Plainfield Middle School Diver Competes in Junior World Trials For Team USA

Writer: Christy Heitger-Ewing

Sean McCarthy, Executive Director of the Indiana International School of Diving, has a knack for spotting talent in children ages 6-10 and working with them to achieve international-level success. Five years ago, McCarthy watched 9-year-old Daryn Wright perform several dives. Immediately, he knew she was something special. A former gymnast, Daryn was agile, supple, coordinated and quick.

“It was easy to see skill sets that could be molded because she was already on a good path of flexibility, strength and coordination,” says McCarthy, who is also the Chairperson for USA Diving Competitive Excellence.

Daryn, now 14 and an eighth-grader at Plainfield Middle School, has made tremendous strides in the past five years. It’s not surprising when you consider that she practices 20 hours a week during the school year, plus another six hours on weekends. In the summer, she trains between 30-35 hours weekly. Monday through Thursday, Daryn’s mom, Christie, picks her up from school and heads straight to practice at IUPUI. She gobbles down a protein snack in the car, then begins “dryland,” which includes core strengthening work and trampolines from 3:30-4:30 p.m. She practices in the pool between 4:30-7 p.m. and lifts weights from 7-8 p.m.

McCarthy has been really good about helping Daryn see that her potential is directly proportional to the effort she puts in.

“Daryn is polite and respectful of authority, yet she continues to find her voice so that she can articulate to her coach and others the things that bother her,” Christie says.

When Daryn first entered the competitive circuit at age 11, she suffered significant performance anxiety. As she got closer to each meet, her nerves would increase steadily, thereby affecting her practices. Out of frustration, occasionally she lashed out at the coaching staff.

“One day she was practicing on the 7-meter platform, and I told her that it’s not about where you place, it’s about improving skill,” McCarthy recalls. “She challenged me and said, ‘Well, if it’s not about where I place in the meet, why don’t I do all my dives on a 5-meter instead?’”

McCarthy calmly explained that her diving career isn’t about him or her parents. It was her choice.

“She spent the night digesting that talk and the next morning, she said, ‘I want everything on 7,’” says McCarthy, noting that she killed it in the warm-ups and won the meet. “That was the first sign of her overcoming her anxiety. At that point, she started to trust me to push her out on a limb she may not think she’s ready for.”

Daryn, a top-tier elite junior diver who often competes alongside college students, has participated in more than 25 regional, national and international meets. (International qualification only happens for the top two divers at national.) She’s traveled to Ohio, Georgia, Illinois, Wisconsin, Florida, Texas, California and Cuba. This past January, she went to the USA Olympic Training Center in Colorado where she gained tips and training techniques from sports psychologists and nutritionists.

This month she will go to Miami of Ohio in Oxford for the Junior World Trials. There they will pick the team that will compete in Ukraine in July. In addition, because she is one of 34 who made the high-performance team, later this month she will compete in Dresden, Germany.

By far, the most difficult aspect of the sport is overcoming fear.

“That’s something that I’m constantly working on,” says Daryn, noting that when she’s doing a 10-meter dive, that’s an equivalent to plunging off a three-story building.

“If you’re diving off the 10-meter and you impact the water the wrong way at 35 mph, you’re going to be sore for days,” says McCarthy, who incorporates fear management skills into his athletes’ daily routines. The kids simulate dives on dry land, using trampolines and rope and harness.

“This way they can gather experience and exposure to a new skill without the impact of a splat,” McCarthy says. After hundreds of repetitions, they introduce that new dive in the water. He uses a water agitation system wherein bubbles are sprayed up from the bottom of the pool so that if a diver lands incorrectly, they don’t experience as much of a sting. McCarthy also provides verbal cues during the dive so Daryn knows what to do when.

Perfecting a dive takes a lot of patience and repetition and therefore gets monotonous at times.

“It’s the ‘wax on, wax off’ theory of the ‘Karate Kid’ movie,” McCarthy says. “The myelin sheath of basic motor skills has to be refined to a measure of mastery of the most simple and seemingly boring skill. At the same time, to keep the kids interested, I have to introduce new skills in a safe way.”

McCarthy maintains that the human body is ready for a skill months before the human mind acknowledges that same degree of confidence.

“This is why they must not overthink things,” McCarthy says. “Instead, they must focus their attention to the present moment, exhale tension, inhale confidence and trust their training.”

When Daryn travels with USA Diving, her family (which includes mom Christie, dad Todd and siblings Andie and Derek) isn’t allowed to accompany her. If they attend the meets, they must travel separately and stay in a different hotel. They’re also not allowed to take Daryn out to dinner or interact with her outside of the meets.

“We can wave to her from the pool deck and that’s it. She’s pretty isolated with the group,” Christie says. “The coaches want the kids to learn how to travel as a team — especially for international meets.”

Due to her small size (she’s 5’1″), Daryn’s best event is tower.

“I can’t jump high because I’m short so I get a better entry off tower,” Daryn says. “I spin really fast.”

Her all-time favorite meet took place in Moultrie, Georgia. It was pouring down rain during the final event, but despite the deluge, the boisterous group of spectators were cheering wildly in the stands.

“The kids were thriving on that energy from the crowd and they all hit their dives,” Christie says.

Daryn, whose favorite divers include Purdue alum and Olympic gold medalist David Boudia and David Dinsmore, who hails from Ohio, admits that her diving career takes up most of her free time.

“My friends are always asking if I can hang out on a certain day, and I say, ‘No, I have diving,’ and they’re like, ‘You always have diving!’” says Daryn with a chuckle. “Which is pretty much true.”

But she’s not complaining. In her little bit of down time, she likes to go to musicals, connect with her friends on social media and attend youth group events at Plainfield United Methodist Church.

“I usually have to miss the summer camp, but I attend the fall retreat and Sunday services,” Daryn says. “Our church family has been very supportive of my diving.”  

Though Daryn plans to continue pursuing diving throughout high school and college, she’s unsure at this time of her Olympic aspirations.

“I think it would be cool, but I haven’t made up my mind yet,” Daryn says. “All I know is that I’m loving what I’m doing and am grateful for this life.”

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