A determined diver makes a splash at Naval Academy


August 25, 2006|By Janet Gilbert

Would you fly in a plane with a blind pilot?"

Katie Griffin, 20, an Ellicott City resident and a junior on the diving team at the Naval Academy, recounts something her first diving coach, Vic Corbin, said about "spotting." Spotting is the technique that helps divers orient spatially and know when to come out of a somersaulting dive. You have to keep your eyes open, pick a spot, and kick out to hit the water properly.

Most beginning divers close their eyes when they leave the board, opening them only when coming out of the spin. It is not a sport for the timid or the nontechnical.

"I've always loved sports," said Griffin, "and I don't want this to sound bad or anything, but [diving] was the first sport I had to work at, and that was kind of appealing to me."

Griffin grew up in a neighborhood full of boys who would gather after school to play with her older brother, Tony.

"I wanted to do everything he did," she said. "I would steal his clothes, and run around in mesh shorts and a T-shirt all the time."

Griffin would rush home from elementary school to join the guys in a game of street hockey, kickball, whiffle ball - whatever was in season.

"I think my parents got me into a dress maybe two times a year - Christmas and Easter," she said. "I didn't like playing Barbie dolls."

When Griffin was 8, her family encouraged her to join the North St. Johns Swim and Tennis Club's diving team. At the time, she was playing soccer in the fall and softball in the spring.

She went to the daily practices, consistently earning "achievement awards" - participation ribbons for divers who do not place in meets. For two summers, she was a diver in the pool's summer league, not making much of a splash. Even in the absence of tangible wins, Griffin wanted to advance.

She enrolled in a winter diving program with the Retriever Dive Club at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County under the direction of Vic Corbin. By the spring of that year, she was on the Retriever Junior Olympic Team. The next summer - when Griffin was 10 - she made the dive championships in the summer league.

When Griffin was in seventh grade, she made the Junior Olympic Nationals for the first time, competing on the 1- and 3-meter springboard.

Griffin qualified again during her ninth, 10th, and 12th grade. At each age level, a diver must add significantly more difficult dives to what is referred to as a "list." At age 15, Griffin was ranked 14th in the nation.

"Every little kid has that dream," Griffin said, of competing in the Olympics. "But how many does it really happen for? I continued to do this because I liked it, and because I wanted to get into a good school."

In her sophomore year at Seton Keough High School, Griffin missed qualifying for the Junior Nationals by two-tenths of a point, making her an alternate.

"I had a pretty good list for 16," said Griffin, with a back 2 1/2 and a reverse 2 1/2 on the 3-meter board. "But I went back to working the basics."

A few days before the meet, she got a call to compete in place of an injured diver and had to "throw together" her dives.

Of the Junior Nationals in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., that year, Griffin said, "I had an awful meet." Still, Navy head diving coach Joe Suriano took notice of Griffin and spoke to her father, Tony, and Corbin.

Griffin was set to attend the Navy Diving Camp in the summer between her sophomore and junior years, but never made it through the first week because her father died suddenly after a brain aneurism and stroke.

Griffin describes the next 12 months as "a mess, a disaster." She lost half of the dives on her list. "I kept going to practice, thinking, `What's wrong with me?'"

She attended Navy Diving Camp the next summer. "That was a turning point," she said. She got all her dives back and developed a platform list.

She started to think about putting the Naval Academy on her college list.

Griffin obtained an acceptance pending nomination - which meant that with the nomination, she was guaranteed an appointment. She had a long talk with her mother, Mary, and decided to attend the service academy in Annapolis.

"It's almost hard to explain to people who aren't there," she said, of the Navy experience. "The people you meet there are like nowhere else."

Griffin is one of three women divers on the Division I team that competes in the Patriot League. She practices four times a week in the pool or on the trampoline, and lifts weights four times a week. Griffin has qualified to compete in the National Collegiate Athletic Association zone meets the past two years.

"I have improved a lot since I've been there [Annapolis]," she said. "Joe has done a great job. He yells a little more [than Corbin], but I'm older, I can handle it.

"When Joe tells you to try something, you do it; you can't cop out. There's a lot of trust - he really knows what he's doing."

"I wish I had 10 more like her," said Suriano, who is beginning his 28th season at Navy. "She's pretty fearless."

Suriano is working with Griffin on what he calls a full competitive list, including a front 3 1/2 tuck and a back 1 1/2 somersault with a 2 1/2 twist.

"The bigger the pressure, the bigger Katie Griffin dives," said Suriano. "My job has been to give her confidence for when it's showtime, when we get into battle. Competing is a serious business."

Griffin is starting to think about her service selection after graduation. She thinks she would like to be a Marine pilot.

It is not that big a leap - she has been flying for the past 12 years.

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