On a sunny Saturday afternoon, the Stanford campus bustles with telltale signs of fall.
Traffic is heavy as the student body swells back in for the start of the new academic year. Somewhere in the distance, a marching band warms up with Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish,” its collegiate tones folding into the hip-hop beats thudding from a nearby student org fair.
Running late, I weave my way through throngs of fans and players in today’s water polo tournament to the gates of the Avery Aquatic Center. I have no Stanford student ID, no connection to water polo, no idea if I needed a permit to park where I just found a spot.
“I’m with the Masters dive team,” I say to the guard, bracing for the reaction.
As divers, we come prepared to be outsiders. Often the person at the front of the pool is surprised to learn that a dive team considers its waters their home. I have been entering well-guarded aquatic centers through back alleys and secret doors since I was seven years old, when I started my life in this sport.
We also come prepared to explain ourselves.
“Not scuba diving,” I’ve said countless times, “springboard diving.” I have even developed an illustrative gesture for this most niche of activities, flattening one hand like a board and making the other a little human that launches off it. There’s a clownishness to the mime that resonates perfectly with the carnivalesque spirit of a sport whose core motions are bouncing, twisting, flipping and splashing.
The guard needs no explanations. He shows me his wristwatch, emphasizing my tardiness, shoots me a look of disapproval and wordlessly waves me in. Stanford is, predictably, on its game on all fronts.
Though quiet and hurried, this moment of entry is a triumph. The years of the pandemic have posed a major challenge to aquatic athletes across the country as pools closed, coaches and athletes moved around and competitions were postponed indefinitely. Among those stymied athletes was a small group of local divers—those of the Stanford Masters program, a team whose only requirement is that members are 21 years of age or older. During the pandemic, the divers found themselves jolted out of their routine at Stanford’s Maas Diving Center for the first time in many years. Their ranks dropped dramatically from hearty membership, some years in the 30s, to just a few stalwarts. Their practices plummeted from six days a week to zero.
“[Diving] is very particular,” says Gina Arnold, a Bay Area writer, professor and dedicated Masters diver. “It’s really sad because it’s dependent on having a facility and a coach. Unlike swimming, which can accommodate hundreds of swimmers all week long with different practices and different lanes, it’s just so minuscule. The ratio of person to coach and dive is super low.”
Fueled by the demands of rigorous competition, impending scholarship applications and even Olympic trials, more formal teams found their way back to the boards relatively quickly in the midst of the pandemic. Meanwhile, the Masters divers faced more hurdles, in the form of their longtime lead coach, Tanja Goldberg, moving out of the country and aquatic centers restricting access to select divers to mitigate the risk of Covid spreading.
In a time when the focus was on “essential” services, it made sense that a purely recreational, highly esoteric sport for adults would fall through the proverbial cracks of the pool deck. Masters divers twist and flip through the air and into the water with great focus but no discernible purpose—no elite college to get into, no scholarship to win, no prestigious competition to prepare for beyond two yearly national meets hosted by U.S. Masters Diving. However, this steadfast group of local Masters has kept the flame of this team flickering through it all, traveling far and wide in search of coaches and pools that will have them.
And as practices restart at Stanford, their enthusiasm has propelled the small group into a whole new era.
The Maas Diving Center—equipped with multiple 1- and 3-meter springboards, 5-, 7- and 10-meter platforms, a hot tub you can basically swim laps in and an elaborate dryland facility for training in belts and on trampolines—lives up to Stanford’s declaration that it is “the finest outdoor diving facility in the country.”
Standing on the edge of a glimmering pool at the start of another practice, I am in awe of this entire situation. I was a diver through my childhood and teens on the East Coast. My little sister was, too. Its rhythms shaped us physically and mentally; its unspoken lessons lodged themselves deep in our bodies and minds. But never in my wildest dreams did I think I would return to it in my 30s in California—at Stanford no less—essentially for fun.
