The No. 1 diver in the country stands on the pool deck, waiting to hear her name called. She’s made it to the national finals and leads the pack heading into the last five dives.
Amy Cozad walks around the deck of her home pool, where she first learned to dive and where her college coach at IU recruited her years ago. Only this time, the stakes are much higher — Rio is months away, and she doesn’t want to fall one spot short of the Olympic team like she did four years ago.
Before making the 10-meter climb up, she thinks about the dive she’s performed a million times before. Aggressive takeoff. Tight tuck. Streamline entry. Tiny splash.
Lyrics by her favorite rapper echo over the loudspeakers, muffled but audible.
I fly with the stars in the skies
I am no longer trying to survive
I believe that life is a prize
But to live doesn’t mean you’re alive.
She’s about to fly.
Standing a few yards away from Amy on the pool deck is the second-ranked diver in the country — her teammate and IU sophomore Jessica Parratto.
Every day, Amy and Jess walk into the same pool, practice the same dives, take instruction from the same coach with the same goal in mind. There are exactly two spots on the U.S. Olympic team in their event, and they both want one.
Amy is an eight-time national champion, while Jess has seven national titles to her name.
But the rankings offer no advantage on the long road to this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio. Amy and Jess are just two of six Olympic hopefuls training in Bloomington under IU Diving Coach Drew Johansen, who coached the U.S. team in London four years ago.
Jess was recruited to IU by former diving coach Jeff Huber but stayed for Johansen, while Amy returned to Bloomington a couple years after graduation to train for the Olympics.
From performing up to 100 dives a day, to technique training at the dry-land facility, to weight training and conditioning, diving is a full-time job for the two. This season Jess decided to take an Olympic year, similar to a redshirt season, so she could put all her time into training.
Whether or not she makes it, though, will unfold in a matter of seconds.
Each time they step onto the 10-meter platform, the goal is to make this dive better than the last. It’s making the judges believe what they just saw was perfect, even if, in reality, there were ten little mistakes.
But perfection isn’t possible.
“We don’t even say that word,” Jess said.
Instead of evaluating the divers with a score of 1-10, Johansen uses a golf scoring system. Par is good. Birdie is above average and eagle is nearly perfect, a rare mark.
Bogey and double bogey signal a miss.
The idea is that each diver is being judged versus themselves and no one else. But when your biggest competitor is standing next to you, it’s hard for the two not to break that rule. When Jess watches Amy nail a dive, or vice versa, it’s motivation to be better.
“It’s real as a heart attack,” Johansen said.
Amy can’t get through a meet without Nicki Minaj, and today is no different.
“She’s my idol,” Amy says. “She was like, ‘I’m not just trying to be the best female rapper. I’m trying to be the best rapper of all time.’ That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to break records. I want to be the best.”
I wish I could have this moment for life, for life, for life
Cause in this moment, I just feel so alive, alive, alive
Amy performs a back 2 ½ somersault, 1 ½ twist first. She earns 5’s and 6’s from the seven judges — not as successful as she’d hoped.
When Jess begins her climb to the top of the 10-meter tower, she moves quickly up the stairs to loosen her nerves, the steps of the dive running through her head. The nerves don’t come from fear, though. She likes the fear factor of free falling — it’s why she started diving in the first place.
She needs to finish in the top two at Nationals today, just like she will need to at the Olympic Trials this June. Rather than get ahead of herself — World Cup is a couple months away, followed by the trials and possibly the Olympics — she stays in the moment.
“I kind of want to think about it,” she says, “but I can’t.”
Jess walks to the end of the platform. One, two, three, four steps forward. Then she turns with her heels hanging off the edge, turning away from the podium that sits right across the pool.
She raises her arms, as if to make a “T,” and counts down to herself.
Deep breath, knees bent, explode. And she’s falling.
Seconds later, her fingertips break the water’s surface.
7’s and 8’s flash onto the screen.
She used to follow her mom to practice every day.
It didn’t matter that she was too young to dive – Jess was always hanging out at the pool where her mother, Amy, coached at a diving club in New Hampshire.
When she started swimming lessons, Jess’s eyes would drift to the other side of the natatorium.
She wanted to jump off one of those boards.
“She was a little bit of a daredevil,” her mom said.
