We stood in line behind the diving board, our blonde-haired legs touching at the knees and ankles, hands clasped across our red Speedo racing suits, as we waited our turns at acrobatic feats. Each time I entered the cool water, I would swim downward, my ears popping as I approached the drain, before suddenly realizing my oxygen was running out. A prickle of fear sent my little body kicking back to the surface.
During the long, hot summer days, almost as far back as I can remember, my best friend Natalie and I went to swim practice in the mornings, ate grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch, and then spent the afternoons flying into—and climbing out of—a square pool known as the diving well. Every August, I’d return to school, my light hair tinged green, damaged from soaking all summer in chlorinated waters.
Natalie was my first friend. My mother worked as a physical therapist in Natalie’s father’s sports medicine clinic. As babies, we were due around the same date, but born three weeks apart. She showed up early, and I arrived two weeks late.
We grew up in a suburb smack in the middle of Illinois, without any real urban anchor to tether us. The Nancy Drew books I acquired biweekly from our local library lasted only a few hours—my own primitive form of binge-entertainment. My parents decided to join the same country club that Natalie’s parents had, when they learned it would keep my older sister and me occupied during the months off from school. While our adult counterparts played tennis or golf or drank Arnold Palmers, Natalie and I spent hours at the pool.
“You’re not going to sit around the house all day,” my mother said on weekends when we didn’t have swim practice. She rounded up my swimming gear and told me to call Natalie so we could pick her up on the way. She dropped us off in the pool parking lot, towels around our waists, sometimes without shoes, the asphalt burning the soles of our feet. We waddled through the front gate, ready to meet whatever adventures awaited us.
A regular, or “big pool,” as we called it, stretched between the diving boards and tennis courts. The big pool was painted royal blue and offered only measly depths of nine feet. We swam laps back and forth in its monotonous lanes during morning swim practice, and then took a splash in the two-foot baby pool, which had been painted white and was separated from the others by a chain-link fence. Natalie and I agreed that because it was so warm and shallow, it was likely filled with pee, which became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But—save for maybe the snack bar—the diving well was by far our favorite amenity. Painted the pale blue of an Easter egg, the well boasted depths of fourteen feet. It was also surrounded by chain link and required its own lifeguard. If Natalie and I showed up to find it empty, a teenager in a red swimsuit with a white cross would sulk toward it with the key, giving up a nap in the guard room to make sure neither of us was gravely injured on his or her watch.
Natalie and I could out-maneuver most people in the diving well. If it was already in use when we arrived, we would shame away the cannon-ballers by showing off our high skill and stamina.
“Check this out,” Natalie would say before flying off the springboard, grabbing her leg behind her back with one arm and placing her other hand behind her head, as if posing for a photo midair.
“Better?” I’d ask, after executing the same back dive six or seven times. The diving well was the only place I found discipline comforting as a child.
It was also a place where we pulled pranks on each other—an extra boost on the board from behind as you were jumping off or a smack from one of those super-absorbent mini sports towels.
It was a place where bodies large and small went splat, where oohs and ahs rose from the crowds that had gathered to watch the performance.
People especially loved to see Natalie. Even as a little girl, she was solid muscle, a masculine kind of beauty. She was also a fearless diver, who would belly flop off the high dive for props alone or complete as many flips as possible before smacking the water mid-rotation. She’d then emerge, her face frozen in an open-mouthed smile, her expression half-covered by strands of wet hair, which was thick and blonde and had long since refused to be tamed by any ponytail holder.
Natalie and I were about the same size, but I was lankier, having inherited my mother’s form, including dainty lower legs and toes that pointed nicely. My strength was finesse. Because I was deathly afraid of heights, I lingered on the one-meter springboard, perfecting simple dives: a backflip with a twist, and an inward, the latter of which requires you to jump off backward and then dive forward, entering the water headfirst. I trained relentlessly for upcoming swim meets, where I collected blue ribbon after blue ribbon.
My mother had also been a diver growing up, and would sit for hours in a chair under a tree giving me tips. I’d see her there every time I emerged from the depths. “You’re leaning back too much on your approach,” she’d say to explain the less-than-perfect entry on my back dive.
