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Diving the American Way

By Aimee Berg | June 23, 2012, 1:30 a.m. (ET)

Steve Foley

(Federal Way, Washington) – The nation’s top divers weren’t the only ones making the pilgrimage to Federal Way, Washington, this week for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Diving Trials. The event has also lured Olympic alumni, scores of families in matching t-shirts, and a Who’s Who of coaches and officials. On a rainy Friday about 30 miles south of Seattle, TeamUSA sat down with the high performance director of USA Diving, Steve Foley. He accepted the job in 2009 after diving for Australia in three Olympic Games (1976-84), coaching the Australian team for 11 years, and spending another 10 years as Great Britain’s coach and national performance director. For an hour, he discussed everything from: the judging at Trials, how the U.S. system compares to those on two other continents, the legitimacy of synchronized diving, and who may be throwing the jaw-dropping tricks in London.

 Steve Foley
 USA Diving High Performance Director Steve Foley
How do the diving programs in Australia, Great Britain and the U.S. compare?

The biggest difference is government funding. Government funding allows you to set up a system designed to win medals.  They’re not necessarily worried about recreational diving because the membership doesn’t fund the sport.

Another thing: Australia employs coaches whose job is to win medals. [U.S.] coaches are employed by colleges to win NCAA championships, or by the club to increase membership. The thought of trying to get an Olympic medal is not in the [U.S.] mindset because that’s not what they’re employed to do. In Australia and Great Britain, I’d say, ‘I need you to come to this camp for three weeks. Bring five divers.’ They’d have to do it.

Also, Australia and Great Britain have built dryland training centers. Every time a pool gets built in Great Britain, it must have a dryland training center attached to it. It’s part of their facilities plan.  Australia has built one just for synchronized training. Meanwhile, the U.S. doesn’t have one world-class dryland training facility. China has maybe 50.

That said, where’s the best dryland facility in the U.S. right now?

There’s a good one at Duke, but it’s makeshift; they’ve set it up in an ex-basketball court. There’s one in Woodlands, Texas, in an old warehouse. Everything’s crammed in. Indianapolis just got a new one at the national training center that’s quite good. Now there’s actually one with toilets. Isn’t that incredible? Luckily, our coaches are very creative and do what they can. But here, a club probably pays $40,000 rent a year to use a warehouse. In other countries, it doesn’t cost a cent.

Fans all over the world like to see progression in sports. In London, in which disciplines will feature eye-popping new dives, and which ones will be more like the past?

We’ve seen a quantum leap in men’s 3-meter springboard and platform recently. The big move on the men’s 3-meter springboard is the forward 4½ summersault. Not long ago, if someone did it, it was at some clown show and they barely survived. Now divers are doing it for 9’s, almost 10s. It’s mind-boggling.

One of the most incredible things off the 10-meter tower in the last year is that three divers are doing an inward 4½ summersault: two Mexicans (Ivan Garcia and German Sanchez) and a Malaysian, Bryan Nickson. It turned up in Shanghai [at the 2011 world championships] and we’re going: Holy Cow!  At the next World Cup, Nickson shows up and does it. The degree of difficulty is ridiculous. It’s 4.1 [The degree of difficulty, or DD, greatly affects scores. After the high and low marks are dropped, the remaining scores are averaged and the average is multiplied by the DD.]

They’re also doing bigger twisters up there now. The Mexicans did a forward 2 ½ with three twists and we’ve never seen before. Mexicans really raised the bar. It’s a massively government funded country. They’ve got eight centers at the moment, and all with a brilliant dryland training center.

What about women’s events? What’s most exciting?

Women’s tower has improved a lot from Sydney in particular. It’d be fair to say Beijing and London, you’ll see similar dives. But there was a quantum leap from Sydney.

Who’s the most innovative US diver? Is there a Travis Pastrana of diving who constantly pushes progress forward?

Or a Shaun White? Not at the moment. We might be a little conservative. There’s no point in going for it if you don’t master the slightly easier ones – although Harrison Jones was the first person to do an inward 4½ internationally in a Grand Prix. So he was quite innovative. At the moment, he’s training at Texas A&M.

