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Taking the Leap

A Walnut Creek mom learns to dive—and plunges headlong into life


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Adam McCauley

GROWING UP in Louisiana, I always loved to dive. My eight siblings and I were the neighborhood daredevils. In our backyard pool, we’d challenge one another to try new tricks off our diving board: swan dives, can openers (one knee to the chest), cannonballs (both knees to the chest), and brandies (flying cartwheels). I loved the thrill of flying through the air, feeling young, free, and strong. When I dove, I felt I had no limits.

That all changed somewhere along the journey from Louisiana to California. I got married, became a mom, and then divorced. By the time I was 36, I felt too old and too busy to try anything new or take any risks. As a single mom, I thought I needed to focus my time and energy on rearing my children and earning a living.

At the time, my three- and five-year-old sons started swim lessons at Sherman Swim School in Lafayette. While they were in class, I watched the young members of the diving team practice in the adjacent pool. There were two boards at Sherman that the kids practiced on—a low board (one meter) and a high board (three meters). Jumping off the one-meter is the equivalent of diving from your kitchen table, but leaving the three-meter board is like plunging off the roof of a single-story building.

Watching these young divers, I smiled at the memory of my siblings and me in our backyard pool. I also started to feel envious.

Then, one afternoon, I noticed a man climb up the ladder to the three-meter board. Seeing his midsection bulge and guessing that he was about 40, I figured he would do a simple jump. But then he sprang upward, flipped, and twisted, all with utter grace. I gasped. Jeez! I wish I could do that.

I gathered my boys and approached Steve Sherman, the pool’s owner and head coach, about diving lessons. “They’re not old enough,” he said. “We recommend they start at age seven.”

Embarrassed but determined, I explained that I was inquiring for myself. Steve blushed and then introduced me to his father, Bob, who was sitting nearby on the bleachers. Bob told me that he gave private lessons for beginners and, in fact, at 70, he was still competing. I looked at this wrinkled but fit man.

“You’re quite the inspiration,” I said to Bob, and he smiled proudly.

A week later, I arrived at the first practice, riddled with fear. What if I make a fool of myself? What if I hurt myself? Did I want people to see me in a swimsuit, with my extra pounds and stretch marks? I was tempted to tell the pool’s office that an emergency had come up and I needed to cancel.

Then Bob came around the corner. “Hey, Marie,” he said. “Ready to get started?”

I looked back at the gate that led to the parking lot, to my car, to my escape. Marie, you can either chicken out or show some courage. You’ve paid for the lessons, hired a babysitter. It’s a beautiful day. You don’t recognize anybody here. What’s the worst thing that could happen? The coward in me hissed: You could hit your head on the board, knock your teeth out, and reconfigure your face. I finally decided to brave it.

Let’s set the record straight: Springboards are much springier than they appear. On my first jump, I soared like a slingshot—all speed, no grace. Have you ever hit the surface of the water with your face? Imagine stepping directly into the line of a firefighter’s powerful hose. Water, often innocuous or even healing, also has a dangerous edge. It can leave bruises and take your breath away.

On my second attempt, I took Bob’s suggestion and tightened the fulcrum—a device that adjusts the tension in the board. I took a practice approach. “Just bounce a few times on the end of the board to get your balance,” Bob said. I saw myself as an uncoordinated, flabby woman jiggling on the board and felt like a penguin circling my arms trying to lift off. But when I tried the front jump this time, I landed just as I was supposed to, feet first in the water.

I soon quit worrying about my appearance. I simply worked hard at improving my balance and form, and enjoyed myself. I concentrated on synchronizing the movement of my arms and legs with that of the board. Three times a week, Bob greeted me at the pool with a hug. He began referring to me as his star pupil—meaning that he trusted that whatever new dive he felt I was ready to attempt, I’d try, even if I felt unsure of myself. Sometimes my new challenges were met with success, other times not. The bruises on my arms and legs were badges of courage I wore proudly.