I was trying to avoid knocking my heels on the board, which had happened once before. The real dangers of swimming hadn’t even registered as a possibility in my mind. I knew we weren’t supposed to run, horse around on the ladders, or leave the gates open, but I didn’t fully understand why—until one afternoon.
A little boy who had been with his mother in the locker room wandered out past the baby pool and into the diving well, where the gate had been left open. No one saw him floating facedown at the far end until our swim-team coach, standing on the three-meter, dove in to rescue him. The coach handed the toddler to my mother, who was certified in CPR, and as he went to call an ambulance, my mother used two fingers to do compressions on the boy’s sternum. Fearing his lungs had filled with water, she turned him on his side on the concreteon the before the lifeguards and then the paramedics took over.
The boy survived, but I felt a shift. Suddenly, the diving well was no longer a source of delighted shrieks, but more like the cold, sterile hole in the ground it appeared to be when you drove by in winter.
The summer after sixth grade, Natalie and I went to diving camp at Indiana University, just three hours east of our hometown in Illinois. The college was known for its Olympic-grade facilities and top athletic program, and we were its youngest recruits—too young, even, to make use of our newfound freedom alone in the dorms. Instead, we trained constantly for the two weeks we spent there: at the pool, in weight rooms, and even outdoors.
My favorite activity involved a trampoline with a harness. It combined fun with safety, allowing you to isolate parts of dives that are simply not important enough to your survival to think closely about them in midair. I worked a lot on my twists. One of my best was a back dive with one and a half somersaults and one and a half twists. The dive was tricky; it required a sequence of arm and body movements that happened at split-second intervals. Drop your arm but not your head, and you wouldn’t get enough spin. Start your twist too early, and you’d kill your vertical rotation. To experiment with timing and form in the pool, you had to be a masochist who enjoyed climbing out of the water over and over, with thighs bright red and smarting from smacking full-force against the surface. Instead, I did it twenty times in a harness.
“Now you’re getting it,” the coach told me.
I beamed—a twelve-year-old girl being trained by a college coach. Diving had, by process of elimination, become the sport of my dreams. It was the only thing I was really good at. I thought for sure I would dive my way to collegiate greatness.
“Whoa there,” I heard him say after I finished my time on the trampoline. Natalie was supposed to do two flips in the harness but had rotated almost four times instead. We weren’t particularly competitive with one another—our strengths and tastes were so different that it was almost a surprise we were even good friends at all.
To fill in where I lacked, Natalie had male friends. In fact, she buddied up with one of the guys at camp. He was an eighth-grader and a daredevil himself. The rumor was they’d made out in a grassy field one night, and he might have “gone down her pants.” I didn’t really know what this entailed—Natalie wasn’t the type to kiss and tell—but it sounded dangerous, and so it made sense that she would test it out first.
I still had my girlhood crush on Greg Louganis, who was, at the time, the most famous diver in the world. He was long and lean and filled out his Speedo in a non-threatening but curious way. That year, he came out to the world as gay, and the following year, he came out as HIV-positive. Because he’d hit his head and bled into the pool during the 1988 Olympics seven years earlier, it became controversial that Louganis had failed to tell the Olympic Committee about the status of his disease. It would lead to heated debate at swim camp, though the extent of most of the campers knowledge of HIV was likely similar to mine—the minimal information gleaned from a video I’d been shown in health class, titled Blood-borne Pathogens, which explained how a virus could live for multiple days on a dry surface. The same class had briefly touched on abstinence as a form of protection.
To have one foot in childhood and another in adolescence is truly terrifying. You know of things, but not about them. I hadn’t yet had any talks with my mother about sex—I only knew I wasn’t supposed to do it. In the height of the AIDS panic, sexuality had been spun to me as some sort of external lurking force, waiting to corrupt (or even kill) children. It was my responsibility to occupy myself with “wholesome” activities like sports, which required discipline and a kind of vigilant self-guardianship. But sustained mastery over one’s body is nearly impossible. I couldn’t dive forever.
