Overcoming fears leads to big accolades for high diver

MU diver Kendra Melnychuk turned a fear of platform diving into newfound success.
Thursday, March 13, 2008 | 6:45 p.m. CDT; updated 8:10 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — In becoming the first Big 12 diving champion from MU, junior Kendra Melnychuk also solidified her place as one of the nation’s top divers in the 10-meter platform event.

It’s been less than two years, though, since she was too afraid to even try.

Though Melnychuk had been diving competitively since she was 7 or 8 years old and dreamed of diving in college, she had never tried platform diving before.

“I came into college not wanting to do it,” Melnychuk said. “I had this inexplicable fear in high school. It made me want to puke.”

The platform sits about 33 feet off the ground and unlike the 1-meter and 3-meter springboards, the two other college diving events, provides no bounce for the diver. Diving off the platform equates to hurtling off a three-story building, while trying to twist and flip the whole way down. What’s more, some dives call for platform divers to start in a handstand position before launching themselves into the air.

“She was pretty freaked out,” MU diving coach Jamie Sweeney said. “She thought she could come here and stick with the easy stuff, and that’s basically what she did her freshman year. Right after her freshman year, I decided it was time for her to try the 10 meter. Even before she tried it, I knew she’d be best at the 10.”

Melnychuk’s supreme control as she twisted through the air made Sweeney sure she’d be a natural on the platform.

“She has a level of bodily control and spatial awareness that just makes it very safe for her to be up there,” Sweeney said.

Melnychuk soon realized she had a knack for platform diving, and Sweeney began training her in the new event, first working on her lead-ups on the lower levels.

“The skills at the lower levels carry up to the top,” said Sweeney, who eventually made Melnychuk do handstands on the top level fully clothed to get over her anxiety. “She was well-prepared so it was just a matter of pushing past the fear.”

By the end of her sophomore year and her first season competing on the platform, Melnychuk had already established a school record in the event and won the platform competition at the NCAA Zone D Diving Championships. That earned her a spot at the NCAA Diving Championships, where she finished 18th with a score on the platform nearly 30 points lower than her best that season.

This year, Melnychuk has outdone herself. In addition to her Big 12 title, Melnychuk has improved her school record and has not lost a platform event all season. She should be one of the favorites to advance to the NCAA Diving Championships when she and five MU teammates compete at Zones this week, March 14 to 16, in Houston.

Melnychuk said her goal is to make the finals of the NCAA Diving Championships this year.

“Challenging myself helps me get through platform more than anything,” said Melnychuk, who cited the “mental ability to cope with being so high” as the biggest skill difference with platform compared to springboard diving.

Melnychuk and Sweeney have continued to work on her platform training, and Sweeney said her work ethic is paying off.

“It’s amazing that she’s been diving for 12 or 15 years or whatever, and she’s still not even near her peak,” Sweeney said. “She’ll keep getting better until the day she graduates.”

For Melnychuk, though, seeing her scores when she emerges from the water makes it all worth it.

“Tower practice has become more of a challenge, because I do realize I have a talent for it,” Melnychuk said. “I want to show that I can be great at it even though I didn’t do it in the past.”

Even with all her accolades and the lofty goals, Melnychuk conceded she still isn’t entirely comfortable 10 meters up.

“I wouldn’t say anyone is completely comfortable up there,” she said. “Doing platform shows an extra little bit of courage. Only about 50 percent of divers have done 10 meter. I take pride in being able to do dives up there.”

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