The decision whether to dive during high school swim meets in Watertown used to be left up visiting coaches, athletes and parents. Now, the decision is in the hands of the Watertown-Mayer School Board.
A large audience filled the room April 22 at the school board’s monthly meeting in anticipation of high school athletic director Mary Haugen’s recommendation that the school drop diving from it’s high school swimming and diving program.
Citing concerns over both the costs and logistics of supporting a specialized event that must hold practices and competitions in nearby cities — and in some cases share a coach with another school’s team — Haugen recommended to the board that the district drop the event, which has had an interesting recent history at Watertown-Mayer.
Because the school board did not plan to take any action last week, it did not take any public comment from the dozens of people who attended solely for that portion of the meeting. Instead, the board scheduled a public comment session for its May 6 meeting.
“It’s pretty discouraging,” Watertown-Mayer boys’ and girls’ swimming coach Chuck Charnstrom said of the situation. “Diving is one of nine individual events, so it’s a pretty good chunk of points. It would definitely affect varsity outcomes over the years, there’s no doubt about that.”
Watertown-Mayer, which co-ops with Delano in girls’ swimming and with both Delano and Waconia in boys’ swimming, has defied the odds in recent years in maintaining one of the area’s strongest diving squads despite not even having diving boards in its pool. The boards were removed from the Watertown-Mayer pool in 2009 after a female diver hit her head on the bottom of the pool, which is too shallow to allow for competitive diving based on state standards.
However, diving competition was allowed until the 2009 incident if all parents, coaches and athletes signed a waiver, which some did and some did not. However, after that incident occurred, Haugen recommended to the school board that the diving boards be removed, but vowed to continue to look for ways for the school’s athletes to continue to dive.
Most recently, that has included the use of Safari Island in Waconia. Until several years ago, both the Waconia boys’ and girls’ teams were part of co-ops with Watertown-Mayer, making Safari Island a natural, although inconvenient, fit. Because the bulk of the swim team practices in the Watertown-Mayer pool, the divers have been forced to spend a good deal of practice away from their teammates.
That transportation factor, Haugen said, was one of the reasons behind her rationale to eliminate diving. Haugen said numerous other Watertown-Mayer athletes practice off site, such as golfers and hockey players, but she said there are more gray areas when it comes to liability with the divers.
Many of the divers first get in the pool in Watertown to practice their swimming events, and then transport themselves to Waconia for diving practice. In off campus practices in other sports, Haugen noted, the practices start and end at the same place.
Staging actual diving competitions can also be a logistical nightmare, Haugen said. In most cases, the diving portion of dual meets must be held at 4 p.m. in Waconia, allowing time for the athletes to make it to Watertown by 6 p.m. for the remainder of the swimming events. Haugen said it can be difficult to find judges for meets that early, and many schools don’t want the additional inconvenience of the extra travel and early arrival. Haugen said most of the boys’ team’s opponents this year simply chose not to dive during dual meets in Watertown.
Coaching has also become a concern on the girls’ side, Haugen said, because Waconia now fields its own team. The Royals still share the same swim coach with Waconia, but her primary allegiance is to Waconia, which in some cases leaves the Royals without a coach at meets, including last season’s section meet.
Logistics aside, the real motivation behind the recommendation relates to the specialized nature of diving, and the fact that the team must employ a coach specifically for that event, which is one of 12 overall during a swimming meet. Overall, it costs Watertown-Mayer roughly $3,000 in coaching fees for year to serve only a handful of athletes. The Watertown-Mayer programs fielded eight divers this year, but that was the highest number in years. In 2009-10, the team had three divers, and it had five divers in each of the next two seasons. Haugen said she understands the desire to keep diving at Watertown-Mayer, but told the school board that she views diving similar to pole vaulting, another specialized event in track and field that requires its own coach, and was eliminated at Watertown-Mayer years ago.
“I would look at it similarly to track and field with having no pole vault,” Haugen said. “It’s very difficult to make a transition from something you’ve had to something you don’t have. But if I look at the big picture of where our resources are being used for the most student athletes, I cannot any longer support, logistically or financially, what we’ve been doing with diving.”