At camp, every evening after dinner, we cut across a field of yellow grass in our flip-flops, our swimsuits under our clothes, towels draped over our shoulders like togas, and headed toward the outdoor pool for the five-, seven-, and ten-meter platforms.
Part of camp tradition was to launch a dive off the highest platform during the first week. I begrudgingly followed Natalie up the slippery metal ladder, trying not to look down. As a competitive event, platform diving is literally called “tower,” and the three-meter diving board I’d always avoided at home now seemed puny by comparison.
As we passed the five-meter platform, time seemed to slow to a crawl. Rung by rung, we climbed higher and higher, past the seven-meter, and the people on the deck got smaller and smaller. From the top, a few stories up, the water in this unfamiliar ultra-deep diving well reflected the yolk-orange sky of the setting sun.
“If you land flat, the impact can break your back,” one of the older divers told us.
As I tried to hide my internal panic, Natalie ran by me on the platform, impulsively throwing herself into a dive with multiple flips before entering the water, her arms outstretched above her head. How she intuited precisely how much to rotate from a ten-meter platform escapes me still. I didn’t have to see her face to know she came up smiling.
“C’mon Sarah,” I heard her yell from below
I inched to the front of the platform, which was covered in black rubber tread and droplets of water.
Once, as a little girl, I followed Natalie up to the rafters in her family’s tool shed to play clubhouse, and then cried because I was afraid. Her mom had to come out with a ladder to get me down. I had probably been up only nine feet.
This time, I was up thirty-three feet. Who would come for me? The fire department? I couldn’t simply jump feet first, because the drop was so far I knew I’d rotate forward and end up smacking my face. Crawling back down the slippery ladder seemed equally treacherous. The only way off was to dive. Since I had no other choice, I let the platform slip away from my toes and reached for the horizon line. I held my body as tightly as possible, squeezing my hands together above my head. The drop was disturbingly long. When my hands finally broke the surface, I felt my shoulder blades and back scrape the water behind me. It was like trying to penetrate concrete. When I re-emerged, I could hear Natalie cheering.
“I knew you could do it,” she said, before heading back up the ladder.
Never again, I thought, shivering. I rested one elbow over the side of the pool as the water lapped past it and into the drain. I hadn’t conquered my fear; I’d just momentarily suspended it.
When we were sophomores in high school, the same coach from Indiana University used our town’s indoor college pool once a week to coach possible recruits. He was much tougher on us than I’d remembered.
At camp three and a half years earlier, I learned a dive I had never been able to grasp on my own: the reverse. To do it, you jump off forward and then dive backward, aiming your head back toward the springboard. In order to land an almost vertical entry and get a good score, you need to stay relatively close to the board. This presents an inherent danger with any dive, but because the reverse is blind, it’s a literal leap of faith. Not only do you have to trust your own body, but also the physics of a springboard, which is engineered to throw you out. The farther you lean forward, away from the board out of fear, the more difficult it is to initiate a backward rotation. Don’t throw yourself out far enough, and you’ll end up like Greg Louganis in the qualifying round of the 1988 Olympics. He was attempting a reverse two-and-a-half, his body folded in the pike position. As he opened up after two rotations to prepare for entry, the crown of his skull hit the board.
At diving camp, I’d learned the simplest version of the reverse, a dive, which I did while wearing a safety harness that resembled a chastity belt. In the years since, I’d upgraded it to a reverse one-and-a-half, tucked into a ball. But because diving is scored by a combination of how difficult a dive is and how well you execute it, once you perfect your list, you can only up your score potential by continually learning new dives with higher numerical degrees of difficulty. Now, in our second week of practice with the Indiana University coach, he tried to help Natalie and I do just that.
“I want to see a reverse one-and-a-half, in the pike position,” the coach commanded.
It was significantly harder than rotating in a ball, as I’d practiced. In fact, I was pretty sure it would be impossible. For me, anyway.
“Off the three-meter,” he clarified.
For the fearless, attempting this dive from higher up actually made it more feasible—you have more time to rotate. Natalie delivered on the request in about twenty seconds, although it resulted in a rather large splash. I simply declined.
