It’s about an hour into a weekday diving practice at Augustus Brown Swimming Pool. Thunder Mountain High School coach Savona Kiessling takes her eyes off the water for a moment to pull out her phone and scroll through her camera roll.
She finds a photo showing a painful — but not altogether uncommon — scene from diving practice past. A pink-chested Cian Hart stands in the left side of the frame, while on the right, Karmen Funderburk props up what looks to be a badly-sunburned leg. A grinning Steven Ireland-Haight stands in the middle of the two, his muscular right bicep bearing an even deeper shade of pink than his two teammates.
The bruises illustrate the inevitable trial-and-error process of diving.
“It’s such a blind thing you’re doing and you have to have a lot of faith in yourself,” Kiessling said.
Nathan Teal, who coaches the TMHS and Juneau-Douglas divers with Kiessling, understood diving isn’t for everybody when he set about resurrecting the program two years ago. The team had disappeared for several years without a coach on staff.
“Recruiting went a little better than expected,” Teal said. “I never expected to have more than three or four people.”
To his surprise, about eight students jumped on board. Now seniors, Hart, Will Torgerson, Rosemary Kiessling and Amber Kahklen are reaping the benefits of three years of hard work. Hart, Kiessling and Kahklen all have 1-meter springboard titles to their name and are poised for strong performances at the Region V meet next weekend in Ketchikan and the state meet the weekend after in Anchorage.
“It’s been a lot of fun watching them,” Teal said. “They’ve both grown as divers and as people. As sophomores they were all a little more timid, a little more quiet. And I feel like diving is one of those things that — it’s a confidence builder. You have to confidence, you’re diving in front of everybody.”
Hart is fresh off his most emphatic win of the season last weekend, when he rewrote the JDHS record book with a 241-point outing. When Hart and teammate and friend Torgerson joined the team, they were already skilled in parkour, a sport in which practitioners run, flip and jump over obstacles.
“We started trying to do flips outside when we were like 10 or 11,” Hart said. “When got into high school we wanted to see if there was a dive team because it’s the closest sport to what we like to do.”
Teal’s job has been to refine and rework those skills for the springboard.
“Half of the last three years has been stomping out all those bad habits that they’ve picked up because diving’s a very particular sport,” Teal said. “I hate to use the word on record, but it’s sort of got a pretentiousness to it. The judges want it done this way and this way only. … I’ve enjoyed encouraging them to keep a little touch of personal style despite that fact that it might give them lower scores overall.”
Kiessling came in with a slightly different background. The 17-year-old practiced gymnastics throughout most of her childhood. A severe back injury would force Kiessling to try a different sport, and with some nudging from her mom, she landed on diving, which has helped her develop a new brand of mental toughness.
“I’m perfectly fine physically throwing things, I have the strength,” she said. “But from gymnastics I have a whole bunch of mental blocks. One of my biggest ones was going in head first because that felt wrong. I was in gymnastics for 10 years and so head first was not a good idea for me.”
She said the rigorous nature of diving has brought her closer everybody on the team — Falcons and Crimson Bears alike.
“I feel comfortable with all of them,” she said. “I don’t know if you really have a choice not to feel comfortable with anybody on the team because they’re going to see you at your worst and your best. And we also have a lot of time standing in line.”