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Straight from print: Diving in head first

How Fiona Caulfield became one of the Patriot League’s premier divers

Straight from print: Diving in head first

During one of her first diving practices at AU, Fiona Caulfield stepped up to the springboard for what she considered a pretty easy dive. But once she got in the air, something went wrong.

“I didn’t see the right thing, and instead of going straight in, I landed flat on my stomach,” the junior psychology major said with a laugh. “I was in pain, but then all of my teammates gave me a big clap and a cheer.”

As her teammates began saving her dive from the pool’s TiVo recorder to keep for their “smack reel,” Caulfield could hear “Survivor,” the pop anthem by Destiny’s Child, playing over the loudspeakers. The encouragement from her team and the song’s lyrics pushed her to get back on the board.

“I was like, ‘Okay, Fiona, I’m a survivor!’” Caulfield said. “I got back up, and I did the dive well.”

In the years since that 2014 practice, Caulfield has done a lot more than just survive. At the 2016 Patriot League Championships in February of last year, she had the best individual finish of any AU diver or swimmer, placing fourth in the 3-meter diving finals. Outside of the pool, Caulfield earned a spot on the Academic All-League team thanks to her 3.95 grade-point average.

This season, Caulfield has continued to improve her standing in the Patriot League by consistently making it onto the podium, notably taking first place in both the 1-meter and 3-meter events at a November quad meet. At this year’s conference championships, which wrapped up on Feb. 18, Caulfield won a second place medal in the 3-meter and will compete this week for a spot at the NCAA championships in Indianapolis.

Though Caulfield has enjoyed success at the Division I level, she did not always love competing. Before coming to AU, going to meets with her club team in northern California only made her feel stressed and like she could have done better, Caulfield said.

“I just never felt ‘on’ during a competition,” Caulfield said. “But here, since we have so many competitions and because of the different environment and coaching, I really started to like competing more.”

Over time, Caulfield said she has learned how to channel her jitters into adrenaline that helps her complete a dive instead of shy away from it. She attributes much of her improvement to the mental aspects of her training.

“I’ve kind of figured out more of not just how to move my body, but how to think about it and how to follow through with it,” Caulfield said. “If you’re confident about a dive, then you’re going to be aggressive when you’re trying to do it. But if you’re not confident, then you’ll do a wimpy hurdle and not be as powerful and peppy as you could be, and then it doesn’t go as well. It’s kind of a cycle.”

Under the guidance of head coach John Barry, Caulfield has successfully broken that cycle of negative thinking by continuously telling herself that she has “done it before and can do it again.” In the weeks prior to the championship meet, Barry and Caulfield focused on visualizing the entire competition, including a happy ending atop the podium.

“When you have somebody that’s as good as she is, a lot of the normal stuff goes out the window because she’s already doing the little things,” Barry said. “Some people don’t take what we’re doing as seriously, but with people like Fiona, she will honestly and genuinely consider [visualization] as another opportunity to get a little bit better. You can’t ask for more than that.”

Barry compared Caulfield to Melissa Parker, a 2015 graduate who came out of the same diving club as Caulfield, All Valley Divers. Both athletes had high grade-point averages and had trained under rigorous conditions that helped them achieve success at the collegiate level, Barry said.

“They make tough kids up there,” Barry said. “There’s no indoor pools, so you dive in a heated pool and it’s cold as s--t outside. In the recruiting videos, you can see smoke coming off the water...If you’ve grown up working out in a place like that, you don’t get cold. You don’t b--ch.”

Barry said part of him “will die” when Caulfield graduates in 2018, just like part of him died when Parker left. Losing the face of the team, as well as Caulfield’s signature composure and diligence, will be difficult, Barry said.

“It’s a four-year project, but it’s hard not to get invested in it,” Barry said. “I have such high hopes for her, but I don’t want to tell her that [before the championships]. I want her to just go in the way she goes in.”

As Caulfield neared her second-to-last Patriot League Championships earlier this month, she still felt there was more for her to learn. While Caulfield said she has grown more confident during her time at AU, there is always room for improvement.

“After every year, I say, ‘How can there be that much more to even learn?’” Caulfield said. “Then the next year, I say, ‘Wow, I’ve learned so much and I thought I had it figured out.’ That process of constant growth keeps me going.”

hsamsel@theeagleonline.com