Diving | Unlikely pair of Jumbo divers heads to nationals

Four and a half miles. Four stops on the T. An approximately 15-minute-long ride in the athletic van.

This is what separates Tufts’ Hamilton Pool from MIT’s Zesiger Sports and Fitness Center. The distance might not seem so significant at first. But multiply this trek by upwards of five times per week during the bitter Boston winter. Multiply it by four years of dedication and hard work.

Seniors Rob Matera and Lindsay Gardel are used to the Tufts-to-MIT journey at this point after four years on the Tufts diving team. Since Hamilton Pool in Medford does not have adequate diving facilities, for the last few decades, Tufts divers have been the nomads of the Boston collegiate diving scene, practicing first at Harvard and now at MIT’s seven-year-old aquatics center.

For Matera and Gardel, two former gymnasts who arrived at Tufts in the fall of 2006 with relatively little diving experience, the transformation from talented freshmen to NESCAC champions has not always been smooth. But after four years of intense training, after thousands of acrobatic twists and somersaults have made being upside-down actually feel normal, the dynamic duo has emerged as two of the finest Jumbo divers in the history of the program. And this weekend, Matera and Gardel approach the culmination of their Tufts diving careers at the NCAA Championship meet in Minneapolis, Minn.

A gymnast on a diving board

Matera, who will graduate from Tufts this spring with a degree in biochemistry, recalls with a grin the story of how he ended up a Jumbo diver.

“I wasn’t planning on diving at Tufts,” said Matera, who grew up in Connecticut and spent up to 20 hours a week from the age of seven through high school training as a competitive gymnast.

“But in my application, in the extracurricular section, I had said that I won a diving meet in high school, and one of the admissions officers was an ex-swimmer and read my application and contacted [diving] coach [Brad Snodgrass], and was like ‘Coach, I didn’t know you had this diver coming.’ And coach told him, ‘I don’t have any diver coming.'”

Snodgrass called Matera and asked the prospective freshman if he would be interested in joining the Tufts diving program. Matera agreed to give it a shot and arrived at practice in the fall with loads of raw acrobatic talent, but without the technical precision of a diving champion.

Snodgrass, a coach of both MIT and Tufts’ diving teams for the past 22 years, saw Matera’s potential and immediately went to work. For Snodgrass, who has coached national champions at both Tufts and MIT and has been honored as NCAA Diving Coach of the Year in 2005 and 2008, this task was an intriguing challenge.

“There is no comparison [between Rob as a freshman and now as a senior],” Snodgrass said. “I hadn’t even met him until he showed up at practice the first time. He did dives like a gymnast because he was a gymnast, and he was doing dives that looked like a gymnast’s floor routine.”

As a freshman, Matera was unable to complete a “back 1.5,” which in diving lingo means launching oneself off the board facing backwards, doing one and a half somersaults and ultimately making a headfirst entry into the water. While for more experienced divers the back 1.5 is a simple move, Matera — who had managed in high school to often win by finishing his dives mostly feet-first — had years of gymnastics programming which told him: If you want to survive, do not land on your head.

“The [back 1.5] is a particular problem for gymnasts because now we have to teach someone who is used to landing on their feet how to hand on their head, someone who used to avoid like the plague landing on their head,” Snodgrass said.

The method Snodgrass uses for teaching new dives requires a level of trust between player and coach that sometimes takes years to develop, but Matera didn’t have that kind of time. To learn the back 1.5, a diver jumps off the board and enters his “tuck”, with knees clenched to chest. The diver keeps his tuck tight until the coach yells for him to release and make an entry into the water.

Only a few months earlier Matera had doubted whether he even wanted to dive at the collegiate level, and now he was being asked to put his wellbeing in the hands of a coach whom he had just met a couple of days before. Yet Matera committed himself to improving his technique, and over time, he has developed into a formidable performer on the board.

“Brad completely re-taught me how to dive,” Matera said. “When I came to Tufts, I couldn’t do a back dive, any of the dives that I do now, couldn’t do a headfirst entry. Coach took me down, took all my diving away and then built me back up. That’s all Brad.”

For the third consecutive year, Matera is one of 22 divers selected for the Div. III NCAA Championships, held this weekend in Minneapolis. Matera’s biggest asset as a diver is his ability to do dives with a high degree of difficulty (DD); while he entered Tufts hesitant to land headfirst, now his repertoire includes some of the more difficult dives in the sport. Raw talent has been converted into silky fluidity: Matera can now not only land on his head but can also — in what is known as a “reverse 1.5 with 2.5 twists” — flip backwards 1.5 times while at the same time twisting 2.5 times, and then land headfirst, without a second thought.

Taking an acrobatic path

Gardel grew up in Wayland, Mass., where she also was a youth gymnast. When Gardel’s hometown gym closed down during her seventh-grade year, she and her identical twin sister Melissa tried many sports before settling on diving during freshman year of high school.

Gymnastics is the Gardel twins’ first love (Lindsay still maintains that if she could give up diving today for gymnastics, she would), but diving, with its focus on acrobatic motion, proved to be a worthy substitute.

