GREENSBORO, N.C. -- There’s no way the 10-meter diving platform is just 33 feet above the water’s surface. No way at all.
It’s got to be a thousand feet or more. From across the building, divers look tiny perched on the platform near the rafters of the building. Yet divers preparing for Saturday’s competition here in the NCAA Division I national championships leap right off, twisting and tucking this way and that before gracefully piercing the water below.
Southern California's Haley Ishimatsu is particularly talented on the highest of the three platforms. It’s her specialty, and has helped propel her to the past two NCAA Division I platform titles. No woman in the history of NCAA competition has ever won three consecutive national championships on the platform.
She finished 16th in Thursday’s 1-meter competition, with 3-meter competition scheduled for Friday and 10-meter on Saturday’s third and final day of the meet.
With all the success she’s enjoyed, jumping off a platform from that high up would appear to be extraordinarily easy for Ishimatsu. Yet it was another gigantic leap of faith that could very well have ruined everything.
Duke’s Durham, North Carolina campus rests more than 2,500 miles from her family’s home in Seal Beach, California. Planning to be a doctor, the school’s elite pre-med program appealed to her. But she laughs when she says that taking chemistry was all it took to realize that being a doctor wasn’t actually for her.
She liked the school well enough and felt she fit in with her swimming and diving teammates there, but a major part of her was missing. She was away from her home and her family, and it hurt.
Desperately, it hurt. This was all new to her, going from being homeschooled into a university the size of Duke. She was diagnosed with depression and needed to go back home, where sister Tori had starred for the Trojans and was serving as a volunteer assistant coach.
“Being that far away from home was definitely very hard, especially during that transition from high school to college,” Haley said. “I came home and got a lot of help from my family, especially from Tori. She pushed me a lot and helped me get better. Now I’m at USC. It’s close to family, close to home and close to Tori. It’s been great.”
Separated by an thousands of miles, Tori knew nothing of her younger sister’s struggles.
“I was very shocked,” Tori says. “I kind of felt disappointed in myself that I didn’t catch it. I feel very protective. I didn’t notice that she was unhappy. When she was there, she didn’t really let me know and I guess I never really asked.”
Back in California, Haley took a year off from school. During that time, Tori made sure that Haley stayed busy.
The results of Haley’s comeback have been nothing short of spectacular. She set a platform point record on her way to the 2013 NCAA Division national championships, and then became the first woman since the 1992-93 campaign to win two consecutive titles. She was last year’s Pac-12 Women’s Diver of the Year, this year’s conference Women’s Swimming and Diving Scholar Athlete of the Year and winner of three conference diving crowns in a row.
Haley is one of the lucky ones, really. She had somebody like Tori to walk alongside her as she came out of the fog of her depression. It’s not that Tori takes it easy on her, either.
Far from it, actually.
“She’s my sister,” Haley begins, trying to describe what Tori means to her. “I don’t know … she’s a mentor. She’s a coach. She’s a friend. She’s pushing me and basically whipping my behind to make sure I keep going. She pushes me, but it’s always been good. I’m so glad she’s been here for my college career.”
When Haley needs her space, Tori will give it to her. But when she needs a push, Tori won’t hesitate to do that, either.
“When I coach, I wear a lot of different hats,” Tori concludes. “I wear the friend hat. I wear the big sister hat. I wear the coach hat. I wear a mentor hat. But when I have to coach, she’s just another diver. I don’t treat her any different than any other diver.”
The bottom line is this. Tori is incredibly proud of how far Haley has come since those dark days at Duke, and not just as a diver.
“That was really scary,” Tori concludes. “I was very upset that she was so sad. To see where she’s come from since then, I’m really proud of her. I feel like we’ve grown closer. She’s grown up so much. For her years, I think she’s really matured. I’m really excited to see what she gets to do after this.”