‘Never give up just because of your situation or what anybody else says’

World Cup Diver, Laura Ryan talks training, her favorite dives and the future of her sport.

Laura Ryan remembers exactly when she decided she wanted to be a diver. She was watching TV with her dad when she saw a commercial that featured Olympic diver — and Sydney gold medalist — Laura Wilkinson. When Ryan saw Wilkinson dive off the 10 meter platform, she turned to her dad and said “Hey Dad, I think I can do that. I want to try diving.”

Her dad laughed. “Good luck with that.” They lived in Elk River, Minnesota, and the local pool only had a low diving board, not the high board required to train as a serious diver. But Ryan was adamant that she wanted to dive. “It was kind of an immediate decision that that’s what I wanted to do.”

Ryan’s natural talent soon became apparent. She was able to qualify for a state meet after just one month of diving off the low board at the Elk River pool — which was where she caught the eye of the coach who would change her life.

“The coach at the University of Minnesota, who was also the coach at North Star Diving, saw me,” Ryan told us. “He was like, ‘Hey, you’ve got a lot of talent and if you guys can find any way to come down and train with me at my club, we can make some big stuff happen.’”

North Star Diving is based in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area and is one of the only organizations designed to introduce and train athletes for Olympic springboard diving.

Ryan would not only have a coach, but she’d also have access to a diving pool — which, in addition to having a high diving board, is much deeper than a standard pool. It was a great opportunity, but it would require her family to recalibrate their entire lives.

“We started driving over a hundred miles a day just to get to the pool,” Ryan explained. Her mother made the decision to quit her job and homeschool Ryan to give her daughter more time to focus on her diving.

Diving requires an incredible amount of body control and flexibility — particularly core strength. Divers must not only twist and contort their bodies in midair, but build up their forearms to mediate the strain they experience when hitting the water at speed. Ryan had to get “really strong” at a young age. “There’s also a ton of flexibility training that came in early on,” says Ryan. “Starting from 8th or 9th grade, I was training for up to six hours a day.”

Eventually, Ryan found herself in the surreal position of competing in the same events as her idol, Laura Wilkinson — the gold medalist who inspired her to start diving in the first place. “When I got into high school, I started competing against her, so it was this crazy phenomenon of someone I idolized and thought was a hero and all of a sudden, I’m in the same event as her.”

“She was somebody that I always looked up to,” Ryan said. “Not only had she excelled at the highest level in the sport, but she had kind of done it coming from not the easiest road. She had to go through a lot to get there.” Ryan found inspiration in knowing that her idol — who in high school was told she was too old to start a new sport and was later kicked off her high school team for being a “waste of space” — experienced difficult circumstances herself.

Ryan’s diving talent got her a college scholarship at the University of Georgia, where she had access to even better diving facilities and additional coaches. She became the University of Georgia’s first NCAA champion diver, as well as the 2014 NCAA Diver of the Year.

Now Ryan is a World Cup team member. She’s also able to perform her favorite dive: the “full out.” It’s the dive she first saw Laura Wilkinson perform — the one that literally inspired her entire career — and the dive that was the hardest for her to learn. “It’s two-and-a-half flips with a full twist. That was something I always wanted to do growing up, and then it became my best dive and it was my last dive in U.S. Olympic Team Trials.”

Giving back

Ryan’s own journey has made her acutely aware of the struggles many aspiring divers face — particularly those without the resources or personal infrastructure needed to excel in the sport. “I was able to compete because my mom was willing to homeschool me and stop working,” Ryan explained. “But I know there are so many kids out there that don’t have that opportunity because both of their parents are working or they just don’t have a way to get the hundred miles from where they are.”

Because of that, Ryan is working to give back to the diving community. “As I was preparing for this U.S. Olympic Team Trials, I also started coaching the youth program in Athens, Georgia, where I was training. I would do my whole day of training, finish around 5 o’clock, and then spend the next three hours coaching all the little kids that decided they want to try diving. I try and get them excited about the sport and help them with the experience and the knowledge I’ve gained through the years.”

Ryan is also one of the supporting athletes in the Every Medal campaign, in which Dick’s Sporting Goods donates $1,000 to specific youth sports organizations for every medal Team USA wins at the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games — including the North Star Diving Club.

“Diving is a sport where you have to travel all over the country just for meets. Not only do you have to cover your own costs, you have to cover the costs of your coaches and your family — in addition to the costs of everyday lessons and equipment. They are trying to set up things to help with that, but I think it’s a long way from being where it could be.”

Campaigns like Every Medal are working to help offset some of those costs, but Ryan knows there’s a lot of work left to be done — and a lot of it involves helping talented young divers gain access to the resources and training they need.

“There are just not that many facilities that are available,” Ryan explained. “Increasing the facilities and access to resources within the sport, I think, would have made my journey a little bit easier.”

However, Ryan has words of inspiration for young athletes:

“I think the biggest thing that I could say is never give up just because of your situation or what anybody else says. It doesn’t take the most talent in the world or the best pool in the world to accomplish your goals and dreams.

Never give up, and take what you’ve got and make the best of it. I remember growing up competing against kids from Texas and California who, from the time they were five years old, had amazing pools and coaches and access to everything they could ever need. I never had that until I got to college, so I made it without any of that stuff. So I think it’s possible, and you just have to keep going after it.”

This post is sponsored by Dick’s Sporting Goods and the Every Medal Program. Dick’s is supporting the next generation of athletes by donating $1,000 to youth sports organizations for every TEAM USA medal won at the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Find out more at The Contenders.