By Jeff Commings
When Patrick Jeffrey approached the edge of the 10-meter platform to perform his last dive at the 1996 Olympics, the amount of fear coursing through his body was overwhelming.
"I remember thinking, ‘This is high, and I might get hurt,'" he said.
Elite platform divers these days don't call it fear. They're calling that feeling in the pit of their stomachs "nervous excitement" or "adrenaline." But their coaches, many of whom were hurling themselves into a pool of water 33 feet below in their younger days, hope their tough divers never lose the fear that is associated with platform diving.
"Obviously someone with courage is a good platform diver," said Coach John Wingfield. "There's a lot fear involved with that level of diving."
Jeffrey, who has been a coach at the age group and college level since retiring in 1996, hopes his students never lose that level of trepidation.
"I didn't ever get to the point that I didn't have any anxiety at all," said Jeffrey, who now coaches at Florida State University. "And if you don't have anxiety, that's when you get hurt."
Laura Wilkinson, the 2000 Olympic platform champion and 2007 national champion, said platform divers seem to seek out the "fear factor" that the event naturally brings.
"You have to be an adrenaline junkie," she said. "Everybody thinks we have a few screws loose. But I love being scared and working to overcome those fears."
Platform divers call themselves risk-takers, but they also know how to be safe in this age of triple somersaults and armstand twisting dives.
"To do 3-1/2 somersaults and try to do it without splash takes guts," said platform national champion Thomas Finchum.
In the 1990s, doing a reverse 3-1/2 somersault was inconceivable. But coaches and divers say the harder dives of today are possible not just because athletes have evolved, but because the concept behind the training has improved.
"I think things have gotten more technical," Jeffrey said. "When I was a diver, our coach would tell us to do five, six, 10 of each dive. Now we do five, six, 10 parts of a dive. They put them together in the competition part of the season, and that helps you better with the mechanical parts of the dive."
Jeffrey added that the art of diving has been lost in the years since Greg Louganis won Olympic gold in 1984 and 1988, but the technical aspect of the sport has made it more interesting.
"Some of the things they've started to do are awe-inspiring," he said.
Wingfield, who coaches Finchum and other young divers at the USA Diving National Training Center in Indianapolis, said the mental aspect of the sport has divers becoming more aware of the science behind their dives.
"There's a thought process component the athlete should avail themselves to," he said. "They need to know not just how to do the dive, but why."
One thing that hasn't changed in the many decades since platform diving debuted in the 1904 Olympics: gravity. No matter how many rotations they complete or what position they start from on the platform, every diver will hit the water at more than 30 miles per hour.
Many divers retire from platform diving with elbow and shoulder strains and major nerve damage. Some try to avoid the injuries by "dropping down" to springboard diving in the later years of their career.
Platform divers practice on the 10-meter two to three times a week to limit the amount of strain on the body. American divers say they are certain their competitors in other countries – such as the Chinese – are diving off the platform every day.
"We're trying to match the Chinese and do what they're doing," Finchum said. "They're doing lots of numbers and we know we have to do that in order to compete with them."