ATLANTA – “What if…?”
That’s what Jessica Parratto thought the first time she saw Tarrin Gilliland dive.
And that’s what Gilliland thought when she watched Parratto compete at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
What if they were someday partners in 10-meter synchronized diving? That day came, probably sooner than both expected.
Competing together for the first time, Parratto, 22, and Gilliland, 14, won the 2017 USA Diving Synchronized National Championships on 10-meter platform Wednesday. They snagged the only Team USA spot in women’s 10-meter platform at the FINA World Championships in Budapest in July.
The duo scored 609.06 points to defeat a pair of Olympians. Amy Cozad-Magaña, who was Parratto’s 2016 Olympic partner, and Katrina Young, who competed in the 10-meter individual event in Rio, tallied 568.86 points for second.
“We looked like we’ve been diving together for a while,” said Parratto. “This is just the beginning and I’m so excited about it.”
Gilliland said her older partner gave her some sage advice. “She said relax and have fun and, ‘We’ve got this.’”
Parratto remembers seeing Gilliland well before the Texas teen placed seventh individually and fourth in synchro at age 13 in the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Diving.
“I was like, ‘Wow, she is incredible,’” Parratto said. “I always wanted to do synchro with her in the future. She was already amazing and she’s just going to get better.”
A veteran pair secured the other world championships spot. Michael Hixon and Sam Dorman, who won the Olympic silver medal in Rio, easily captured their second national title together in men’s 3-meter springboard.
They scored 809.31 points – an average of 8.05 per dive at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic pool at Georgia Tech – to eclipse Lyle Yost and Noah Duperre, who were second (643.53 points). In a twist unique to diving, Yost also competed with another athlete, placing third with Jacob Fielding (641.58 points).
Partnerships in synchronized diving are nothing if not fluid.
Young is both a new partner and an old one for Cozad-Magaña. They dove together in 2014 when Cozad-Magaña spent a season as an assistant coach at Florida State.
Cozad-Magaña then moved to Indianapolis. For two years she drove at least an hour each way to Bloomington, Indiana, where Parratto is in school at the University of Indiana.
They placed seventh in Rio, then decided to split up.
With Cozad-Magaña newly married and the logistics of the daily commute, Parratto said, “It was totally understandable. She wanted to dive with Katrina. No hard feelings at all. It was totally mutual.”
At a diving camp the first week of February, Parratto tried out new partners. The process is as much matchmaking by USA Diving officials as auditioning by prospective partners.
“I thought I was going to wind up with someone my own age,” Gilliland said. “I’m glad she picked me.”
Parratto said they clicked as soon as they dove off the tower, which is as high as a three-story building.
“We got the timing down in pretty much the first day, second day and then I was like, ‘This is going to be fun.’” said Parratto, who was 10th in Rio in the 10-meter individual. “We connected right away mentally and as friends. Obviously, she’s a lot younger than me. I feel like not too long ago I was the up-and-comer and young like her and now I feel like I’m kind of an old veteran.”
Gilliland came to the sport relatively late – at age 8. She was a tumbler before turning to diving, and competed in the Junior Pan Ams at age 11.
“We started in a pool that just had springboards in it,” Gilliland said. “We went to (the University of Texas) and that’s when I saw a 10-meter and said, ‘That’s going to be fun someday.’”
She didn’t start diving off the top of the tower until she was 12, and now, two years later, she’s heading to the world championships.
“It’s a lot of pressure,” Gilliland said of being young, “but it’s fun at the same time.”
Besides having had her eye on Gilliland at previous events, Parratto said both of their coaches thought they would make a good pair.
Then she asked the younger diver which side she prefers – synchro divers are always either on the left or the right atop the platform. “She said, “I don’t care, I’m usually on the left side.’ I said, ‘Perfect. I’m on the right side.’”
That’s a match!
But because Parratto is in Indiana and Gilliland is in Midland, Texas, they mostly practice apart.
“You visualize someone being next to you and diving,” said Gilliland, who is home schooled because, she said, “There is no time for actual school.”
Before nationals, they had just two training sessions together, each composed of a few days.
“She came up to Indiana,” Parratto said. “I went down to Texas and then, bam! We’re here!”
They took the lead on the first dive of the preliminaries before briefly dropping to second on the next one behind Cozad- Magaña and Young. They then regained the lead for good.
With five dives apiece in both the preliminaries and the final and the scores cumulative, Parratto and Gilliland were up by 13.02 points going into the final. With each dive, they pulled away from Cozad-Magaña and Young.
Sophia McAfee and Olivia Rosendahl were third (454.14) and Christy Cutshaw and Emily Bretscher placed fourth (428.73).
Their next big event is the FINA Diving World Series in Windsor, Canada. Many of the divers will also compete at the world championships trials in individual events May 19-21 in Indianapolis.
On their best dive Wednesday, Parratto and Gilliland scored 76.80 points on an inward 3 ½ somersault tuck.
“That’s a key dive in women’s 10-meter synchro internationally,” Parratto said. “You miss that dive and you’re out of it. I think it could be the difference between being on the medal stand.”
But she said that as a new team, there are no expectations for the world championships.
“At the beginning of a quad, it’s all about enjoying the experience, having fun with a new pairing, and just to see how we do,” Parratto said. “There are a lot of new synchro teams out there and you never know what’s going to happen.”
“It’s going to be really nerve-wracking,” Gilliland said, “but I’m excited to have fun and be there.”
Hixon remembers going to his first world championships in the first year of an Olympic quadrennium.
“That’s so awesome for someone like Tarrin to punch her ticket at 14,” he said, “because she’ll be 17 when Tokyo (2020 Olympic Games) rolls around and she is getting that experience early. I’m pumped for her.”
He’s also pumped for himself and Dorman. They competed together Wednesday for the first time since Rio.
Although they won by nearly 166 points, “We need to step up our game,” Dorman said. “We want to go to Budapest and win.”
“This is our starting point right now,” Hixon added. “We don’t want to have a performance that would win worlds right now, because it probably means in Budapest that we wouldn’t.”
They were put together as a team just before Olympic Trials last year, so are embarking on their first full season together.
“We didn’t know each other that well beforehand and have become really good friends since then,” Hixon said.
Like Parratto and Gilliland, they are long-distance partners. Hixon, 22, is at the University of Indiana while Dorman, 25, lives in Miami.
That’s one reason Dorman’s tan was so deep that he made his partner look extra pale in comparison.
Every six weeks or so, they spend three to seven days together in Indiana, training six hours at a time. Away from the pool, Dorman said, “We send occasional funny texts.”
With Olympic medalists Troy Dumais and Kristian Ipsen and other veterans retiring, Hixon said new divers are moving to the forefront.
“What was fun about today was so many good young kids coming up,” he said. “It was fun diving against them.”
But Dorman said he doesn’t measure himself against the youngsters.
“In my eyes, I’m competing against myself at every competition,” he said. “I’m just trying to outdo myself.”