Perfecting the Form

Two former gymnasts take on the challenge of collegiate diving without any prior experience.

“Don’t land on your head!”

Esabelle Gervasio and Madison Sweeney have been taught to never land on their heads throughout each of their extensive gymnastics careers. Now, as divers on the Marist women’s swimming and diving team, they have had to retrain their bodies to do movements outside of the gymnastics norm.

“You look like you flung yourself off of a tall building and you managed to land on your head,” Gervasio laughed, explaining how the start of the transition looks.

The two walk-ons were fish out of water compared to their competitors. Most college divers, especially at the Division I level, have at least some high school diving experience. Their situation is not unheard of, but “we had much less experience,” said Sweeney, a junior from Miami, Florida.

The lack of experience resulted in techniques being replayed on a continuous loop in their minds, the same way that in gymnastics the technique is practiced until you can do it in your sleep. They both were memorizing their hurdles at their first championship meet– something their competitors don’t have to think twice about.

“Your body just wants to do everything you would do in gymnastics,” Sweeney said. In the beginning, it was difficult to see where the ends would meet, as Sweeney had the urge to give up during her freshman year. “I would drive home and be like, ‘Why am I doing this? Is this really what I want to do?’”

Gervasio and Sweeney both were looking to continue playing sports in college in one way or another. After having too many injuries from gymnastics and pole vaulting in track, Gervasio tried diving for a year before joining Marist. Sweeney had been a gymnast for 16 years and wanted to pursue the sport in college. Marist does not have gymnastics, however she was told by the now-retired diving coach Melanie Bolstad that if she could get the basics down for diving (a front, a back, a reverse, an inward and a twist), she could walk onto the team. 

While their situation was daunting, Bolstad has had experience in coaching women through the transition of gymnastics to diving, as she once made the same transition herself. 

“I think because I could relate to how the gymnastic skills would turn into diving skills, it made it easier for me to help coach them,” said Bolstad.

Bolstad knew the lingo and techniques Gervasio and Sweeney would be familiar with, helping their transition into the sport. She did not rush the process. Rather, she coaches very slowly with new divers. She breaks down the different skills, using the trampoline to help them learn a back one and a half and a back two and a half. This further helps them learn to land on their hands and head rather than their feet, even before getting up on the boards. 

“Every single person that I knew was able to work with what I knew and then I was able to work with what they knew,” said Gervasio. “We were all able to work together to make things that I had trouble understanding switching from gymnastics to diving easier.”

The support from Bolstad and their fellow teammates have played a big role in their development as divers. Not only has the physical act of performing the sport been a major transition, but also the community around the sport has changed.  This, in turn, has helped them become better divers. 

Gervasio and Sweeney were close with their gymnastics teams while growing up and with their fellow Marist swimmers as well. But in gymnastics, it’s not common to see competitors casually getting to know one another. Opposing teams were never friends. Rather, they were solely your competition. However, this was unlike any community of people the divers have experienced before in a sport. Both Gervasio and Sweeney have grown to know other divers in the MAAC and keep in touch with them.

“When we see them at competitions, it’s not like a rivalry. We want to just all have fun together and support each other,” said Sweeney. “So that’s definitely different than any competition I’ve ever been in with gymnastics.”

Due to COVID-19 there was no swim or dive 2020-21 season.  However, looking back on film of themselves doing a back flop or belly flop in the water, also known as smacking, Gervasio and Sweeney have shown the significant development from gymnasts to divers. 

In her junior year, Gervasio finished 17th overall out of 62 divers in the 1-meter dive at the NCAA Zone Diving Championships. Not to mention, her score of 323.10 in the 1-meter dive in the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) put her as the program record holder and it was a United States Naval Academy pool record. Also, in both her sophomore and junior year, Gervasio won the 1-meter and 3-meter dive at the ECAC Championships, along with winning the 1-meter dive and placing second in the 3-meter dive at the MAAC Championships.

Sweeney improved significantly, placing fifth in the 3-meter and sixth in the 1-meter at the MAAC Championships as opposed to ninth and 10th respectively in her first year. This qualified her for the ECAC Championships where she placed second in the 1-meter dive and fourth in the 3-meter dive. 

And these are just to name a few. Bolstad is proud of both Gervasio and Sweeney in what they have accomplished in their careers.  The biggest piece of advice she gives them is to be confident in their dives, as that’s the best way to keep up the success.

“They have to stay positive and they just have to believe in what they can do. They will flourish with a new coach if they believe in what they can do because they all have good basics and they’re all ready to move on to the next level,” said Boldstad.

These women have adjusted their bodies and techniques to a completely new sport. They are no longer injuring themselves and are in less pain. They are no longer saluting the judges after a dive. Geraviso and Sweeney are satisfying their need to be in a team sport and their “adrenaline junky” personalities.  They’re now Marist divers, standing on their own two feet.

And landing on their heads.

Edited by Connor Kurpat & Mackenzie Meaney

Photo by Marist Athletics

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