 12. Here he is up on the podium. Sweet, right?

I will end with a warning. Watch out for Alex Nuckols next year. If I were those 2 kids at the top of the podium who won by 40+ points, I would start practicing right away. Because let me make you aware of Alex’s history as a diver.

Historical Example 1:
Alex’s first two years of diving he was just OK and only kind of into it. He placed 11th and then 6th at the South Jersey Diving Association (SJDA) finals.
Starting the following season, he has placed first in every meet he’s been in except one.
Historical Example 2:
This winter Alex started competing in AAU and USA meets events against a whole new caliber of competition. In his first few meets he was next to last and his best total score was 99.
The final meet of the season he scored 169.4 and shocked his coach by qualifying for the national championship in Orlando.

His goal this year was to not come in last.

I suspect he will be setting his sights a bit higher for next year.