“Melissa and I were very hyperactive kids, and when we quit [gymnastics], we tried soccer, track, pole vaulting,” Linday Gardel said. “Our high school didn’t have gymnastics, but we had a friend on the diving team, and he basically dared us to come to practice. So we did, and it was the closest we could get to gymnastics.”

The sisters spent their childhood doing all kinds of activities together, including a five-summer stint in a local circus troupe, where the duo’s “adagio” routine — one of the twins would lift up the other, who would engage in an array of acrobatic endeavors — dazzled audiences.

Melissa was always a little more interested in diving than her twin, who also was a prodigal piano player and was unsure of how much she wanted to commit her time to diving. While Melissa chose to dive at Div. I UPenn, Lindsay was adamant that if she decided to dive, it would be at a Div. III school.

Ultimately, diving wasn’t a major factor in Lindsay’s college decision; if it was, then perhaps she would have thought twice before committing to four years of having to leave Tufts to practice and of being forced to go to MIT to compete even at “home” meets.

“I know Lindsay didn’t choose Tufts for the diving,” Melissa Gardel said. “Our dad went to Tufts, and she liked it and applied early and got in. That was it.”

Freshman year was tough on the Gardel twins, who had never slept in different rooms before college and now found themselves hours apart.

“It was really weird,” Melissa Gardel said. “I was used to telling her immediately about all of the random stuff that I’d think of. I probably called her up to 10 times a day that first year.”

Similar to Matera, Lindsay had doubts about the commitment level expected of her in college. But she, like Matera, could not help but plunge herself headfirst into improving her diving. Piano, she decided, could wait; the opportunity to dive with a quality coach and form lasting relationships with her diver friends was fleeting.

“As freshmen we came in and everyone on the diving team was new; we had transfers and a lot of freshmen,” Lindsay Gardel said. “So we formed a great team, and people bonded pretty fast. It was for the social aspect too that we were really into it.”

While Snodgrass says that Lindsay has improved by leaps and bounds since she arrived on campus four years ago, as a freshman, she was significantly more polished as a diver than Matera was. Whereas Matera won this year’s NESCAC title off the 3-meter board, where he can overcome a mistake in form with his ability to pull off massive twists and flips, Gardel won in the 1-meter event, where her technical consistency and ability to make a “rip entry” — meaning no splash — are spotlighted.

“Lindsay looks very good on the board, and compared to Rob, who is not the most finesse diver and who is still learning, Lindsay looks good in the air and gets into the water clean, with no splash and just disappears,” Snodgrass said. “That’s a challenging skill, but on her best days, she can rip her dives on both 1-meter and 3-meter.”

Building a champion

Snodgrass’ coaching philosophy is to have his divers practice mostly on the 3-meter board, and to, after a warm-up, practice mostly harder dives. His logic is that if a diver can do his or her hard dives, the easy dives will be learned in the process.

It’s hard to argue with Snodgrass, who has over two decades years of coaching experience and who before that dove as an undergrad at Columbia. Snodgrass approaches the process of teaching diving with the perceptive and experimental eye of a scientist, which is not surprising considering his other job: a chemist for the company Novartis.

Ten years ago, Snodgrass installed a security video camera next to the pool, attached by duct tape to a nearby pole, which he uses in his coaching. Even after four years of diving at Tufts, Matera and Gardel still makes mistakes, and the camera ensures that no error goes unnoticed.

“There’s been a lot of research done about what they call ‘mirror neurons’ where you basically learn — I call them the ‘monkey-see monkey do’ neurons — by watching,” Snodgrass said. “They help you learn movements by just visualizing it.”

But while Snodgrass maintains that a diver’s intelligence can be a major asset, success in diving comes also from trusting one’s body and shutting off the brain. Hesitation can lead to a mediocre dive, or even worse, an injury.

“Diving is extremely mental,” Matera said. “A big part of doing your dive well is just getting yourself up to do it, and a lot of that entails just shutting your mind off and just letting your body do it. We’ve been practicing it for so long, you just got to let your body take over. If you start analyzing every little piece of it, they’re so many pieces that you’ll just mess it up.”

The camera is set to play back a dive in a 40-second loop. After Matera attempts an inward 2.5 — one of his most daring dives, as it starts with him facing backwards and diving in towards the board — he trots over to the TV to analyze his performance.

On the screen, he sees a man standing with his back to the pool, preparing to begin. The miniature video-version of Matera wipes his hands and arms off with a small towel, which he calls his “chamois.” He starts to bounce up and down — Snodgrass calls this “riding the board” — in order to gain momentum.

And in the moment before he makes his leap of faith, which will end with a blind entry into the pool, one cannot help but wonder what is going through his mind. Perhaps he is thinking about this weekend’s meet: his last chance to make the finals at nationals. Maybe he is visualizing the 2.5 flips that he is about to attempt.

But most likely, his mind is empty and at peace. After four years of daily practice, after thousands of repetitions and late-night drives to MIT and back, the hard part is over. Now he just has to jump and let his training carry him to yet another impressive finish.

This is the fun part.