Perfect Position

With two Olympians returning, Duke’s diving team expects to make a splash.

In the year leading up to the London Olympics, two pictures hung in the corner of the Taishoff Aquatics Center, home of the Duke swimming and diving program. Positioned between the ladder divers use to exit the pool and the one they use to summit the diving platforms, the images showed the inside of the London Aquatics Centre, the site of the Olympics diving competition. One was a full view of the arena from a spectator’s perspective. The other was taken from the top of the diving platform—the view competitors would see just before making an Olympic dive.

Five years ago, those pictures would have represented a nice fantasy, but nothing more. At the time, Duke’s diving program had never yielded so much as an All-ACC diver. An Olympian? It would have seemed too lofty an ambition.

But look at Duke diving now. Two Duke divers—seniors Abby Johnston and Nick McCrory—competed for the U.S. in London. Johnston won a silver medal and McCrory a bronze in synchronized diving, and McCrory placed ninth in the ten-meter platform diving competition. Their coach—Duke diving coach Drew Johansen, the man responsible for those photographic reminders—was selected to lead the U.S. diving team, which won four medals after having been shut out during the previous two Olympics.

And the best may be yet to come. With the Olympics behind them, Johnston and McCrory are back in Taishoff, where they’ll rejoin one of the most promising diving teams in Duke history.

Nick McCrory

“It’s really exciting—Duke diving is making great strides, and it wouldn’t be possible without Drew,” says McCrory. “It’s going to be a good year for Duke.”

Those strides began in 2007, when Duke lured Johansen away from the USA Elite Diving Academy, a junior and senior diving program he founded in Columbus, Ohio, in 2001. One of the top private diving programs in the nation, Johansen’s academy had trained three high-school state diving champions in 2006. But he was intrigued by the Duke program, which he says was “doing a good job on the conference level” but had higher aspirations. Duke had converted a part-time coaching position into a full-time focus on diving—a sign, says Johansen, that the university was taking the sport seriously.

“When Duke decided they wanted to support diving as a legitimate top program in the country, it was a no-brainer,” he says. “I jumped at it immediately.”

Abby Johnston [Credit: Associated Press]

In his first season as head coach, Johansen helped Julie Brummond ’10 become Duke’s first-ever All- ACC diver. He also ramped up recruiting, signing four top highschool divers in the spring of 2008. Among them was Abby Johnston, a two-time state champion diver from Ohio who had trained with Johansen at the USA Elite program since she was twelve. When Johansen left for Duke in 2007, Johnston followed, moving to Durham so she could continue working with her coach during her final year of high school. “I have just gotten along with him well,” Johnston says. “He knows how to push me, and I trust that what he does is in my best interest all the time.” Making the Olympic team, she says, was a goal she and Johansen began focusing on when she was fourteen.

Johansen has long roots with Duke’s other Olympian as well. Nick McCrory started training with Johnansen before he entered high school in Chapel Hill. After narrowly missing the Olympic team in 2008, McCrory signed on to be part of Johansen’s second recruiting class. “Working with Drew is something I really wanted to continue,” McCrory says. “He studies [divers] and takes on a really technical perspective, changing little details that will make a huge difference.”

With Johnston and McCrory leading the way, Duke rose to unprecedented levels of diving success. McCrory won national championships in each of his first two seasons at Duke, earning All-American honors in three events. Johnston, also a three-time All-American, won her first national championship in 2011, earning the title in the three-meter springboard event. That season, Haley Ishimatsu, a Californian who qualified for the 2008 Olympics when she was just fifteen years old, became Johansen’s third ACC champion, winning the platform diving title. Johansen, meanwhile, was named a USA Diving Coach of Excellence in 2010.

All three divers stepped away from NCAA competition last season to focus on training for the Olympics. (Ishimatsu, who did not qualify for the Olympic team, has since transferred to the University of Southern California.) And while that may have hurt Duke’s team performance last season, Johnston says having three Olympians—two students and one coach—will pay dividends down the road.

“It speaks volumes to the type of program we run here—how intense our training can be and that we have very high goals,” she says. “It shows that Duke is full of well-rounded people who excel athletically and academically.”

It’s that blend of academic and athletic opportunity that Johansen says sells so well with elite divers. For example, one of this season’s top recruits is Kendall McClenney ’16, a Texas native who had a strong showing at the U.S. Olympic Trials. McClenney chose Duke after Johansen stressed that she would have the chance not only to compete, but also to pursue other interests on campus. After watching Johansen work with the Duke divers, she was sold.

“I loved the way Drew coached,” she says. “It was very laid-back, but you could also tell he would really work hard.”

McClenney joins two other heralded freshmen—Deon Reid of Long Beach, California, and Jaimee Gundry of Surrey, England— who will debut for Duke this fall. In addition to Johnston and McCrory, three divers return from last year’s team, which has Johansen excited about the program’s future.

“Duke diving has been coming up pretty quickly on the map in the last four or five years,” he says. “As I look into my next recruiting class, I’m looking at the kids that potentially are going to be on the 2016 [Olympic team] to keep us bringing home those NCAA titles and striving to be at the highest international stage.”

And so the London photos have been taken down off the walls in the Taishoff pool, and the focus is squarely back on NCAA competition. But in about three years, expect Johansen to start searching the Internet for just the right picture of the Maria Lenk Aquatics Center in Rio de Janeiro.

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