National champion McCrory launches himself off the diving platform. Jon Gardiner
National champion McCrory launches himself off the diving platform. Jon Gardiner

On the Platform with Nick McCrory

What it takes to be the nation’s best collegiate diver
October 1, 2010

Nick McCrory is standing, arms at his sides, back facing the water, exactly ten meters from the pool. In a moment, he will launch himself backward and grab his lower legs, forcing his body into a jackknife position. He will then do threeand- a-half somersaults before entering the water headfirst, almost soundlessly. This is a dive called a back three-and-a-half somersault pike: back to the water, three-and-a-half somersaults, legs straight in the pike position. It will be the fifth time McCrory has ever attempted it.

McCrory is arguably the most accomplished diver in Duke’s history, and he is just a sophomore. During his freshman season this spring, McCrory won the NCAA ten-meter platform diving national championship, finished second in the three-meter springboard event, and was fourth in the one-meter springboard. He was the only representative from the university to compete in the national finals, and thanks to his performance alone, Duke finished eighteenth in the country. Drew Johansen, the head diving coach, says that McCrory has the potential to win all three events by the time he graduates. And with a class of top-ranked divers entering with the Class of 2014, the future is bright for a program that hasn’t traditionally been among Duke’s strongest.

McCrory is a native of Chapel Hill and was on campus this summer to train with Johansen in preparation for international competition. After winning the national championship in March, he practiced twice a day on weekdays and attended diving meets around the world. He competed in China at the FINA Diving World Cup, finishing eighth in the ten-meter platform. (FINA stands for Fédération Internationale de Natation and is diving’s international governing body.) The World Cup lies squarely in the middle of what high-achieving amateur athletes call the quad, the four years between Olympic Games. McCrory feels he’s on track with his preparations so that he will be a top contender for a spot on the squad competing in the 2012 London games.

“Did you miss your hands or were you just loose?” Johansen asks as McCrory climbs out of the pool. “I missed,” McCrory says. The training session is full of similar exchanges—competitive diving is like any specialty and has a jargon all its own. Divers put their hands together as a way to ensure that they will create the least disturbance on the surface when entering the water. In this instance, McCrory’s fingers didn’t quite come together, and his entry suffered.

First in flight: McCrory in the pike position. Jon Gardiner

Today, McCrory is working toward adding the new dive, the back three-and-a half somersault pike, to the list of six dives he performs in competitions. Each dive is assigned a degree of difficulty based on certain accepted standards. Before a meet, divers present their lists to a panel of seven judges. Then, when a dive is complete, the highest and lowest scores are thrown out, and the combined sum of the remaining five scores is multiplied by the degree-of-difficulty coefficient to give the final score.

The back three-and-a-half somersault pike will replace the back three-and-a half somersault tuck, which carries a lower degree of difficulty and therefore a lower possible point value. Before McCrory climbs the steps back up the platform, he checks his dive in instant-replay on a poolside television monitor. The main thing he is checking for is to see how his entry went. In competition, when a diver enters the water headfirst, judges look at how vertical his legs are, from knee to foot, when they last break the surface. As a rule, the closer to vertical a diver comes, the less his body will disturb the water, and the higher the score he will receive.

The moment the twisting, flipping, and spinning end and the entry begins is called the come out. It’s a difficult thing to master, especially given that the diver is traveling at a speed of more than ten feet per second. It’s a process McCrory describes as “learning to be vertical, which means learning to be short.” To account for the angular momentum generated during a particular dive, he must hit the water from a certain trajectory at a certain angle to ensure that his lower legs are vertical when the judges see them. When he does it perfectly, making a vertical entry with no splash, it’s called a rip.

McCrory is finished with the instant replay and climbs the stairs back to the ten-meter platform at the top of the tower. He carries a small shammy towel, which he uses to dry off his lower legs, his sides, and his hands before each dive so that when he needs to execute a hold during the dive, he won’t slip. He then throws the shammy to the ground. It makes a little thwack against the poolside concrete. Johansen calls out “ten!” for ten meters (done during competition to prevent midair collisions). McCrory will not leave the platform until he hears it, and paired with the shammy’s thwack, it is an almost Pavlovian signal.

Johansen looks up.
McCrory arches back.
He pushes his hips out.
He leaps.

It takes all of three seconds.

When he stands on the platform, McCrory says, he visualizes the dive he is about to perform and tries to recall the sensation of being in the air during a dive that went well: How the air felt. Where he was positioned in space.

The actual dive goes very quickly. He lets his muscle memory take over, concentrating on seeing only what he needs to see. In this case, that’s the water, which he looks for after each somersault. “You don’t see anything but your spots. Water. Water. Water. It’s like time doesn’t exist,” he says. There’s nothing but those spots.

Competition is different from practice—the same dive can feel completely different when the adrenaline is flowing. He uses a routine that’s almost a ritual to keep himself focused. The first thing he does after a dive is to talk to Johansen. Then, he puts on headphones and listens to music, mostly electronic. He tries to drink a lot of water.

McCrory talks about hitting a dive—nailing it—in an ineffable, almost mystical way. Everything clicks. Diving is a balance of power and poise, and it demands grace. In combination, the right amounts of each leads to perfection. “You can feel a hit coming. It just feels right,” he says. “It’s hard to explain. As soon as you finish your swim, you know.”

The World Cup in China, he says, was the last time he hit. All the hard work, the practices, the training paid off. Given McCrory’s success to this point, it’s not hard to imagine that he’ll be getting that sensation again and again—soon, perhaps, on his sport’s biggest stage.