LARGO — Jack Stein steps gingerly to the edge of the springboard, projecting preternatural calm. Twisting and turning, flipping and falling, he knifes through the chlorinated water with barely a ripple.
Few things are more nerve-racking than diving. It takes guts to reconcile so much artistry with the worst elements of a contact sport.
Stein knows. The Shorecrest Preparatory School senior is still trying to revitalize his career after breaking his right foot and ankle in 11 places nearly a year ago. The injury was so severe Stein thought his chances of defending his Class A state title were fractured as well.
Some dives still put pressure on the formerly broken bones. Practices and meets are performed in excruciating pain that often leave his foot swollen afterward.
But Stein is diving — and winning. He has placed first in several big meets, including the St. Petersburg City Championships two weeks ago. He also is favored to win districts this week.
“I just want to get through the postseason and have a chance to win again at state,” Stein said.
On Nov. 27, Stein was warming up on the springboard, bouncing as high as 8 feet in the air. His left foot slipped off the board on one of his landings, and he used his right to catch his balance. But the weight caused his foot to bend sideways, then backward.
Stein fell into the water, and when he could finally climb out of the pool, he called his family.
“I waited for my family to drive me to the hospital,” Stein said. “I think I was in shock more than anything else.”
His foot and ankle were so swollen the skin was starting to peel. Doctors had to wait two weeks to surgically repair the foot and ankle, now held together by five plates and 30 screws.
Stein has bounced back from other aches and pains. In January 2011, Stein was badly injured in a snowboarding accident and had a compound fracture in his elbow that required two surgeries. His elbow hurt so badly that he was unable to pull a shirt over his head.
The rehab process took more than four months, precious time in which he lost training.
But this was worse. Stein’s foot and ankle were so damaged some doctors told him he would never walk normally again.
“It wasn’t a routine surgery,” Stein said. “I really started to wonder if I would be normal again. I didn’t know if I would be ready for the season or if I would be able to dive again. I started to get really depressed.”
Stein, who has scored 35 on his ACT and is a National Merit Scholarship finalist, knew toughness alone would not be enough to accelerate his postoperative timetable of getting back on the board. But it helped.
By April, he was performing jumping exercises. By May, he was back diving.
Stein performed the routine dives with ease. But he still had to face down his fears on the difficult ones.
“Jack was somewhat fearful that he wouldn’t have enough power to do some of the harder dives,” said West Florida Aquatics’ Tony Perriello, who coaches Stein. “He also wondered whether he would fall again. I told him he’s bionic now, that the board would break before he would again.”
Still, Stein wondered if he possessed the inner strength to overcome the anxiety of another traumatic accident while performing another difficult maneuver.
Stein found that strength through Iraq veteran Michael Jernigan, who became blind and suffered traumatic brain injuries from a roadside bomb in 2004. Stein met Jernigan over the summer while volunteering with Paws for Patriots, a program that provides trained guide dogs to veterans with limited or no vision.
“Jack shattered his foot, and it is the type of injury that is difficult to wrap your head around,” Jernigan said. “All of the sudden, things are not normal. It’s hard to get back on track, to push forward and to pursue your dreams.”
The courage and dignity Jernigan displayed touched a nerve with Stein. It forced him to keep his own ailments in perspective.
“Working with Mr. Jernigan helped me look at the bright side of things,” Stein said. “I was hurting so bad. But he had gone through worse and was so happy and had such a good outlook. It really helped with the mental aspect of my recovery.”
Overcoming fears is not the only obstacle. Stein also has to get past tough competition. But he showed he is capable of defending his state title after winning the Florida Swimming Pool Association meet, which serves as precursor to states and boasts elite competition.
“I think it would be a pretty amazing story if I was able to come back and win another title,” said Stein, who is leaning toward attending the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, where he will also dive.
“It would mean so much, and I would be so proud of myself after everything I’ve been through this past year.”
Bob Putnam can be reached at email@example.com.
At Bobby Hicks, 9 a.m. Friday
Teams: Bloomingdale, Brandon, Durant, East Bay, Freedom, Lakeland George Jenkins, Newsome, Plant City, Riverview, Steinbrenner, Tampa Bay Tech, Wharton
At the Long Center, 9 a.m. Friday (diving 8 a.m. Thursday)
Teams: Alonso, Chamberlain, Clearwater, Countryside, East Lake, Gaither, Northeast, Palm Harbor U., Pinellas Park, Plant, Seminole, Wiregrass Ranch
At South County Regional Park, Charlotte, 9 a.m. Saturday
Teams: Braden River, Charlotte, Manatee, North Port, Port Charlotte, Sarasota Riverview, Sarasota, St. Petersburg, Venice
At Stephen O’Connell Center, Gainesville, timed finals Friday
Teams: Belleview, Citrus, Dunnellon, Eastside, Gainesville, Lake Weir, Leesburg, North Marion, Palatka, Vanguard, Weeki Wachee
At Long Center, 9 a.m. Thursday (diving 10 a.m. today)
Teams: Central, Gulf, Hernando, Land O’Lakes, Mitchell, Nature Coast, Pasco, River Ridge, Springstead, Sunlake, Tavares, Wesley Chapel, Zephyrhills
At Rowdy Gains Pool, Winter Haven, 9 a.m. Thursday (diving, 2 p.m.)
Teams: Armwood, Auburndale, Bartow, Celebration, Haines City, Harmony, Kathleen, Lake Gibson, Lake Region, Lakeland, Ridge Community, Sebring, St. Cloud, Tenoroc, Winter Haven
At Holy Names, 9 a.m. Saturday (diving 2 p.m. Friday)
Teams: Blake, Gibbs, Holy Names, Hillsborough, Jefferson, Jesuit, King, Largo, Leto, Robinson, Sickles, Spoto, Strawberry Crest
At North Shore pool, 9 a.m. Friday (diving at Northeast 11 a.m. today)
Bayshore, Boca Ciega, Dixie Hollins, Dunedin, Lakewood, Lakewood Ranch, Lemon Bay, Lennard, Osceola, Southeast, Tarpon Springs
At Orlando YMCA Aquatic Center, 9 a.m. Thursday
Teams: Bishop McLaughlin, Crystal River, Eustis, Mound Dora, Oak Hall, P.K. Yonge, St. Francis, St. John Lutheran, Trinity Catholic, Umatilla, The Villages
At Berkeley Prep, 9 a.m. Friday (diving, 1 p.m. Thursday
Teams: Academy at the Lakes, Anclote, Bayshore Christian, Berkeley Prep, Calvary Christian, Clearwater Central Catholic, Fivay, Hudson, Middleton, Ridgewood, Seffner Christian, Tampa Catholic, Tampa Prep
At North Shore pool, 9 a.m. Saturday
Teams: Admiral Farragut, Booker, Canterbury, Cardinal Mooney, Indian Rocks Christian, Keswick Christian, Northside Christian, Out-of-Door, Sarasota Christian, Shorecrest, St. Petersburg Catholic, St. Stephen’s