At age eight, Jess competed in her first diving competition, with her mom as her coach. Being coached by mom had its drawbacks – when all the other kids didn’t show up to practice, Jess still had to. When she was tempted to talk back to her coach, there were consequences.
“I got kicked out of practice a lot,” Jess says.
But diving never came home with them. In the house, Amy was Jess’s mom. At the pool, she was her coach. Amy didn’t want to force either of her daughters into anything they didn’t want – the minute they stopped loving it, it wasn’t worth it.
“Sometimes I’d come home and say, ‘I’m gonna quit,’” Jess says.
“OK,” her mom would reply.
“Then I’d always come back.”
Jess was 14 years old when she was invited to train at the National Training Center in Indianapolis. One year of high school down, she moved nearly a thousand miles away from her family.
She trained seven hours a day. She didn’t have the opportunity to attend a normal high school – she missed out on senior prom, homecoming, Friday night football games.
She didn’t even have time to get her driver’s license.
The city where Jess spent time missing home is the place Amy called home, though at times it hardly felt like it. With her parents divorced, she switched off living with her mom, dad, aunt and grandparents, moving to a different house every time she became too frustrated.
For a good while, she and her mom didn’t see eye-to-eye.
“I was kind of a bad kid,” Amy admits, half-smiling.
But she was fearless and competitive too – the most competitive Jess says she’s ever met. Diving, for Amy, was different and exciting and a positive outlet for all of her energy.
In 2012, she was one spot away from making the Olympic team.
Amy finished third, while just the top two qualify.
It wasn’t until that moment that she realized the Olympics was an attainable goal for her, and now everything she has goes toward reaching it.
“Amy will perform dive after dive after dive after dive and that’s how she builds confidence,” Johansen said. “It’s all about consistent training and repetition, doing it until it’s the best it can be.”
A little more than a year ago, Amy and Jess became synchro partners. Now, they’re the No. 1 synchro duo in the United States.
Some synchro duos have been competing together for 10 or 15 years, but these two have been competing against each other four times as long as they’ve been teammates. Finding the balance between competing against and competing with each other is still an adjustment.
Amy describes it as having to wear two hats.
“I’m still working on it,” she says. “In everything, I find something to compete about – I’ll get here earlier than you if I can.”
Johansen said it’s a mental battle his divers deal with every day, but it makes them even better. Very few, if any, divers in the country have the advantage of watching their competition day in and day out.
There is only one spot on the Olympic team in the synchronized event.
Practicing as a duo isn’t much different than practicing alone. You’re trying to perform that dive as perfectly as possible, as always – just with someone standing next to you.
At the back of the platform, Jess will line up next to Amy.
“Ready?” she’ll say. “One, two, three, go.”
They’ll take a running start before jumping off both feet, all four touching in unison. As soon as they’re in the air, it’s each diver for herself.
“Ultimately, in synchro, you say ‘1, 2, 3, go’ and after you say ‘3,’ it’s only you,” Amy says.
One front tuck somersault. Then another. And another.
“That’s a birdie for Amy,” Johansen says. “Par for Jess.”
Amy paces the pool deck, stopping for instructions from her coach, preparing for her final dive. Her headphones are back on, more Nicki Minaj lyrics blasting in her ears.
This is my moment
I waited all my life
Jess has just finished her set – more 8’s on her final dive and good enough for second place. She hurries over to hug her coach and then waits to see if she’ll be celebrating with her teammate.
“Amy Cozad,” echoes through the natatorium. “407C.”
Her aunt, her fiancé, her mother and father, her grandmother and so many others have come out to watch her dive. Her former coach – the coach who told Amy after just a week of practice that she would be an Olympic diver – is watching.
Ten meters up, before diving Amy reminds herself how many times before she’s nailed this dive.
Just do it like your last rep, she thinks. Just do it right.
Three and a half somersaults later, Amy is the national champion. She gets out of the pool and jogs cautiously across the slippery pool deck toward the crowd. She wants to hug her fiancé and talk to her family.
Fans whistle and applaud, and Amy shyly smiles up at them, giving a small wave.
She knows this is just the beginning of accomplishing what she couldn't four years ago. After only a week off for Christmas, she’ll be back in the pool. And she doesn’t mind.
“Never,” she said. In 13 years, there hasn’t been a morning when she’s woken up and not wanted to dive.