COLUMBIA — Early in 2011, Missouri gymnastics coach Rob Drass made a phone call to Tigers diving coach James Sweeney. The topic of the conversation was Alex Skinner.
Drass recruited Skinner out of Plano, Texas, but in her freshman season with the gymnastics team, the surgical reconstruction of the ACL in Skinner's knee that was done when she was in high school started to fail, ending her season. The injury required another surgery — the fifth surgery of her gymnastics career. The doctor told Skinner that her gymnastics career was over.
TEAMS: Missouri, Drury, Lindenwood, Missouri State, Missouri S&T (men only), Truman State, Washington University and William Jewell.
WHEN: 3 p.m.
WHERE: Mizzou Rec Center
“I think she went through some withdrawal from gymnastics,” Drass said. “She was kind of crushed a little bit.”
But Skinner wasn’t ready to stop athletic competition completely. That’s when Drass put in the call to Sweeney about the possibility of Skinner becoming a diver.
“Jamie and I talked for a while,” Drass said. “I told him she’s hard working, a dream to coach and a great student. I see no reason why she couldn’t learn diving.”
That’s when Sweeney’s new project began. Skinner had never dived before in her life, but her athletic ability was immediately evident from her gymnastics training.
The technique between the two sports is drastically different, though, Sweeney said.
“She is so strong, insanely explosive and powerful,” Sweeney said. “I love the strength she has, but all I do all day long in coaching her is force her out of gymnastics technique and into diving technique.”
Skinner took a redshirt year as a sophomore, spending the season dedicating herself to a new sport and getting her knee back to full strength.
Now a junior in school but a sophomore eligibility-wise, Skinner is catching up to the rest of the team and is ready to start competing.
The transition continues to be a daily grind. On some days, Skinner looks like the most gifted diver in the pool. On other days, her inexperience shines through, Sweeney said.
“She’s amazing compared to where she was a year ago, but Rome wasn’t built in a day,” Sweeney said. “Some days she’s amazing, some days she struggles.”
Each practice consists of more than two hours of dives, all off the springboards, because Skinner’s knee can’t handle the platform dives.
With each dive, Skinner emerges from the water and immediately turns to Sweeney, who is hollering technical corrections her way, while sprinkling in the encouragement that has helped Skinner adjust to diving.
“It was hard giving up a sport,” Skinner said. “But it was great coming onto this team. They’ve really made it fun for me, especially when I felt like I was behind. It’s been a great transition.”
On Friday, Skinner will dive in her first collegiate meet. It won’t be her first time diving competitively, though. During the spring of Skinner’s redshirt season, Sweeney, who also coaches youth divers, had Skinner participate in a meet with 12 year-olds.
“Oh, it was an experience, for sure,” Sweeney said. “What I did notice is she gets really, really intense. She doesn’t just stay chill.”
That intensity, combined with her consistently positive attitude, has helped Skinner in the long road back from injury. Ryan Jackson, Skinner’s strength coach during her gymnastics and diving careers, said he’s never seen Skinner get too low despite the mental grind of numerous knee injuries.
“She’s always had a great attitude, since day one of working with her as a gymnast,” Jackson said. “She’s always been positive, always has a smile on her face, and I’ve really never seen her too upset before.”
Skinner’s resolve will be tested Friday when the Tigers participate in the Show-Me Showdown, and she steps to the board for the first time. All of the preparation and work she has put in will help calm the nerves, Skinner said, reassuring herself.
“I think I’m ready,” she said.
Supervising editor is Grant Hodder.