If the school board were to eliminate diving, it could be a big blow to Watertown-Mayer’s programs, particularly on the boys’ side. Despite not even having a diving board in Watertown, the Royals’ program has still managed to have three different divers qualify for a combined five state tournament appearances over the last four years, and that’s just on the boys’ side. The Royals’ girls team also had one of the area’s best divers as well last year, a Delano student who ultimately come up short of the state meet.
If the district were to eliminate diving, the Royals would essentially forfeit 13 points during all road meets. That’s tough to swallow for any team, but especially one that is accustomed to winning most of those points.
“As a coach, there’s very few opportunities when you look at a lineup and know you’re going to win an event,” Charnstrom said. “That’s definitely the case with (diver) Tristan (Gens) and how much he’s improved over the last couple years. With the teams we compete against, it’s a guaranteed first place.”
Still, Charnstrom said he wasn’t planning on making the team’s recent diving strength part of the argument why the district should keep the event. Instead, he said his argument will center on the idea that the event provides opportunities that otherwise have been almost completely lost for certain types of athletes, especially on the boys’ side.
“Back in the day, boys had gymnastics,” Charnstrom said. “Now, there’s nothing else comparable (besides diving). There’s nothing for the acrobatic guys to do. This would be a huge door being closed.”
If diving were to be eliminated, it would not affect home dual meets, where diving simply would not be a scored event, as was the case for most home meets this year, when opponents chose not to dive. However, it would put the team at a big disadvantage during road dual meets and during invitational or postseason meets. That didn’t sit well with parent Terri Gens, who has watched one of her two sons compete at the state meet each of the last four years.
“Every time we’d go to an away meet, we’d be giving up 14 points,” she said. “It’s like going in two touchdowns short. How can they be excited going into an away meet knowing they can’t put up any diving points? It’s just frustrating.”
Gens’ son Dustin earned three consecutive trips to the Class AA state diving meet, including a second-place finish in 2012, when the Royals had two divers on the state podium. He earned All-American honors that year and later went on to earn a Division I diving scholarship to the University of South Dakota, where he won this year’s Summit League title at 3-meters as a freshman. Gens’ younger brother, Tristan, earned his first state tournament qualification in diving this year as a sophomore, and could be poised to follow the same path as his older brother. Royals’ diving coach Jen Mell has said she believes Tristan could be as good, if not better, than Dustin.
“Now it might be completely eliminated for him,” Terri Gens said. “I don’t know what his options are for continuing to dive in high school if they eliminate it. There’s always the option of finding a club team, but that’s expensive, and there’s nothing local.”
Haugen said that while diving may take away one option for athletes within the broader sport of swimming and diving, she doesn’t believe it will deter potential athletes from joining the program. She pointed out that Charnstrom requires all his divers, even the elite ones, to swim in at least one event as well.
“I believe that we would still give our kids an opportunity to be part of the program,” Haugen told the board. “They are both swimmers and divers. Yes, some of them prefer to dive, and that’s their primary interest, but that’s not the only thing they do.”
While Haugen compared eliminating diving to the track team not having pole vault, Charnstrom argued that it isn’t an entirely fair comparison. In track for instance, there are 18 events, and in swimming, just 12, which makes the diving points even more valuable. Charnstrom added, however, that he understands completely where Haugen is coming from in her rationale regarding logistics and finances, and he said he believes cuts in athletics funding are the bigger issue. He said he hopes he can convince the school board to restore some funding to save the coaching position and the opportunity for his athletes to dive.
Terri Gens also said she believes parents would be welcome to fundraising opportunities to generate their own revenue if it meant saving the event. She also said she’d be willing to go to as many meets as possible as a volunteer assistant, which she did several times this past year for the girls’ team when Coach Mell had to be with the Waconia team, her primary affiliation.
“I would go the extra mile to make sure my child is able to compete in a sport he’s good at,” she said. “I have solutions. Whether they’re willing to take them, that’s the question. Let’s look for solutions to this. These days, high school sports are as much about winning as they are participation. We changed conferences to win and be more competitive, didn’t we? Why put these kids at a downfall, where every time we go into a meet, they’re giving up points?”
Contact Matt Bunke at [email protected]