Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Brandon native Chris Colwill confident as he heads to second Olympics with U.S. diving team


Chris Colwill stood on the 3-meter springboard. A lifetime of work was riding on what he did next. It was the last day of the U.S. Olympic diving trials outside Seattle in June. The top two divers would qualify for the Olympics, and the Brandon native and Tampa Prep grad had been in third place for most of the meet. This final dive was his last shot to make the team.

"The funny thing is, everybody always says I look so calm and relaxed," he said later. Family and friends say they even saw him smile before the dive. On the inside, he said, he was "definitely not calm and relaxed."

Still, Colwill, 27, completed the best dive of his career, a dive that scored 99.75 out of 100 points and earned him a ticket to his second Olympics.

He got a standing ovation.

• • •

His mom, Debbie, enrolled Colwill, an only child, in gymnastics at the Brandon Sports and Aquatic Center when he was 4.

"He was just a ball of energy," she said. "He'd be flipping over couches. He'd be upside down …"

At the center, the little boy saw divers doing somersaults into the pool.

"I want to do that," he said.

"Why don't we wait a year," Debbie replied.

She promised he could try diving once he turned 5. So on his fifth birthday, he asked his mom again. She enrolled him in diving and started dropping him off for an hour of gymnastics and an hour of diving.

Later she discovered the active preschooler was skipping gymnastics and heading straight for the pool.

"You could tell he loved diving from the get-go," said his first coach, Kathie McNeil.

At 7, he started competing. Soon he was winning junior national championships, and at 14 he became a world champion.

Coaches communicate verbally with their divers while they're in midair. Colwill was born with 65 percent hearing loss. He can't hear high-frequency sounds well, and he wears hearing aids when he's not diving.

But none of this causes him much trouble. His Tampa Prep coach, Jenni Frankowiak, said he has good spatial skills and can spot the water while he's flipping better than most divers. Colwill said his hearing loss helps him focus; he isn't distracted by crowd noises that might bother other divers.

After high school, the die-hard Florida Gators fan chose to dive for Georgia. The 10-time national champion's meets have taken him to Mexico, Canada, Turkey, Germany, Italy and Australia, as well as the 2008 Olympics in China.

• • •

In Beijing he finished 12th in the 3-meter and one spot away from a medal in the 3-meter synchro event, in which two divers perform side by side.

Colwill said his focus in those days was hampered because he was juggling college academics with training and international meets. For the past four years, he has focused solely on training and competing.

Almost every day he has spent two hours diving in the morning, two hours in the afternoon and one hour lifting weights or conditioning.

After his performance at the Olympic trials, he is confident about his chances in London. "My diving is the best it's ever been," he said.

The Olympics mean more than other international meets. The atmosphere feels different. More spectators, more security, more media, more pressure, more stress.

"Everybody in the U.S. wants you to bring a medal back," said Dan Laak, the coach at Georgia, Colwill's coach for the past nine years and an assistant on the Olympic team.

Colwill said he has learned to be patient, take dives one at a time and wait until the final to give his all.

Said his father, Chuck, "I think there's a heck of an advantage to being (at the Olympics) the second time."

And this time he has only one event to concentrate on.

At the trials, Debbie had a sign that flashed "GO CHRIS" with glitter and blinking lights. In London, she said, she'll be decked out in red, white and blue, waving American flags from the stands — reflecting the way she redecorated Chris' old bedroom.

She will try to sit at a right angle, so she can see the distance between Chris and the springboard. While he flips, flies and falls toward the water, she wants to be sure his head doesn't hit the aluminum board.

• • •

When Colwill returns from London, with or without a medal, he plans to retire from diving and work for his dad's engineering company.

But not right away.

"You go through a major, major depression" after the Olympics, he said. "You come off a major high, and you don't know what to do."

He will travel through Europe for a month with his girlfriend of four years, Chelsea Nauta, 23, a former Tampa Prep and Georgia swimmer who almost qualified for the Olympics as a member of the 200-meter freestyle relay team. They will visit friends they've made through the years on the international swimming and diving circuit.

At a goodbye party for Colwill at the Brandon Sports and Aquatic Center on July 7, he signed autographs under signs that read "Good Luck Chris" and "Bring Home the Gold!" Dozens of people — kids in the dive program, former coaches, family, friends — wore "Team Colwill" T-shirts and cheered him on.

If he felt any pressure, it didn't show.

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