Amy Chow, a member of the first US women’s gymnast team to win an Olympic Gold (the Magnificent Seven) and the first Asian-American woman to win an Olympic medal, took up recreational diving here in her 30s as she entered medical school at Stanford. Team USA Olympian Krysta Palmer, who won bronze in the women’s 3-meter springboard competition, practiced here in advance of the 2021 games. Tech moguls of Silicon Valley have traded ideas on this pool deck between dives. Big wave surfers, including Bianca Valenti of Mavericks fame, have mounted the 10-meter platform with hopes of preparing for treacherous falls from their boards while on monstrous waves.
Warming up before me today is a slightly different crew: Carl Anderson, a lanky and soft-spoken retired postman, sits on a mat in the pike position, stretching to touch his toes. Alex Lapidus, one of the team’s most advanced, practices his approach on the dryland boards. Arnold chats with Kelly Winterbottom, a retired P.E. teacher and another stalwart of the scene. Emily Richmond, who commutes from San Francisco, bounces on the trampoline. Jan Jannink, who has been diving at this pool since working on his PhD in computer science here in the 1990s, looks very at home in the hot tub. Doug Schwandt, the coach we’ve been training with the past few months, seems to be giving Colten Young, the coach who is taking over, some final words of wisdom before passing the torch.
Looking at them all, I cannot help but wonder why. Why do we all keep coming back? What, if anything, do we have in common?
Rarely have I encountered a more varied group of people so invested in the same obscure activity. Masters divers range dramatically in age and background. Some of us began diving when we still required the next size up in swimsuits each year. Others found the sport as late as college or well past it. Some are obsessed with form and fundamentals: toe points, perfect positions, and the precision of splashless entries. Others are after difficulty, constantly adding flips and twists in new directions. Some want to dive every single day, while others want to stop by once every few months. Some love the water, while others love the air. Some crave the community of the sport and some love its solitude.
One uniting factor is that no one here is using diving as a means to an end. For the Masters, the word “love” comes up in conversation more than any others.
Lapidus, for example, was able to retire in his mid-30s after success in the tech world. He has since dedicated incredible amounts of energy to honing his dives.
“I’m not going to rate it ahead of my wife or anything like that,” he says, laughing, “but it’s arguably the most important activity to me. For me, diving is the dream of human flight. I love it.”
For Lapidus, diving has always involved a liberating sense of being on his own journey.
“Freshman week [of college] where everything in the world is kind of up for grabs, there was a poster for the first meeting of the diving team, and I just thought, that sounds fun. I want to do that.”
He walked on to a team of students who had been recruited after years in the sport and happily dove through his years at Harvard, with the agreement that he was welcome on the team as long as he “kept working and kept improving.”
“It was always fun for me,” he says, “because I was never even going to count. Nobody needed me to dive. There was no pressure or expectation that I would ever score points in anything. I got to be there only because I wanted to be there, which is sort of the precursor of Masters.”
Like Lapidus, Arnold dove in college, but only after an unhappy year swimming as a recruit for UCLA and a transfer to UC Berkeley. There she reveled in the camaraderie among teammates on the dive team, the bonding that came from watching a friend standing on the edge of a board willing themselves to do a new dive. Questioning her own memory, she recalls somehow learning a whopping 11 dives in two short weeks out of sheer desire to make the team.
“In retrospect, swimming practice is boring and hard and painful, whereas diving practice is hard, but never boring and only rarely painful. It’s a lot more social, too, because your head is out of the water.”
Not all of the Masters have such storied pasts in the sport. Connor McKenna has only been to a few practices so far in his life. After taking up trampolining and jumping from rocks at swimming holes during the pandemic, the transition to platforms felt natural.
“I’m into skiing. I’ve always skied moguls but I started getting more into basically wanting to ski everything at [Tahoe ski resort] Palisades. I want to get better at air awareness. I have a few goals. It would be really fun to learn how to do doubles and twisters.”
Arnold’s enthusiasm for the sport is evident in the generosity with which she welcomes new Masters, like myself, into the fold.
