Bridge over troubled water

Compared to the rest of Cal’s aquatics programs, the diving team is far from a powerhouse. But the tide could turn in the team’s favor in the future.

Simone Anne Lang/Staff
Simone Anne Lang/Staff

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In the closed confines of Berkeley’s Spieker Aquatics Center, a board on its north wall has immortalized the name of every aquatic athlete to represent the university at the Olympic level.

In polished gold script on separate dark stones, the monument to the Bears’ aquatic prowess boldly stands just feet from the pool those athletes once trained in. National team legends like Natalie Coughlin and Nathan Adrian are the most recognizable of the 100-some names on the board. Since the pool was constructed 30 years ago, roughly a thousand Cal alumni have called this place home.

But there’s one program that hasn’t contributed to that board.

Opposite that wall, clear on the other side of the 50-meter pool, four rather different kinds of boards bobble and sway one or three meters above the water. Nine athletes — four men and five women — climb up to the edge of one thin, painted plank, set their feet precariously and tumble off with a variety of full-body twists, flips and contortions. The Cal divers distort themselves through the air tumultuously, hitting the water after a display of acrobatics that can easily impresses the untrained eye.

But trained eyes — like those of second-year Cal diving coach Todd Mulzet — offer the best critique of technique. And other trained eyes — those of diving’s judges — offer proof of how far the team still has to come.

None of Cal’s divers will make the Olympics this year. Barring a miracle, none will qualify for NCAAs. Cal’s diving team lacks the colorful history of its other aquatic programs.

But one day, Mulzet wants to see a Cal diver’s name added to the list on that wall.

“Hopefully,” he says, gesturing towards the north wall, “we’ll get some names on that board soon.”

The Cal diving program has a long way to go before that happens. But it’s not for a lack of vision.

Both of Cal’s swim teams churn out international-level swimmers with sparkling regularity. The defending national champions each produce All-Americans in every recruiting class. Both squads have finished with top-10 programs each year for more than a decade. Cal swimmers have medaled in each Olympics since 1976.

Although the swimming and diving teams often compete together — as all college programs do — Cal diving has never matched the success of the swimming program over the years. Whereas Cal’s swimmers both qualify and place at NCAAs in most events, its divers rarely qualify for the meet. Not until 1987 did a Cal diver make the NCAA meet, when Nick Chaves qualified under then-diving coach Phil Tonne. Four years later, Melissa Graviss became the first woman to qualify for the meet and was Cal’s first diving All-American. Since Sam Helvie earned All-American honorable mention in 2007, no Cal diver — male or female — has even qualified for the meet.

In spite of the disparity between the programs, Cal’s divers look favorably on their relationship with the swimmers; they’re appreciative — not envious — of swimming’s success.

“They’re two completely different sports,” says freshman diver Thomas Selby. “But it’s really fortunate that we get to have them grouped together so that we can feed off of each other’s energy. It’s a really cool thing to be a part of.”

In meets, Cal’s lack of diving success usually doesn’t affect the swim team’s success. Most meets are decided by a large enough margin that Cal’s diving scores rarely came into play. Often Cal doesn’t even need to finish meets to ensure victory. In close meets, however, the advantage of a solid diving team is magnified. At last year’s Big Meet against Stanford, the Cardinal scored a narrow six-point victory over the Bears after sweeping the top three spots in both diving events. In the 2010 NCAA Championships, Texas defeated Cal by about the margin of the points from its diving events.

Then again, the Bears beat out Texas to win NCAAs last year, even though none of their divers even qualified for the meet.

“I won’t begin to take any credit for their success,” Mulzet says. “I don’t think we necessarily contributed to anything last year. And definitely not in points at NCAAs, we didn’t contribute.”

But in the aftermath of a national championship, contributions came secondary to celebration. Cal’s swimmers and divers dined together at the chancellor’s house, united as one team.

Mulzet’s expectations for the Bears seem less bold than those of his two bosses: Men’s coach David Durden and women’s coach Teri McKeever both train Cal swimmers for high-stakes international competition.

But Mulzet’s goal for the program — to score points at NCAAs — is simultaneously simple yet ambitious. Only three of the 21 events at the meet involve diving; one or two exceptional divers can put a lot of points on the table. The challenge is finding the divers who can do so.

“There’s a lot of variables,” Mulzet says. “You can’t recruit based on a 50 split (time). You can see how many variables there are. There’s mechanics going on, there’s the board, there’s injury … It takes time to establish yourself as a top-flight diver.”

Cal also faces the issue of scholarships, which even at the strongest programs have to be divvied up between swimmers and divers. Programs such as Texas and Stanford that excel at both swimming and diving are the exceptions, not the rule. It’s an obstacle Mulzet, Cal’s fourth new head coach in the last eight years, will face as he attempts to build an elite program from scratch.

But Cal’s divers remain brashly optimistic, unfazed by an uncertain future, unaffected by a lackluster past. Cal’s talent is young: Selby and sophomore Tyler Pullen, the team’s top two divers, are underclassmen. Mulzet’s focus remains intently on the present, the process: the controllable in a sport in which every movement is judged.

“Our diving program is on its way up,” Selby says.

For the simple fact there’s nowhere else to go when you’re down, it’s hard to disagree. Cal’s diving can only get better. The only question is, “how much?” Improvement won’t be quick. It could take years before the Bears produce another NCAA qualifier. But the odds are in their favor. The Bears have sent divers to NCAAs before. They probably will again.

And maybe, just maybe, the Cal diving team will add a name to that board one day.