Story and photos by Alexa Blazevich.
Two male divers strut into the Maurice J. Koury Natatorium wearing navy blue blazers over their Speedos. It’s team picture day for the UNC diving team. Other divers pull out their phones to capture the moment on Snapchat. The rest of team walks into the humid and hazy pool area. Two female divers set up the practice playlist.
The diving team is a family. Abel Sanchez, diving coach, walks in with pockets full of Starbursts. He begins practice with some light-hearted trivia.
“What is the birthdate of my oldest child?”
The team, gathered in a circle, yells various answers. Finally, the winner is prized with a Starburst for answering Dec. 5.
Among the UNC divers is Elissa Dawson. This is the junior’s third year on the team. However, summer 2016 was her first time competing to qualify for the Olympic Games.
In June 2016, Dawson earned the qualifying scores to try out for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. She competed against 45 of the best female divers in the country at the U.S. Olympic Diving Trials in Indianapolis. She finished in seventh place with a score of 868.50 – five spots and 80.8 points away from qualifying for the Olympics.
There wasn’t a pang in the stomach nor a tear shed. Instead, she felt a release of pressure. But she doesn’t take the credit away from where it’s due.
“I absolutely love diving, and I know that when I dive I am glorifying God and doing what he created me to do,” Dawson said.
At the Olympic Trials, Kassidy Cook and Abby Johnston took first and second place for the U.S. Women’s Diving team. Dawson has known them both since early in her diving career. Dawson was on the club diving team at Duke University during her high school years, where she met Duke diver Johnston. She’s competed against Cook since she was a teenager.
At the trials, everyone focused on their basic routine of eating, sleeping and practicing, which was different from the more relaxed, casual atmosphere at local meets, Dawson said.
This was Dawson’s first Olympic trials experience, but she and Sanchez see a bright future ahead.
“It was an honor to even make it to Olympic trials, and I have a different trajectory after [the] Olympic trials because I was so close,” she said.
Though Dawson sees where she fell short, she left the experience on a positive note.
“There were a couple things I probably could’ve done better, but overall I was very consistent, which, as far as competition goes, is very important,” Dawson said. “There were small technical things that I could’ve done better, but I was happy about how I performed.”
Dawson’s scores in the quarter and semi-finals qualified her to dive in the final round. She performed the same five dives: an inward two-and-a-half tuck, front three-and-a-half pike, back two-and-a-half pike, reverse two-and-a-half pike and full out with minor corrections from Sanchez preceding each round.
At any given practice, the UNC diving team will work on a certain set of dives from either the 1-meter, 3-meter, or platform boards. But before they start diving, the divers complete their hour-long warmup. This warmup consists of various workout stations where the divers practice their diving stunts on mats and trampolines.
At one station, Sanchez gives Dawson a correction, which she quickly applies before moving on to the next set. She helps out a teammate on his standing tuck, and then the team begins to stretch. Most of the chatter and joking stops as the team concentrates on their deep stretching, which includes everything from splits to shoulders.
At the trials, Dawson found all five dives equally challenging, but the front three-and-a-half pike had the highest level of technical difficulty. To calculate the final score of each diver, the degree of difficulty is multiplied by the middle three diving scores, dropping the two highest and lowest. While the scores vary depending on the diver, the degree of difficulty is a constant set by the International Swimming Federation.
Dawson chose not to let the defeat set her back.
The numbers wouldn’t have much of a difference if they were distances in miles between towns or the pages left to finish a book. Eighty-eight points were enough to distance her from Rio.
But she didn’t see it that way. How can it be a defeat when God’s in control?
“I went in with a lot of thankfulness that God has blessed me to be able to do a sport at all but also to reach this level,” she said.
Dawson’s road to Rio began with the a childhood goal of making the Olympic trials some day, but it was always abstract to her.
“I wanted to be the best I could be, but I didn’t know what that meant,” she said.
In the spring and early summer of 2016, Dawson continued her regular 20 hours-per-week training with the UNC diving team.
While diving meets and Olympic trials have a competitive nature, diving practices are collaborative and fun. The divers applaud one another on their dives and dance around to upbeat music. The older, more experienced divers, such as Dawson, gives some of the others advice on how to improve.
Many divers training for the Olympic trials take a year off of school, have a personal chef and practice all day. Dawson continued to maintain a balanced life throughout it all and leaned on the UNC athletics staff for support, along with fellow UNC diver Jack Nyquist, who also made the trials.
“Leading up to trials, she trained exceptionally hard. We had a crew of people – our sports psychologist, nutritionist, our strength coach, myself,” Sanchez said. “So, it was a whole crew coming to get her and Jack to where they needed to be.”
Dawson began diving at age 12, when her dad moved her family to North Carolina for his job. She had been in gymnastics since she was five, which prepared her for the flexibility and strength that diving requires, but she knew diving was what she enjoyed most. She had to make a choice, and diving was it.
At UNC, Dawson joined Athletes in Action, a group for Christian athletes.
“As far as faith goes, community is so important,” Dawson said. “To have a Christian community of friends who are there for you and praying for you and whose mission is the same – it’s just really cool.”
The summer before her freshman year, she went to a camp through the club which revived her faith. She had struggled with perfectionism, with wanting to please everybody and feeling like a failure if she did something wrong.
“I felt as if whenever I went through hard things that God was punishing me because I wasn’t lovable enough,” she said. “I knew God was all-powerful and all-knowing, but he wasn’t intervening to save me from difficult circumstances so I figured that I deserved it. I learned that I was just so wrong.”
As her faith grew, her fear of failure dissipated.
“I learned I was accepted and worthy, which for me was a really big deal,” Dawson said. “I had heard the words before, but I didn’t really apply them to my life. I learned that I compete for an audience of one. I dive to glorify God and share him with others. I learned that success isn’t found in accomplishments, but in faithfulness and that was really big for me.”
Sanchez has coached Dawson for the three years she has been at UNC. He has seen her bad days turn into improvement, time and time again.
“She is very hard on herself, so sometimes that gets in the way of training because she needs to realize that training is difficult,” Sanchez said. “There are ups and downs, but it’s during the downs you get tougher. She is her number one worst opponent.”
During her sophomore year, Dawson began associating her diving with her relationship with God. She says she dove well her freshman year, but her diving improved significantly the following year.
“When I didn’t do well, it didn’t reflect my character,” Dawson said. “My identity is not found in diving, it is being a daughter of the King. I looked at competition so differently. I focused on glorifying God, having fun, leaving the results to him and focusing on being faithful – that really just changed it all.”
Her new perspective changed everything, and the improvement from her freshman to sophomore year showed it.
Sanchez said Dawson is one of the most strong and powerful divers he knows.
“The only one, in my opinion, that will be able to beat her this year is herself,” Sanchez said. “So if she can step out of the way and let her diving shine and not worry about anything else, she’s going to have a good year.”
Both Dawson and Sanchez have high hopes for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
“When you are faithful, that’s just what happens,” Dawson said.