The art of falling
IU tower divers chase perfection, battle fear – dreaming of Olympic glory
By Michael Majchrowicz
The diver climbs the stairs to the top of the tower, bracing for the three-story leap. She’s trained most of her life in this sport. But every time she ascends, the fear follows.
She reaches the platform, buries her face into her hands and disappears into her thoughts.
Thirty-three feet above the water, she scans her surroundings. Her pool, on her campus. In the diver’s mind, her training center in Bloomington transforms into the Olympic arena in Rio de Janeiro, where she hopes to compete in 2016.
The three-time national champion sees herself standing on the tower before the judges. In her head, the announcer calls her name over the loud speaker.
The diver steps to the end of the platform, looks forward and opens her arms wide, counting down. With one swift motion, she’s airborne, leaping into a reverse dive. She feels herself falling – flying – for three seconds.
Parratto folds into a tight “V” shape reaching past her toes, then stretching for the blue surface. Her taut body pierces the water with a rip, like the sound of a paper sheet being torn in two.
If she’s going to make it to Rio, every dive – every rip – counts.
At Indiana, a university rich with Olympic history, the tower divers push themselves toward something they know cannot be attained: perfection.
The Summer Olympics are a mere two years away, close to no time at all for athletes like Parratto, 19, a freshman fighting to secure a bid in the 2016 games. Through the decades, more than a dozen IU divers have earned a place on the Olympic team.
The walls behind the towers are covered in large posters, god-like images of former IU Olympians who loom over the divers as they train. The greats who flew from the same tower are here.
Above the pool, the Olympic banner hangs high beside the American flag, a constant reminder of what’s at stake.
Coach Drew Johansen stands near the water’s edge, assessing a diver flipping from the springboard. The pair of eyes tattooed on his right calf tell the divers that even when his back is turned, he’s still watching.
Now 44 years old, Johansen’s life has revolved around this sport. As a diver at Arizona State University, his mentors – the people he looked up to most – were diving coaches. Even his wife is a two-time Olympic diver.
Johansen coached the U.S. Olympic Team to four medals in London in 2012. If he retains the position come 2016, he’s hoping at least one of his IU divers will be there with him.
He molds his coaching around the psyches of each of his divers. On the tower, divers surrender apprehension, placing their trust in the coach who put them up there. Their relationship builds a little each day.
“It takes a while,” Johansen says, “especially when you’re telling these kids to do things that are quite literally terrifying.”
Hesitation leads to mistakes. Mistakes lead to injuries.
It’s hard not to feel intimidated looking down from the top of the 10-meter tower, like standing atop a three-story building.
When descending toward the water at about 30 miles per hour, seamless execution is crucial.
A faulty takeoff from the diving tower can be dangerous, even deadly. Thirty-one years ago, during the World University Games, a 21-year-old Soviet diver hit his head after he failed to clear enough space between his body and the tower. He slipped into a week-long coma and died of his injuries.
Five years later, an Australian diver was killed during practice when he, too, failed to clear the tower during takeoff – smashing his head on the platform, then crashing into the water below.
All divers, says Coach Johansen, face fear every time they climb the tower. Even Olympic champions.
“It’s how they use that fear that determines whether they can perform or not,” says the coach. “It’s a constant part of this sport.”
Fear isn’t the only constant. Habit and ritual keep the divers disciplined, which creates consistency. The athletes adapt.
Throughout their training, the tower divers practice the art of illusion. While in competition, judges view a dive from only a single vantage point. Judges, for example, will never see a diver’s split tuck or pike position in a somersault – a method used to increase the rotation and momentum of certain dives.
The judges have their own ideas of what perfection means in this sport. Some might place more emphasis on the diver’s entry. Another might look more closely at the diver’s form in the air.
The divers can never be perfect. They can only master the illusion of perfection. As Johansen says, the divers put on a show.
“They’re kind of like magicians.”
At afternoon practice, the coach stands watching his divers pick over the contents of a pink box. Inside are red velvet cookies drizzled with cream cheese frosting, a late birthday celebration for Conor Murphy.
Murphy, 22, last year’s Big Ten champion on tower, will retire from the sport after he graduates in May. He isn’t vying for an Olympic bid, but there is still work to be done.
This isn’t the time to lose focus or discipline. Not so close to championship season.
The cookie is a sweet indulgence.
“I don’t even want to look at you guys eating those things,” Johansen says, only half joking.
The divers each take just one cookie. They eat quickly and immediately continue the workout, practicing somersaults, running laps and walking the length of the pool deck performing high kicks.
Murphy climbs the stairs.
“Alright, birthday boy,” says the coach, “you gonna rip something for us today?”
On the tower, there’s room for multiple divers to stand. Parratto watches from behind as Murphy prepares for his dive.
“Let’s go, Conor!” she shouts.
On the ledge, Murphy looks ahead, taking a deep breath. He stands exactly three paces from the edge.
His back faces the water as he runs his fingertips through his red hair, pushing it back. He rubs his palms together and brushes them down his waist. Hair, palms, waist, in that order. Always.
Parratto doesn’t laugh at his ritual. Nobody does, because the divers all have rituals of their own.
With repetition, these movements and gestures have become a part of each dive.