When I took a nonfiction writing class with Arnold last year, I wrote briefly about my past as a diver for an assignment. Upon discovering we shared this obscure connection, Arnold immediately invited me to “come dive.”
Waving to her now on the pool deck, so far from the Zoom classroom in which we met, I am struck by this sport’s power to bond people from so many walks of life. Like other niche activities, this one makes fast friends—not something I take for granted now that I am far from home and even further from childhood.
Every sport has its challenges—physical, mental and institutional. In addition to the difficulty of access, diving can be exceptionally scary, even painful. Everything that matters comes down to about two seconds falling through space, sometimes from 10 meters up.
The basic goal is always to enter the water as close to vertical as possible, on your feet or on your head. This is, needless to say, easier said than done.
“I have an understanding of forces and movements, impulse and momentum—those type of things—but human dynamics in diving is very complex,” says coach Doug Schwandt. “I find diving very interesting because it requires basically maximum human performance in a very short time.”
Those fast-paced complexities have led Schwandt to decades of fascination with the sport, including many an afternoon on the pool deck with his former dynamics professor turned close friend, the late Thomas R. Kane, who studied the free-falling motion of cats.
“He’d be at the pool trying to get me to do cat turns!” Schwandt laughs.
Gravity is one of the core tensions of the sport—an element that makes it both exhilarating and difficult.
“You have to get it right. You get one chance to do it correctly at a diving meet. So it requires you to be able to deal with loss.”
While Masters do not, in general, place much emphasis on winning, the danger of failing a dive in competition or landing one in a painful way is ever-present. Most of us have experienced a run-in with the board or a smack that left us pink.
Platforms, however, can leave a diver black and blue or even worse. Lapidus has a harrowing tale of attempting a front 3½ tuck off a 10-meter at Summer Nationals at Rutgers in 2014 and feeling a leg slip out of his grip as he spun. Unconscious from the impact of hitting the water face first, he had to be rescued from the pool.
“I spent about ten hours in the E.R. over a four-day period. It was a front three and a quarter, it turned out,” he jokes. “I mean, I was lucky in a lot of ways, right? You can collapse a lung, you can break ribs, you can have internal bleeding, you know, eyes, ears…a lot can go wrong. I mostly got lucky. I had a very minor concussion. I basically burst every capillary in the front of my body.”
Despite severe bruising, he got up on the board the next day.
Though the story is among the worst I have heard, the tenacity Lapidus embodied then is familiar and infused through many divers’ approaches to all sorts of challenges.
“Since [former coach] Tanja left in 2017, I’ve had more than 30 different coaches coach me for a full practice or more,” Lapidus explains. “It’s something I would do every day if I had the opportunity, so I try to keep a lot of room for it in my life. That’s been tested during Covid.”
With Stanford shut down, those various coaches were at pools all across the state. Lapidus spent the pandemic hopping from diving well to diving well, driving hours each week down to Mission Viejo in L.A., up to Novato and Miwok in Indian Valley. Others on the team followed suit to keep diving. If one pool closed or scheduled an event that took precedent, they would go to another.
Jannink, another member of the Old Guard, recalls arriving at Stanford in 1992 and seeking out a Masters team only to find Arnold and another diver, Costas Simopoulos, in their first few months of practice with then-coach Barbara Blank.
“With two divers, it’s just two divers, but with three divers, that makes a team,” he says. “Once we hit that little critical mass, other people started seeing us dive and asking about it and joining in. We’d always grab lunch after practice, and so it became a little bit of a social event. It was just an easy group to hang out with. We looked forward to it, and I think that’s what kept us going.”
Even as available coaches and diving wells shifted constantly, their numbers grew in serendipitous ways. One day, practicing at a public pool in Mountain View, they found Lapidus practicing on his own, executing complex dives amongst toddlers tiptoeing down the boards.
“A lot of this is pre-World Wide Web being as important as it is now,” Jannink reflects. “The number of places that an aspiring diver has to look is reduced somewhat, [it’s] like bees finding sugar water.”