“If you can’t get past your fear, then I don’t see the point in you being here,” the coach told me.
My heart hit the bottom of my stomach and sat there like a clump of debris that had gathered on a drain, waiting to be collected by a pool skimmer.
I couldn’t do it. I was too scared. But the threat of failure loomed even larger. Failing my coach. Failing Natalie. Failing my mother, who sat dutifully in the stands. I had no idea being good at something would come with such pressure always to be better.
The following week, I climbed straight up the ladder to the three-meter springboard. Dark blue waves lapped between the red and white lane markers of the Olympic-sized “big pool” stretching in front of me beyond a bridge of tile. White caps bobbed down the lanes as bent arms sliced through the surface.
I took a deep breath and somehow managed to block it all out: my fear of heights, of slipping on the board, of splitting my head open. All of these fates seemed better than running crying into the locker room. But when I successfully completed the dive, I felt exactly the same way I had after diving off the ten-meter platform at camp: proud, relieved, and terrified that someone would make me do it again.
“There you go!” said the coach.
This time, I did not beam. I knew I couldn’t keep it up.
There is a concept for failure in diving called a “no dive,” which is equivalent to a zero. No matter how hideous your entry, if you fulfill the necessary rotations and positioning, even if you go in kicking and screaming, you should get at least half of a point. If you are unable to complete—or simply attempt—the dive, you do not receive any points.
In the end, at fifteen, I took the “no dive.” I didn’t go back to the indoor pool with its delicate balance of warm, humid air and cool, chlorinated waters. When it demanded more from me than I was able to give, I quit altogether.
I was steadily learning that some risks, in small doses, barring any immediate consequences, could be fun. If striving for perfection was pointless, I could at least belly-flop into abject failure. So I turned toward other ways of filling the widening gap of unmet expectations—from my parents, teachers, peers. A nicotine addiction to distract from my AP-level homework, which just kept getting harder. A marijuana habit to dull the constant sting of not being skinny enough, pretty enough. Drunk sex with boys I didn’t even like. Instead of a clear focus on achievement, I settled for the muddled avoidance of my own humiliation.
Natalie stopped diving that same year to focus on other sports. We still hung out, often finding ourselves engaged in activities that required little verbal communication. We’d become used to our silent partnership at the pool, where a shake of the head, a laugh, or a thumbs up said everything. At sixteen, we hit the ski slopes together, Natalie taking long jumps on her snowboard and me trying to keep my skis properly paralleled through the maze of icy moguls. That night, we went to a bar that didn’t check IDs. Natalie held her liquor, but I had to excuse myself to throw up in the bathroom.
I saw drugs and alcohol as a way of relieving my insecurities, fears, and anxieties, although sometimes they exacerbated them. At seventeen, I got into Natalie’s car on a Friday after school, and she unloaded her bra to reveal a bag of psychedelic mushrooms. We went back to her house and ate them on pizza before going to the mall, where I froze in panic, because how the hell are we going to park between all of these cars? Of course, Natalie was in the driver’s seat and nailed a perpendicular entry into a parking space on the first try.
Our senior year in high school, Natalie moved to Orlando to become a semi-pro wakeboarder. She eventually injured her knee, switched sports, and relocated again—this time to row crew at Berkeley. I stayed closer to home, attending the University of Illinois the following year. I lived in a dorm right across the street from the campus recreation center. When the weather was warm, I would lounge at the outdoor pool and look longingly toward the water. Sometimes I’d see the women’s swim team leaving in athletic warm-ups, their hair still wet from morning practice.
It wasn’t the activity itself that I missed, but the sense of camaraderie, the joyful release of energy, and the utter exhaustion I’d once felt after diving my heart out. I knew I could never have my sport—or my friend—back the way things had once been. Even though college offered the promise of new adventures, part of me preferred the familiar lull of childhood to the uncharted waters of life as an adult.
Some people thrive off the adrenaline rush that comes with danger. I, on the other hand, would have stayed in the light blue diving well forever.