Swimmers from seven high schools crowded UNCW’s diving pool on a late-January evening, angling for a clear look at the board. Above, the parents who packed the natatorium’s metal bleachers turned that way, too.
Maddie Black had previously competed in two meets this winter, both times well before the swimming started with only a handful of spectators present. Now the Mideastern Conference took a break from its championship meet to make the Topsail High School diver the center of attention.
Black later acknowledged nerves as she stepped onto the board for the first of her six dives, but each time she hit the water, the crowd broke into appreciative applause.
“Knowing that everyone was excited made me more excited,” Black said.
The N.C. High School Athletic Association has contested 1-meter diving in conjunction with its state swim meets for more than four decades, but athletes from this area have rarely, if ever, taken part.
Black became the first diver in recent memory to compete at the Mideastern Conference meet, and she headed to Raleigh on Monday for the 3A East region meet. She also swam the 200 individual medley on Tuesday in Cary.
Black began diving during her freshman year of high school in Massachusetts, but she’s ramped up her training over the past three months through the fledgling Wilmington Dive Club to learn the 11 dives necessary to compete at regionals.
As the club’s only high school competitor, Black works two days per week with coach Shana Dege. Last week, she added her final dive, an inward flip that requires her to start backward, facing the board.
“She’s really motivated,” said Dege, who dove at the University of New Hampshire. “She kind of has to be. She doesn’t really have anyone else to feed off of.”
Black had competed in a few high school diving competitions and even taken private lessons before her family relocated to Pender County.
Last winter, Black focused solely on swimming for the Pirates, but she jumped at the chance to get back on the board as a junior.
“I really did miss it,” Black said.
The only local indoor diving facility is at UNCW. Beau Bunn, the Seahawks’ coach, started the youth club last year with his son Jason, now 12, as the first diver. It has grown to include about 15 divers who compete year-round.
Because of NCAA recruiting rules, Bunn can’t coach high school athletes, so Dege took charge of Black’s training. When she restarted, Black was understandably rusty. They started with the basics and built her repertoire quickly.
The sessions usually start on a harnessed trampoline that allows Black to simulate the diving fundamentals suspended in air, but most of their two hours is spent on the board.
“Now I’m just cleaning everything up,” Black said.
At the region meet, Black will have to perform 11 different dives for two judges. The top eight scorers will advance to the state meet. Divers are disqualified if they fail to complete more than one of their dives. Black’s main goal is to make it through her complete list.
Points earned in diving go toward the total team score, so adding divers would be a way for local squads to be more competitive at the region and state level. The top divers have traditionally come from the Raleigh and Charlotte areas, where there are well-established clubs.
“Those points count,” said Hoggard coach Tammy Pruden, whose teams have combined for 27 Mideastern Conference titles in the past 15 years. “The schools that don’t have diving are definitely held back a little bit when it comes to regionals and states.”
Black hopes the scene at the Mideastern Conference championships will encourage others to join her. Despite the pressure, she recorded her personal best score for the six-dive set.
Afterward, several swimmers from other teams asked how to get started in the sport. Black plans to stick with it next season and would be glad for company at her practices.
“You just have to try it,” Black said. “I’m scared a lot of times at practice because I’m trying new dives. You’re worried about hitting the board or smacking the water. That’s part of it. I’m hoping some more people do just give it a try.”