Four of a kind
It is 1:30 p.m. during a regular day of diving practice. Skrillex echoes off the walls of the Sonny Werblin Recreation Center as Rutgers diver Valentina Gordon makes her way up a set of stairs to the diving platform.
The sophomore steps onto the board, closes her eyes, takes a deep breath and springs into the air. She makes a faint splash moments later as water spills onto the pool deck.
Gordon emerges from the water with a grin as wide as her face will allow.
“I thought I had that,” Gordon says after attempting one of her many dives.
“I thought you did, too,” says diving coach Fred Woodruff.
Gordon’s teammates erupt in applause as she climbs out of the pool, goes back up the stairs and once again dives into the water.
The energy Gordon demonstrated reflects the attitude the team injected into this season. The divers helped the Scarlet Knights experience one of the program’s best starts in recent memory as they sit undefeated with six wins.
Woodruff recognizes the newfound work ethic between his four leading divers. The 18-year coach sees Gordon, fellow sophomore Nicole Scott and juniors Carissa Santora and Katie Kearney feed off each other to get better.
“It’s a great climate in practice,” Woodruff said. “If someone is getting some good dives in the water, it brings up the workout and gets the others going, too. They want to keep up with what every other one is doing. They have fun and at the same time work hard.”
Kearney, the captain and vocal leader of the group, believes each diver is instrumental to the team’s early success and that they motivate each other with their own success.
“We come here to dive and to work,” Kearney said. “Each one of us has a different personality to bring, so it’s been fantastic. The energy level has been great and it’s a lot of fun in practice.”
While all four divers may have different personalities, the ability to come together to get better as a team has each excited for the season.
“We have a really great team,” said Santora, who transferred from Virginia Tech and competes in her first season with the Knights. “We work together to make sure everyone is pumped up and we are all really good friends, so that helps. We are really close.”
The bond between the group members is evident throughout practice as all four gather on the mats and stretch before each session. When each one takes her turn off the boards, the rest watch as she completes her sets.
The quartet provides depth for Woodruff, the likes of which he never had during his tenure at Rutgers.
“To coach that whole group, it’s pretty cool,” Woodruff said. “I don’t think I ever had this much depth on a team. If someone slips up on a day, there is somebody to take over. I’m really enjoying this year.”
While the success experienced by the team looks natural, for some, the path leading to competing in the sport did not start in the water.
It began in the gym.
“I used to be a gymnast,” Gordon said. “Then I kind of just switched over. Being a former gymnast helps a lot. Your body is used to that kind of flipping [for dives].”
Of the four, only Scott did not start out in gymnastics. Santora’s path from the mats came as a result of injuries sustained from her former sport.
“I was a gymnast forever,” Santora said. “Then I got too many injuries, so my mom made my sister and I try diving for a year. We then ended up liking it, so we stuck with it and it has worked out.”
Santora benefited most from the switch, as the junior already owns four individual titles this year. She was one of the main contributors in the Knights’ October victory against then-undefeated Wagner.
Injury was also the reason for Kearney’s transition to the sport she now loves.
“I actually developed stress fractures in my foot so I had to stop [gymnastics],” Kearney said. “So then I started diving for my club team when I was 10 or 11 years old, and I have been doing it ever since.”
Whatever path each diver took to land on the team, each brought success to the program that has Woodruff excited for the year ahead.
“I think the whole team is starting to get together, and [they] are starting to get their identity,” Woodruff said. “The girls work really well and hard together. They have a lot of talent there and I’m excited.”