MU freshman Figueroa prepares for first NCAA diving meet

Monday, March 7, 2011 | 8:41 p.m. CST; updated 9:21 p.m. CST, Monday, March 7, 2011
Freshman Loren Figueroa focuses before diving during Missouri's meet against Iowa State on Jan. 22. Repetition has been key for Figueroa's improvement. In practice, she has been doing each of her dives three or four times as if she were in a meet.

COLUMBIA —  Loren Figueroa steps onto the diving board. Her name is announced, followed by the dive she is about to do and the degree of difficulty. Then the whistle blows and she dives into the pool.

This is just an afternoon of practice, and the announcer is MU diving coach Jamie Sweeney, who is sitting in a chair next to the pool.

With the biggest meet of the season coming up this weekend, Figueroa has begun to practice a little bit differently.

The NCAA Diving Zone Championships on March 10 through 12 in Austin, Texas, is the only opportunity for collegiate divers to qualify for the NCAA Championships.

For most of the season, Figueroa, a freshman, has practiced by doing many repetitions of her dives. She said lately she has just been doing each of her dives three or four times as if she were in a meet.

"My primary goal is to keep her focused," Sweeney said. "She will execute the dive, and I'll actually give her a score, and that keeps her focused."

Figueroa has made several headlines for the Tigers this season. She broke the school record in the 3-meter dive by 35 points against Iowa State on Jan. 22 and placed second in the 1-meter event at the USA Senior Nationals in February. Two weeks ago, she became the first Missouri swimmer to win a Big 12 title in the 1-meter.

She said that she has surprised herself with her success.

"I feel like I've actually improved a lot," she said. "There's a lot of room for improvement, but I didn't think that Jamie would be able to help me improve this quickly."

Figueroa was the only female diver that Sweeney recruited last year. Figueroa, who went to high school in Conroe, Texas, said she knew some MU divers from age group competitions before college.

"My divers let me know that she might be interested, so from that I decided to shoot her an e-mail," Sweeney said. "I wasn't actively looking for girls, but I came across her and said 'Hey, why not. Lets go for it.' If we can get this girl, it will be well worth it."

He said that Figueroa is one of the best athletes he has ever coached.

"Off a diving board, she jumps as high as any girl in the country," Sweeney said. "As far as speed, she's just as fast as any other girl. That's a really good starting point. We've got four years to work on technique, four years to work on the mental game."

But it was not just physical attributes that caught Sweeney's attention.

"Just as much as I recruit their level of talent, I also recruit their personality," Sweeney said. "I was really drawn to her as a person and the way she thinks because I think the way she learns is very similar to the way I coach."

This weekend, Figueroa will try to qualify for the NCAA Championships for the first time in the 3-meter and the 1-meter. Most of her success this year has come on the 1-meter.

"I love 3-meter, I'm just not as comfortable with it as I am with 1-meter," Figueroa said.

But Sweeney thinks that Figueroa could qualify in both events.

"Her ability to do just as well on the 3-meter is definitely there," he said.

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