Synchronized diving looks really cool but at the Olympics there is only a final. Eight teams compete, and three get a medal. So is synchro legit?

We had to earn the right to get there and it was tough. You only have two shots to qualify: at the previous year’s world championships [by being top-three] or a World Cup [by being among the top four nations not previously qualified ]. You know China is going to make it. The host country automatically qualifies. So 20 countries are fighting for the other six spots. It was pretty nerve racking. The U.S. didn’t make it in women’s 10-meter synchro. It shows you how hard it is. It’s more difficult [to make the cut] than in individual events because there are 30 [athletes] in each individual event. So it is legit.

There’s a lot of jujitsu in forming the synchro teams. You have a hand in that, right?

Yeah, some love it and some hate it. But you know what? No one took synchro seriously in America. It had never won a medal. It was time to get serious about it. You have to match the quality of divers. You can’t just dive with your friend. That’s useless.

One reason I like to mix and match in a contest is that some teams are absolutely brilliant in training, but -- are you good in a competition? That’s the important thing.

Synchro’s a massive opportunity. We’re already in three Olympic finals [because the U.S. has qualified three synchro teams]. That’s exciting. We’re not in any individual final yet.

On Thursday night’s final of synchro platform, a few men doubled up and competed with two different partners. Was that their choice or yours?

The coaches’ in some programs. The reason we made it possible at Trials is because those kids just got a lot more experience and those will probably be the ones, in four years, fighting for that spot in Rio. That will hold them in good stead in the future.

Judging. Last night, the women’s springboard synchro team that finished second beat the winners on all five dives, but it wasn’t enough to gain six points for the win. Is judging political – or less objective – than it could be?  

Individually, we have seven judges. In sycnhro, there are 11 judges [six for execution, five for synchronization]. By the time you throw out highest and lowest and get your average, out of the 11 judges in theory, you end up with three. How do you say three out of 11 are political?

And things look different on each side of the pool. There are judges on both sides. Especially in springboard where the [boards are off] on one side of the pool, whereas 10-meter is a little more in the middle.

Also, we’ve got four international judges at Trials. That’s never happened before. These four will be judging at the Olympic Games. That’s great for us. They were so honored, they jumped at it. One, from Hungary, is ranked the No. 1 judge in the world by FINA. The others are from the Czech Republic, Mexico, and Canada.

I did this in Great Britain. I said: let’s do it here. Other countries are adopting this, too, but I don’t think they’re getting as many as four.

It’s very easy to get carried away sometimes at your own trials and scores get overinflated. International judges put a lid on it a little bit.  The scores you’re seeing here are probably what you’ll see at the Olympics. That’s important.

The U.S. hasn’t won an Olympic diving medal since 2000. How is USA Diving doing?  

There’s nothing wrong with USA diving. They’re as good as they’ve ever been. But the world is 10 times better than it ever was. That’s the difference. Twenty, thirty, forty years ago, there were probably six major players in diving. Now, there are 15 major players, maybe even more. Malaysia is winning world medals!  Malaysia couldn’t even qualify for the Olympics 24 years ago.

When I first came in, people said we’re going to challenge China again. Forget China!  I want to know how we’re going to challenge Australia, Canada, Mexico, Germany, Great Britain, Ukraine, Russia, Italy. They’re all winning medals. Change is hard, but we have to change to get back on the map.

In Beijing, seven nations won medals. We didn’t, but we had the second-most finalists. China had 12. We had 11. But Russia had [six] finalists and won [five] medals. How come they’re converting and we’re not? That’s the battle. We have to be honest with ourselves. The talent’s here.

So what’s your vision for the future?

My long-term vision is to set up a pipeline. There’s got to be more done for the 10-year-olds out there. That’s where other countries excel. A 10-year-old is channeled. Here, it’s get free college through scholarships. What’s staggering to me is they graduate at 22 or 23 and retire. That’s when they’re just getting good. I suppose when we were all 23, we think we have to get a job and make money. You can actually do that at 33, too.

Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.