The Sports Center Recap

For those of you who followed Alex’s dive meet live, you know the results. This is the full story. And for that, you’re going to need a little education, so bear with me.

About USA Diving

USA Diving is basically the premier national diving association. It is “the pipeline of the Olympics.” Each year they hold a series of dive meets to determine the best divers in the country. Here’s how it works:

  1. A diver has to qualify by scoring high enough at a USA-sanctioned local dive meet
  2. That diver goes to Regionals, where they compete with all the other divers who qualified in that region
  3. The best divers from Regionals then move on to Zones. There are 6 Zones held around the country. 
  4. The best divers from Zones make it to Nationals. That’s the best of the best from the entire country.

So we’re going to start at Regionals in North Carolina. Shani took Alex down. And at this point, we were basically saying: “He might get to Zones, but probably not. And then there’s no WAY he’ll make it through Zones to get to Nationals in Atlanta.”

At this point, Alex had one and only one believer. To quote Jack Nuckols: “He’ll make it. I know he will.” [Note, this wasn’t spoken in breathy, dramatic voice. This was stated as dry fact.]

But the boy did well enough in NC and made it through to Zones. Alex was among 25 divers competing, and he needed to be in the top 10 to make it through to Nationals. For this, you’ll need a little more education.

About scoring for dive meets

When you dive, you get a score from five judges on a scale of 1-10. Those 5 scores are added up. So let’s say the judges give you: 4.5, 5, 5, 5.5, 5 — you add those all up and get 25 points.

But you’re not done yet. They then take the DD (Degree of Difficulty) of your dive and they multiply the points by your DD.

So let’s say your DD was 2.0:

25 points from the judges x 2.0 DD = 50 total points. 

In other words, harder dives = more points. But harder dives are harder, so you generally get lower scores.

OK, so that’s scoring. With that in mind, we’ve got 25 boys, 8 dives, top 10 kids go to Nationals. After 2 days of practice and sitting around a hotel room, it was time for the meet. It broke down into three distinct phases.

Phase 1: Voluntaries (dives 1-3)

The first three rounds the kids all do “voluntaries.” These are the mandatory dives that they all have to do (and should be called “mandatories”). These dives are all at a DD of 1.9. And for these rounds, most of the kids stay pretty close together in points. Everyone looks pretty good here.

Phase 2: Separation (dives 4-5)

Now kids move into their “optionals.” This means the kids can pick whatever dives they want. And in this phase, the kids break into 3 distinct groups:

  • A List
    • These kids are unreal (and have often hit puberty). Their DD is crazy high and they dive gorgeously. These kids very quickly separate themselves as the top divers.
    • It also becomes clear that Alex isn’t touching these kids. These kids are battling for 1st-7th place and Alex doesn’t have a prayer at beating them.
    • So…I don’t have to pay attention to them too closely.
  • C List
    • These kids are at the bottom and I think came in through weak divisions. They either do dives with a very low DD (1.4-1.7), which makes it impossible for them to get enough points to compete. Or they attempt harder dives (2.1-2.4), but can barely do the dive, so they either get really low scores or default entirely.
    • I don’t have to pay attention to these kids either.
  • B List
    • These are the kids in the middle. These are the kids who will come in 8th – 14th. They do harder dives, but not reliably.
    • Alex is solidly in this group.
    • I have to pay very close attention to these kids, and with all my heart, root for them to fail.

As Phase 2 went on, I sorted through all of this. And with dread, I watched Alex slowly slip lower and lower down the standings. By the end of Round 5, he was in 13th place.

Phase 3: Soul-crushing, wet-your-pants-with-nerves (dives 6-8)

These are the final three dives and this is where the stakes are the highest. The pressure and intensity is incredible. At the start of Round 6, I watched a B-List diver who was ahead of Alex crumble under the pressure. He flubbed the dive and got 2s and 3s from the judges.

This phase is about execution. And our boy threw this:

I call that dive, “I AM HERE.” His DD was over 2 and he got solid 6s from the judges. That dive (along with a few stumbles from fellow B-listers) set Alex in 10th place.

But then dive #7, he slipped back and only got 3.5’s and 4’s. A boy named Luke H had a solid dive to move ahead of Alex. So as we entered the 8th and final round, Alex was in 11th place by 4 points.

And I call this dive, “GAME OVER.”

I recommend watching that video more than once; we sure did. At one point later that day, Shani, Alex, and Shani’s mom were all in our hotel room, separately watching it over and over. I could hear the recognizable cheer from Shani’s mom.

The instant Alex did that dive, I started getting texts from the other dive parents. Luke H’s final dive was still to come, but his DD was too low to make it even possible. It was over.

Impossibly, our boy made it to Nationals.



I will close with this…it occurred to me that Luke H had probably worked just as hard as Alex to get there. His parents were probably just as wrapped up and hopeful as we were. But Luke H went to dinner that evening with a very different mood hanging over the table.

Well, two days later was the 1 meter event. Same phases played out. I watched Luke H from the start, but his first four dives were pretty poor, so I counted him out.

Alex, on the other hand, was solid the whole way through. He was in 9th place as he headed into the final dive.

But Alex flubbed his last dive and got 2’s and 3’s. Meanwhile, Luke H had been slowly coming back, and he nailed his final dive. When the dust settled, Luke’s score was 248.06. Alex’s was 248.04. Luke H beat Alex by .02 to take 10th places. Alex was 11th and out.


But actually…it turned out that in both 3 meter and 1 meter, one of the kids in the top 3 had actually pre-qualified. Which meant that 11th place got you through to Nationals. So both Alex and Luke H got through in both events. Crazy, right?

Many thanks for all the texts and messages we got through the meet and afterwards. Here are some photos of our very happy diver getting well-deserved congratulations.

Alex Divers hugs his mom.Alex Diver hugs grandmaAlex Diver hugs his Pop PopVictory.




Diving on the Big Stage



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…


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: Check this out…


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.


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.