Murphy faces the water, thinking about just one part of his dive to avoid becoming overwhelmed. He blocks out everything else. Leaping forward, away from the tower, he somersaults backwards. Having not performed the dive regularly yet, a reverse three and a half somersault – once called “the dive of death” after the Soviet diver was killed – Murphy crashes into the water with a big splash.
Before the diver can surface, the coach is ready with his corrections.
Murphy tries the dive at least two more times during that practice. Between each attempt, he rises out of the water, and walks toward the showers behind the diving towers. The showers remain on during the entire practice, even when nobody is under them.
Murphy stands in the shower until his muscles relax under the hot water. He climbs the staircase to the tower for another dive, his feet slapping against the slick concrete stairway.
Once a diver reaches the top, there’s no turning back. The only respectable way down is by dive.
If a diver freezes during competition and is unable to complete a dive, he or she is forced to walk down, passing the other competitors that congregate in the staircase. Coach Johansen calls it the “walk of shame.”
At night, as Johansen’s magicians sleep, elite teams from countries on the other side of the world are training.
In diving, countries such as China, Great Britain and Russia are home to some of the fiercest competitors this sport has seen.
In China – a nation known for raising world diving champions – hand-picked child athletes train at state schools where competing isn’t solely a passion, but a duty. For families, a child working his or her way to national champion status is a road to certain fame and wealth.
In the 2008 Olympics, China clinched all but one diving gold medal. The United States came through in 2012, winning gold in the men’s platform event.
The IU divers begin and end their days at the pool, twice a day, six days a week. They begin as early as 6:30 a.m. with afternoon practices concluding at 5 p.m. The amount of hours spent training equate to a full-time job.
Parratto is a member of the Olympic performance squad, a tier of the U.S. national team composed of specially-selected Olympian hopefuls. She’s always in competition. Mostly with herself.
“I don’t want to think about outcome,” she says. “I want to think about what I have to do at that moment.”
She grew up on the pool deck. At 14, Parratto uprooted her life in New Hampshire and moved across the country to Indianapolis to train at USA Diving’s National Training Center. Her training regimen doubled, and she lived with a family she’d never met.
She was 17 when she placed ninth in her first Olympic trials.
As the winter Olympics begin this month, Parratto sees the five rings everywhere – stories of victors and underdogs on television and countdown posts on her Twitter feed.
On an afternoon in January, spectators crowd around a window outside the practice, gawking as Parratto and Murphy jet off the tower, one after the other.
“They’re so ripped,” a girl says, “it’s not funny.”
Lost in concentration, the divers don’t even notice the onlookers anymore. They joke and dance with one another between turns as R. Kelly’s “Ignition” remix blares above from the training mix tape.
It’s the remix to ignition / Hot and fresh out the kitchen.
The divers sing along and laugh at stories from the weekend, poking fun at one another.
Then suddenly, practice stops.
An 18-year-old freshman diver, Alex Davis, somersaults backwards from a lower tower. He threw his head back on takeoff, performing a layout. He was practicing the somersault as a lead-up skill for a bigger dive. On the way down, he hits his head, bashing it into the tower.
The coach remains still, standing at the edge of the pool as he waits for the man to surface.
“Are you OK, Alex?” Johansen calls out. The coach doesn’t run or yell or plunge into the pool. He’s learned the key is to never overreact.
Davis pulls himself out of the pool as the lifeguard springs from his high chair and runs to meet him standing beneath the towers. The diver places his hands on top of his head. No blood or even a gash, just pain and a stiff neck.
The others look below from on top of the tower, talking among one another, debating whether or not they think an ambulance would be called.
Johansen and the lifeguard walk the freshman to a bench. The fallen diver sits back on the bench leaning against the wall as the staffers surround him. His pillow is an ice pack.
They jot notes as the freshman walks them through the dive that went wrong.
Following that day’s practice, the team gathers around the video replay system and watches the accident unfold on the monitor. Rewind. Pause. Play. Rewind. Pause. Play.
The divers laugh, not out of ridicule, but to make light of the mishap they know could have been worse.
Standing in the back, her laughter mingling with the others, Parratto looks at the picture of her teammate colliding with the tower. But inside, she’s shaken. She’s reminded of the time she hit the tower while kicking out of a back one and a half somersault.
She wasn’t seriously injured, but the moment still lingers in her mind. She has never made the mistake since. It’s hard to forget the sensation of kicking a cement block midair.
Parratto arrives back at her dorm after practice and prepares a bowl of mac and cheese. The SpongeBob-shaped noodles are her favorite.
In her room, she glances at the poster featuring divers from the 2005 World Cup, a gift from her 16th birthday. This spring, she’ll compete in Beijing and London for the world series against divers she may eventually encounter in Rio. She hopes that one day she’ll be on someone else’s poster.
At night, as Parratto lies in bed, she counts the 29 months that remain until the Olympic trials.
Sometimes, her thoughts drift to her fears – getting lost in the air mid-somersault and flopping into the pool.
Even in her dreams, Parratto sees herself flying from the tower, sometimes performing the dive of death. She never knows whether she’s dreaming until she hits the water and twitches awake.
The next morning, she’s up at 5:45 a.m. gathering her things for practice.
Before dawn, while most of the city sleeps, the diver climbs the tower staircase again and again. The metal handrails are slick and cold under her wrinkled palms.
When she makes it to the top, the Olympic gods on the walls are still watching over her.