Johnson, a sophomore, is doing something that is astounding fellow students and MSU diving – picking up high level diving on the fly.
EAST LANSING, Mich. – Michigan State sophomore Hannah Johnson stood on the edge of one of the diving boards at IM West, her body bent at the waist, both arms extended horizontally.
Slowly, she continued to bend over and eventually jumped off the board. Her arms moved above her head. Johnson, a kinesiology major, then gracefully dove into the water, leaving a minimal splash.
Thirteen days before that dive, Johnson had emailed Sami Randlett, president and founder of the MSU club diving team, asking if she can join the program.
It was an unusual request because Johnson had no experience in competitive diving but still wanted to try out.
“We don’t have tryouts or anything, so I said, ‘Yeah, come on down,’” Randlett said.
Johnson’s college career began in 2017 when she tried out for the marching band with the baritone horn. She didn’t make the cut and was then placed on the reserve list.
She quickly moved on and walked onto the rowing team. Johnson, because of her short stature, was unable to actually row, so she was a coxswain – the person who steers the boat and establishes the rhythm of the rowers.
“I was a gymnast for 15 years prior to coming (to MSU), so it was kind of just too much of a change from that,” Johnson, an Arizona native, said. “I went from training for 24 hours a week to sitting in a boat.”
Johnson decided, after a semester, that rowing wasn’t for her. She discussed the situation with her former gymnastics coaches and they encouraged her to pick up diving.
She also had a connection through her dad, who swam on scholarship for MSU. He is friends with Eric Best, MSU’s men’s and women’s varsity diving coach.
She contacted him, and Best told Johnson that it would be a good idea to train with the club team until the dive season was over. That way, she could see if it would be worth it to train over the summer to attempt to walk onto the team.
Johnson spent a week with the team in April and received constant coaching and evaluating from Best.
“That was a really cool experience,” Johnson said. ”I knew my odds weren’t high, but it was still a really, really worth it experience. I really enjoyed it.”
Johnson had to learn quickly if she wanted to make the varsity team. She said she began working on inward and reverse dives, a mere day before the week of evaluation with Best.
While Johnson did impress Best with her diving skills, she realized walking on the team was likely not going to happen.
“To come in with almost no diving experience and have a shot of making the team is almost unheard of,” Best said. “…I think if she started diving her junior year of high school – she probably has the physical talent to get to this level, but it was just too far away.”
A learning experience
Johnson said being involved in gymnastics for 15 years helped her immensely as she learned the various dives.
“It is really similar to gymnastics,” she said. “The shapes are all the same. Your basic shape is a hollow position; it’s not floppy. It’s kind of your standard position for both gymnastics and diving. Once you kind of had that, that’s your foundation for everything else.”
Johnson admitted, though, that her gymnastics history led to some frightening moments in the early stages of learning how to dive.
“For gymnasts, it’s usually a hard transition to dive because in gymnastics that last thing you ever want to do is land on your head because that’s synonymous with death – broken neck, broken everything,” she said. “So, with a lot of gymnasts, that’s what they have a hard time with.”
Randlett was one of several team members who helped her learn proper diving techniques.
“It was awesome just to watch her start off falling in and diving on her head,” Randlett said. “I actually think she plugged her nose the first couple of times. She didn’t know how to dive or anything. It was really cool.”
Randlett began to teach her the basics of diving, starting with her introducing her to a line-up.
“It’s just like where you just kind of lean over and you fall into the water and you go hands first,” Randlett said. “And then to start to teach her how to do reverse dives, you do what is called teardrop jumps. You just off the side of the pool, grab your ankles and land on your butt into the water; that teaches you to get the positions to do a reverse dive.”
Johnson quickly caught on and began doing dives that normally would have taken others years of practice.
“I didn’t realize at the time how quickly I was learning things, because I was so new to it,” she said. “I didn’t know it was supposed to take me a lot longer. So, if I knew, ‘Oh, no one gets this dive until they’ve done it for three years,’ I probably would have been a lot more reserved and been more like, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it; it’ll come eventually.’
“But since I didn’t know it was supposed to come immediately … my ignorance helped me with that aspect of it.”
Now, with nine months of driving experience, Johnson looks to continue to improve her diving skills.
“She’s doing really well,” Randlett said. “She’s definitely improved on her technique. She’s done a few doubles.”