March 20, 2010

By Judd Spicer
Special to

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. - Division III swimming and diving powerhouses Kenyon, Emory and Denison may deservedly own the wealth of headlines in the pool sports, but none of them have anything on Alma College's (Mich.) Spencer "Double Trouble" Johnson.

Johnson, along with fellow senior, Hanna Leestma, make up the entire Alma contingent at the Division III Swimming and Diving Championships at Minnesota's University Aquatic Center. And both Scots' are competing the 1- and 3-Meter diving events.

But during the regular season, Johnson competes in both swimming and diving. And the double-dip in the pool doesn't just serve as a résumé builder - Johnson was named the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association Male Diver of the Year after winning both the 1- and 3-Meter titles at his conference championships last month. In the 100 backstroke, he finished fourth.

While Johnson didn't qualify for the 100 at the national championships, he earned All-American Honorable Mention honors with a 10th place showing in the 3-meter on Wednesday and an 11th place finish in the 1-Meter competition on Friday. Results aside, his ability to excel in both mediums has impressed both competitors and coaches alike.

"Everybody in our conference knows him. People were talking about him as a swimmer before he started diving," says Alma dive coach Channing Kimball. "When we started him out, he only dove one board because he was a 100 and 200 backstroker, so his third event was the 3-meter diving board. He kept practicing over the summers. So this year we knew he was really going to excel at it."

While Johnson has proven himself in both sports, there is often a stigma attached to athletes that double-dip for purposes of simply aiding team results.

"We call them 'Swivers,' because they swim and dive," Kimball says with a smirk. "They're usually a swimmer that gets put into a diving competition just to score points. But Spencer isn't a Swiver - he's definitely excelled at both. We didn't have a swim coach when I arrived at Alma six weeks into the season, three years ago. So when coach (Chris) Hamstra was hired, Spencer was already diving so much I just asked if we could keep him diving as well.

"I definitely haven't seen any other athletes that have excelled in both."

Johnson modestly acknowledges that his double disciplines are unique:

"I don't know anybody else that does it," Johnson says. "There's a swimming forum on '' and there was some talk between the coaches if anyone as ever competed in both, and nobody could ever vouch for anyone that's done it in the NCAA."

Johnson, who began swimming as a freshman in high school, was always interested in diving, but his high school coaches would not allow him to split time.

"In my sophomore year at Alma, I just went up to coach Kimball and said, 'I just want to fool around on the boards a few times a week. Is there any way you could just give me a few hints about what I'm doing wrong?'" he said. "She let me come in after our swim sessions and I'd just fool around on the boards for awhile and then after I started learning more about the sport, it just took off from there."

But Johnson's newfound board skills aren't the only thing taking flight. Participating in both swimming and diving also creates a unique grind in his study and training regime.

"I do three-a-days," he explains. "Swimming in the morning at six o'clock. Then I have my classes, and then go to diving at 11 o'clock, and have another swimming session at 3 in the afternoon.

"For swimming it's more about constantly being in the water, working on the stroke and endurance. For diving, it's more technical. We work on the same dives over and over to produce muscle memory. So when we're in a meet like this, your body just knows what to do. I'd say the dynamics between the two sports are pretty different."

Coach Kimball recognizes that it takes a special talent for a student-athlete to divide time:

"It was hard sharing him between both sports," Kimball admits. "He's our best swimmer and our best diver. Swimming requires a little more time because Spencer was lifting weights for swimming and working on his aerobics. This year, he'd never train five days a week in diving, so we'd focus on getting in shorter practices."

For Johnson, competing in both sports has given him a kind of balance. While swimming he says, can be tedious, diving - even practices - are a ball.

"I've been in swimming for a long time now," Johnson concludes. "It's one of those sports where it's really rewarding when you do well, but it's not always fun to do. Practices are hell, but the meets are really fun when you go out and compete. Diving is just fun. I love going to practices and learning new dives. I didn't have that much of a gymnastics background, but it really helps for diving because it's basically the same aspect, but just different atmospheres."