Though we now have Google, continuing one’s diving practice across decades and miles is far from a guarantee. Our collective experiences in the sport include incidents of incredible physical pain, the mental duress of high-pressure youth teams of yore, questionable boards in underfunded facilities (my high school’s were duct-taped) and hours upon hours of bone-freezing cold. If you come back to diving as a Masters teammate, it’s because you genuinely love it in spite of—or maybe because of—all of this.
It is the strength of this core group’s sheer love for the sport that led to the slow but steady resurgence of Masters diving at Stanford over the summer. As of the final weekend of September, Colten Young—fresh off an NCAA diving career with Princeton University—has stepped in, and practices are set to take place most Saturdays and Sundays through the fall, with more possible if the team grows. No experience is required to join Masters. Technically, anyone over 21 who is vaccinated and willing to register with USA Diving, sign the liability waiver and pay the $30 charge for a practice can come. There is no commitment beyond one practice at a time. As long as five people show up, practice is on.
A LIFELONG PRACTICE
A diving practice is a buoyant universe of its own. Tie-dyed shammys—the cloth used to dry one’s skin—rain down from above as their owners prepare to jump. Schwandt coaches via megaphone, a style I quickly grew to love. Young demonstrates nuanced adjustments from the side of the pool, circling his arms, hollowing his stomach, sweeping his hands through the air as you do when you hit the water. There are sometimes cries of pain, but mostly a lot of laughter.
“I was in the sport for so long in such a competitive environment, it’s so fun to see a community of people who are just here because they love it,” Young says. “People have been doing it for so long and they still have that love and still are so passionate. I think that’s something I can learn from, because I was always competitive, competitive, competitive, instead of just doing it for enjoyment.”
While competition was once at the core of diving for many of us, Masters allows us to approach meets with a different perspective. Divers compete primarily against themselves throughout their lives, but adulthood brings the individualized nature of the sport to a new level.
“I recently had to fill out a work form that asked for my five biggest professional accomplishments and for number five I put, ‘gold medalist, platform diving, 2015 Masters Pan American Games,’” Arnold says. “It isn’t really a professional accomplishment like they meant, but it’s the thing I am proudest of, and it was the hardest thing to accomplish.”
Lapidus, too, finds a very personal kind of pride in the sport.
“I dive for myself,” he says. “I would dive every day if there was never a meet.”
His goal is progress and exploration-oriented.
“I’m never going to be the most beautiful diver or the most competitively successful diver who ever lived, but I want to do things that I’ve never done before and I would like to do things that no one my age has ever done. That’s a goal you can reasonably have in Masters.”
Even for those of us not always pursuing a new dive, there’s still something.
For Jannink, a large part of the joy has been in sharing his passion with his two daughters. He says, “I’ve been extremely proud of being a parent of divers. Seeing them dive along with me at times […] for a parent, that’s a very fulfilling thing.”
For me, it’s in making the decision to jump. It’s in the feeling of not staying on the board, no matter how scared I am. It’s in the clarity of that split second. The older I get, the more I realize, that is a rare feeling.
Now turning his attention to private lessons, Coach Schwandt cites the concept of “flow” pioneered by sports psychologist Mihaly Robert Csikszentmihalyi.
“It’s really reaching into very high potential, human potential,” he says. “You’re in the moment. You’re basically as alive as you can be.”
Arnold has her own takeaway.
“The key thing for me that I always think about is I was a very good swimmer and a very bad diver, but I love diving and I hate swimming, and that’s me. It’s just like, do the thing you love and it’ll be better, you know? It’s a lifelong practice.”
Today, Arnold is the first ready to get in. She’s working on getting her pre-pandemic list of dives back in action, looking forward to re-mastering her full twisting front 1 and ½ off 7-meter. “It’s one you just chuck,” she says calmly. She gets up on the 1-meter springboard. Three careful steps, a hurdle and a jump. The glassy surface of the diving well breaks. With that, another practice begins.