Diving into deep thought: Packer pair uses mental toughness to stay competitive in a sport filled with anxiety

Published 5:22 pm Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Imagine you are standing on a small plank above a pool of water with all of your family, friends and teammates staring at you in complete silence. 

There are also three judges looking on and it is your job to impress them.

That’s the challenge that Austin juniors Reese Norton and Alayna Kennedy face every time they compete in a diving meet and it’s a dilemma that never goes away. They acknowledge the nerves and pressure that come with diving, but they can’t dwell on the fear it instills.

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“I’m scared the entire time. I try to channel the fact that I’m so afraid and use it to give me so much more power and energy,” Kennedy said. “I kind of pretend like I’m not there, get tunnel vision and then just go. The mental part can make or break this sport for you.”

Norton tries to handle the nerves by using visualization techniques before she begins her warm ups. When she’s about to make her official dives, she takes a deep breath and hopes for the best.

“There are a lot of nerves. I know that all eyes are on me at the moment and it’s very nerve racking,” Norton said. “If you mess up everybody will see it, but if you do really good, everybody will see it. You want to be able to do good.”

Both divers competed in the Minnesota Class A state meet last season as Norton took 12th in the Class A state meet last season and Kennedy took 13th. They are both back with more confidence and determination this season as Norton has gotten close to a PR and Kennedy beat her best score from last season by 10 points when she posted a mark of over 235 this season.

The Austin Packer regular season diving record of 272.95 was set in 1986 and the 11-dive record of 442.60 was also set in 1986.

Norton and Kennedy have both had their eyes on that mark and Kennedy is all-in on eventually setting a new standard.

“I want to break it. That’s one of the number one things on my list,” Kennedy said. “I want to break it at some point. It has to be done and I don’t want to leave high school with that record still up there. It needs to be done.”

Norton and Kennedy have formed a close friendship over the years, and they always celebrate each others’ success.

“I feel like if Alayna beat (the record), I’d be really happy for her and if I beat it, I’d be happy as well. Whenever it gets broken, it will be this big monumental moment,” Norton said. “If Alayna hits a new dive, I get excited for her and if I hit a new dive, she’s really excited for me. It’s a healthy competition between us.”

While both divers admit to feeling nerves, they haven’t let fear of injury slow them down as they move towards more difficult and challenging dives. Kennedy said it would be a funny story to tell at practice if she had a slip-up on a dive and Norton said that sometimes the pain of the water is the path to success.

“In my mind, it’s a do it or don’t do it moment,” Norton said. “If I smack, it’ll hurt for like five minutes, but if I don’t go for the dive, I’ll be upset about it for like a week.”

Both divers have a huge work ethic and strong drive, and together they are even more of a formidable force.

“It helps to have a friend who’s as driven as you are,” Kennedy said of Norton. “We’re teammates and we’re also competitors and that pushes both of us to keep getting better dives.”

Austin will host Red Wing at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in Bud Higgins Pool.