While swimmers provide the quantity, divers might be the difference if the University of Hawaii finally beats SMU to win its first Conference USA men’s championship. The meet starts tomorrow in Houston.
About 200 miles west, at the Western Athletic Conference women’s championship in San Antonio (tomorrow to Saturday), Rainbow Wahine divers could clean up on their way to NCAA Zonals. They hold every WAC diving record.
"We have an unusual situation this year," says Mike Brown, who coaches UH divers with his wife, Anita Rossing. "We’ve had some teams with three or four good divers, but each had a hierarchy in each event, so we expected people to do well. … This year, on the springboards, I wouldn’t be surprised to see any of the four (women) win any of the events."
Last year, Stephanie De Lima became the first to sweep all three diving events (1 and 3 meters and platform) at a WAC Championship. She is a senior with Emma Friesen, who redshirted last year and has never lost a WAC 1-meter title and was 2008 NCAA champion.
In their first 10 years here, Brown and Rossing have coached two national champions (Friesen and QiongJie Huang in 2005) and another two runners-up (Magnus Frick and Rui Wang). Megan Farrow and Mats Wiktorsson collected fourth-place NCAA finishes.
This week’s conference championships are the crucial first steps in an unplugged competitive world where the only sound is the bounce off a board and a splash. Since Wally Nakamoto started the diving program at UH 40 years ago, the Rainbows have found gold more than most.
The balance at such a high level on the women’s side is unique to this year. Friesen is fighting back from a skateboarding injury that forced her to miss last season. In her time off, the notoriously powerful diver cross-trained with ballet and yoga. The Canadian came back with a very different look, and a great outlook for her final season.
"I’m finally 100 percent comfortable with being on my own," Friesen said, "and of course that’s when college ends."
Rossing and Brown hope when she is done here Friesen will get another shot at a Canadian national championship, to go with the junior gold she has won. Brown used to describe her powerful style in football terms. Now he uses words like elegance and precision.
"She is not at all like a linebacker now," he says. "She’s a prima ballerina now."
Friesen won the 1-meter in her last meet to join teammates De Lima, junior Daniella Nero and sophomore Hannah Bocksnick with titles this season.
De Lima, from Montreal, proved she could rise to the occasion a year ago. Along with her WAC trifecta, she finished top seven at zonals — barely missing nationals in all three events. Brown and Rossing would love to see her at the next level her final year.
Nero, from Sweden, was just behind De Lima on the springboards at last year’s zonal and had a personal best on the 1-meter last month. She gets the most altitude of all the divers.
Bocksnick, from Calgary, was top five on both springboard events at last year’s WAC Championship. She has been especially strong on 3-meter recently.
The guys are nearly as accomplished. Juniors Douglas Cohen and Thomas Rugg and sophomores Luke Hayes and Freddie Menzel are capable of scoring points this week, while SMU has just one diver. Cohen and Rugg have qualified for zonals all three years. Cohen has five runner-up finishes his first two years in C-USA, while Rugg has been right behind him.
"Some of these kids are breathtaking at times," says Brown. "They are just doing really good stuff. It’s fun to see them in practice, fun to see them develop to a high level. Part of it is strength, part is experience, part is winning."
Divers could make up the little difference that separated Hawaii and SMU in 2010. The Rainbows also return sophomore Luca Mazzurana, who was C-USA swimmer of the meet at last year’s championships, while James Clarke is defending his 500-free title. Molokai’s Ilia Reyes is team captain and one of just three seniors, with Dan Worden and Steve Allnutt.
The Wahine are looking to splash back into the WAC’s top three.
Australian Taylor Ritenberg could medal in three events and is striving to qualify for the postseason and break Jeanne Childs’ school records in breaststroke, which have stood nearly 30 years. Senior Maura Barrett could also score in three events and has already made NCAA "B" times.
Others to look out for are seniors Ricarda Schellenberg, Alyssa Hosack, Nicole Larson, Jess Stacy, Amanda McTeague and Kyley Eisenman, along with Melissa Myers in the distance events.