Many of my friends were surprised by my newfound athleticism. Several had only known me as a slightly overweight mom who occasionally hiked the foothills of Mount Diablo. Not everyone was supportive. There were the naysayers. “How would you care for your sons if you ended up paralyzed?” “Don’t you feel ridiculous, at your age?” they asked. Rather than dissuade me, these words of skepticism simply emboldened me to prove them wrong.

After two months of taking private lessons with Bob, I had learned enough to join the diving team. That first afternoon as a member of Sherman Divers, I approached the pool, and Steve introduced me to my teammates. A half-dozen children, ages seven to 17, looked at me as if I were a curiosity or, possibly, an intruder. However, it wasn’t long before they pulled me into their conversations and quarrels, and I began to feel welcomed as one of the group.

Over the next four years, I participated in local NorCal meets against other master divers of varying abilities. In 2002, Bob finally talked me into signing up for a National Masters Dive Competition. He said that one of the benefits of larger meets was that you learned how to perform under pressure. It was an essential part of improving one’s diving. “Besides,” he added, “only two women in your age group showed up at Nationals last year. Which means, at the very least, you’d take third place.”

Despite Bob’s assurances, seven women in the 40–44 age category registered. Some of these divers had competed in high school and college, and some even ran their own diving schools. At the introductory meeting, I learned that some of my competitors still performed in exhibitions and that most of them actively coached. Carla—the strongest of the master divers—was a near certainty for first place. The Wrigley Twins, as I’d privately named two blond, neon-Speedo-clad competitors, would vie for second. There were still numerous other serious contenders. So much for third place.

Throughout the warm-up, an endless loop of self-defeating thoughts played in my head. These women are in a whole different league. I’m doomed. Why did I even think I had a chance?
The event’s lineup was announced, and the judges assembled on the deck with their plastic scorecards. I started off with a simple front dive. It hadn’t nearly the grace of Carla’s or the Twins’, but it was respectable. On the next round, the announcer called, “Estorge. 201C. Back dive tuck.”

I climbed the ladder. Adjusted the fulcrum. Drew in a huge breath. This dive was tricky for me. I walked to the edge, turned, and inched my way backward until my feet were half on and half off the board. I tried to picture the dive that the six judges were waiting to see, but my mind went completely blank. My legs started to shake. I could feel myself tipping backward. I tried to recover my balance, but it was as if an invisible hand had reached out, tapped my shoulder, and pushed me in.

“Failed dive,” the announcer said. “Zero.”

I climbed out of the pool, humiliated and fighting back tears. I avoided eye contact with Bob. As I dried off, one of the Wrigley Twins strolled over in her neon suit. She set her hands on her hips and said, “Are you going back up again? You don’t look very confident.”

I took last place that day, but I didn’t quit. The next year at Nationals in Hawaii, I upped the ante with new dives of higher degrees of difficulty but took last again.

In August 2006, I knew I faced stiff competition at the XI FINA World Masters Championships, but my goal was simply to attempt some new dives and perform to the best of my ability. During warm-ups, I smacked my face on the water repeatedly, but out of 14 women in my group, I placed eighth on the one-meter and 11th on the three-meter board—my best showing ever.

For me, few things compare to the satisfaction of performing a successful dive. The confidence I’ve gained diving has flowed over into other aspects of my life, including my writing and even my parenting. At age 41, I started my own publishing company, despite the risky nature of that business, and within weeks, I’d made my first big sale to Barnes and Noble. Last year, I signed up to attend the Oakland A’s Fantasy Camp. When some friends said that playing hardball with a bunch of grown men was a ridiculously dangerous idea, I shrugged and said, “It sounds like fun to me. I know how to duck.”

The irony about diving and many other endeavors that we generally associate with the young and agile is that age doesn’t determine skill. I’m a much better diver today at 45 than I was at 36. I’ve learned that diving is not about winning but rather about engaging in a sport that makes me feel beautiful. It’s about the thrill of soaring free, and the satisfaction of pushing myself and working through my fears. Instead of “I wish I could do that,” my new motto is: “I think I’ll try that!” ■

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