The Making of an Olympic Diver: Cassandra Cardinell

By Jason Marsteller

PHOENIX, Arizona, October 19. 2004 Olympic Diver Cassandra Cardinell sat down with to discuss what brought her into the dangerous, but awe-inspiring sport of diving as well as how she dealt with her first major injury. She also spoke about her coach, Dr. Jeff Huber, what it is like to be an Indiana Hoosier diver and her path toward representing the U.S. again in 2008.

Cardinell has excelled with an uncommon calmness required for greatness in the sport. During her development, Cardinell proved lucky and smart enough to make the right decisions in her path to Olympic team membership. These decisions not only put her in touch with the right people who could help motivate and mold her into an Olympian, they also helped her become a mentor herself.

Cardinell, a competitor at multiple international events including the 2004 Athens Olympics, dove for Indiana University from 2000-05. During the Olympiad, she placed seventh in the synchronized 10-meter diving event with former Hoosier and fellow Olympian Sara Hildebrand. More recently, she became IU's first female NCAA champion on the platform with a come-from-behind victory in 2005 in West Lafayette, Ind. Incredibly, she captured that national title after sitting out half the season due to foot surgery.

Like nearly all divers at one point or another, Cardinell began her diving career after a stint in gymnastics. Since both sports demand similar skill sets, gymnasts tend to make terrific divers.

"I did gymnastics when I was a kid for a very long time. Gymnastics is such an intense sport at a very young age that I lost my desire to stay in the sport. I just didn't see the fun in it anymore," Cardinell said when asked how she began diving. "When I was around 12 years old, I started looking for a different sport outlet that could incorporate the different athletics skills that I had learned in gymnastics. My mom mentioned diving camp one summer, and I decided to try something new. After that camp, I was hooked. I wound up having a great coach in age group, Maria Coomaraswamy with Club Flip & Rip, who really taught me how to love sports again. She taught me how to have fun and not take things too seriously."

After diving for many years with Coomaraswamy and her Shaker High School coach Ned Monthie, the Loudonville, N.Y., product decided to make Bloomington, Ind., her new home. This decision proved to be the turning point in making a new Olympian for the U.S.

"Before I came to college, I never really thought about going to the Olympics," Cardinell said. "I never really thought that I was that good, but when I came to college here at IU, my coach [Jeff Huber] really was the one that put the thought in my head. When I first came as a freshman, he said ‘If you train really hard you can make the Olympics.' I thought that was ridiculous.

"After my freshman year, I saw how far I came on platform," Cardinell continued. "I had never done platform before, and now I had a full 10-meter diving list by the end of my freshman year. That got me thinking about how far I had come very quickly, so maybe Jeff wasn't wrong. The following year during my sophomore season, Jeff sat me down again. He said ‘You know, if you keep training hard you could make it.' Jeff and Sara Hildebrand both really got me motivated thinking I could really make the Olympics. Once I believed I could do it, the rest just followed."

Behind every elite-level athlete, there is almost always an elite-level coach who knows how to relate to each individual student. These great sport minds are part sports scientists and part sports psychologists. They must be able to discover and push the buttons that will inspire each athlete. Huber, a seven-time U.S. National Coach of the Year, has proven his ability to do just that during his more than 30-year career (18 years at Indiana).

"I love training with Jeff," Cardinell said of her coach. "He really has two sides to him. He is really intense, demanding and strict as a coach. But, he also has a softer side outside of the pool. I feel like I am friends with him and can talk to him about anything. It is not so much a hierarchy relationship anymore. I really see us as equals working together. He makes it such a fun training environment that I would never go train with anyone else. He has done so much for me, and we have grown together. I owe him everything for my success."

Another step in creating an Olympian usually comes from athlete-mentors, the incredible athletes that have already been where a newcomer wants to be. For Cardinell, this person proved to be Hildebrand.

"I really don't think I would have made it as far today without Sara," Cardinell said of her coach on the boards. "First of all, training with her and her quick pace regimen really taught me how to train. When I first came to college, I was really slow and going through the motions at practice. She really taught me what training at an elite level was really like. Also, training with someone who had already been to the Olympics before, I could see what she did. I knew that if I emulated what she did, it would increase my chances of making it as well. I think having that type of mentor would help anyone."

One other piece to the Olympic puzzle proved to be the team dynamic available at Indiana. With up to 16 divers in the program at any given time, the Hoosiers offered Cardinell a different training atmosphere than just about any other place in the country.

"There are definitely pros and cons with having a large team," Cardinell said. "One of the major pros shows up when we go to big competitions, because we have a built-in support group. While diving is an individual sport at its core, you can't make it on your own. You are only as good as your support group. Being up there on the 10-meter and having at least 10 people down there cheering for you as loud as they can, it is a great confidence booster.

"The biggest con is that we do have such a large team and only two coaches with Jeff and [Assistant Coach] Todd Waikel," Cardinell said. "With one head coach, it is very difficult for him to focus on all of us at the same time. Attention is spread thin at some times, and that can be irritating. If I had to pick a large or small team, however, I would always go for the large team. I love having a large team dynamic. It is always fun, and there is always something going on at the pool. You also always have someone there to push you to make yourself better."

One thing that Cardinell made sure we understood is her love of the history involved with IU Diving. This is just another part in the supporting cast that develops an Olympian. Athletes in the world of aquatics have a deep history on which to build, and Cardinell uses the Hoosier past to stay motivated.

One of the key figures still around to this day is living legend Hobie Billingsley. Billingsley served as IU's diving coach from 1959-89. During that time, his divers claimed more than 100 national diving titles. He also coached Olympic gold and bronze medalists including Lesley Bush, Ken Sitzberger, Mark Lenzi, Cynthia Potter, Win Young and Jim Henry. Billingsley also founded the World Diving Coaches Association in 1968, and garnered induction into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1983.

"I love being part of a program like this that has such a history and such a legacy," Cardinell said. "Seeing Hobie Billingsley around the pool every once in a while helps you really appreciate the sport itself, and where it has come from. People sometimes take for granted what they have now. Being able to be a part of the IU diving family and being associated with some great people like Hobie and Jeff, and past Olympians, it makes me proud. I really try not to take it for granted."

To think, the chance for Cardinell to become a two-time Olympian might never have happened. Shortly after returning home from Athens, Cardinell had foot surgery that could have ended the career of anyone not used to overcoming huge obstacles. At this point, Cardinell had never had an injury that stopped her from diving.

"Having that foot surgery was a turning point for me," Cardinell said. "It was the first time in my life that I was physically unable to do anything. That is really hard for an athlete to sit there and not be able to get up and do what they love to do. During that recovery and rehab time, I had a lot of time to think to myself about diving and what direction I wanted to go in my career. It really made me look to the mental preparation of the sport. I learned how important it is to use visualization and relaxation techniques, not just in preparing for competition, but also in learning new dives in practice. I think it really helped my training in the long run."

This injury, and the subsequent rehabilitation, made the end of her season that much sweeter. In the platform finals session at the 2005 NCAA Championships, which proved to be a synopsis of her senior season, Cardinell overcame an early hole caused by a rough entry on her first dive. After that initially devastating dive, Cardinell continually moved up the leaderboard to close out her title hunt before nailing her last dive for a final total of 501.45 points. That effort proved enough to secure her an NCAA title.

"If you had asked me, ‘Do you think you are going to win an NCAA title?', when I was recovering from my foot surgery, I would have said ‘No way,'" Cardinell said about her outstanding triumph. "I really started training full force in December. NCAAs were in March, and I didn't really think there was any way I would be able to get back up to that caliber that quickly. I mentally rehearsed and prepared all throughout my recovery, and I really did see a difference. When I came back to train in December, I was ready to go. My head was in the right position, because I knew I could do the skills. It was only a matter of believing in myself and working hard."

Now that she has achieved the status of an Olympian and NCAA Champion, Cardinell looks to pay it forward as she serves as a mentor to others at IU.

"As I have gained more experience, I have learned more about myself as a person and as an athlete. I love being able to pass that experience along to my teammates and other divers," Cardinell said. "I have gone through so many different problems in my diving, that I can relate to almost any problem anyone else is having. I think it is easier when a diver talks to another diver about the different techniques and skills, because they can explain how it feels. When I came to IU as a freshman, I remember Erin Quinn, Tommy Davidson and Sara Hildebrand all being on the team. I looked up to them for guidance a lot of times. I really appreciated it when they would help me. I really try to take that role on nowadays. Helping other divers will only help our team and help our sport in the long run."

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