Even Best Have Their Fears (Arizona Republic)

March 16, 2005

Even best have their fears
ASU divers pushing for NCAA titles

Jim Gintonio
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 16, 2005

A two-time NCAA diving champion, one of the best in his sport to ever attend Arizona State, always wonders if he's going to bang his head against the board or suffer the granddaddy of all indignities, that wince-inspiring belly-flop.

That's a worst-case scenario for Joona Puhakka, a star on the international level, but he has company in the mind-game department - teammate Trisha Tumlinson, herself a three-time conference titlist and an NCAA runner-up.

Her fear?

Maybe the most stressful of all for a diver whose specialty is the 10-meter platform: She's afraid of heights. And to add to this puzzling scenario, the former gymnast didn't begin diving until she was 15 years old.

Both won titles at last week's NCAA Zone meet and are now in final preparations for the NCAA Championships. The women's meet is Thursday-Saturday in West Lafayette, Ind., and the men compete a week later in Minneapolis.

Both say that diving coach Mark Bradshaw was instrumental in their decision to come to Tempe.

'I'm not really surprised with my success here,' said Puhakka, a junior from Helsinki, Finland, who represented his country at the Athens Olympics. 'It's what I practice for, it's why I'm here on scholarship, to win those titles. I'm more happy than surprised.'

Puhakka is the first male diver to win three Pac-10 titles in the 3-meter, and he also won this year's 1-meter. He was the NCAA 1-meter titlist in 2003 and the 3-meter champ in 2004.

'But sometimes it gets scary, especially if it looks like I don't know what I'm doing,' said Puhakka, 22, who began diving when he was 9. 'A ton of things can go wrong. I'm scared now of not knowing what I'm doing. And it gets more scarier the older I get.'

Bradshaw says there's little doubt that Puhakka knows exactly what he's doing.

'His temperament . . . he has no ups and downs, and what has helped him is that he's at a little bit different level than most of the guys he's competing against because he's been to all the big-time meets,' Bradshaw said. 'He's physically strong and looks good in the air, too.'

Tumlinson, 21, a senior from Spring, Texas, transferred from the University of Kentucky after her freshman season, and her career has blossomed. She won the platform event at the Pac-10 meet the past two seasons and last year also prevailed in the 3-meter event. She was third in the NCAA platform event in 2003, second in 2004 and is looking to take that last step this week. But ascending to the top rung won't be easy, as defending champ Nicole Pohorenec of Texas returns.

'Since I started diving late, everyone told me I'm a rare case,' said Tumlinson, who quit gymnastics after sustaining a fracture in her back. 'Since I couldn't do gymnastics, this is the next-closest thing.'So what about that fear of heights?

'I didn't want to be a diver,' said Tumlinson, whose immediate goal after the NCAAs is completing her degree in kinesiology. 'I'm absolutely terrified of heights, although I've kind of gotten a little used to it over the years. My coach told me, 'All right, you can do this.' When you get on that 10-meter platform, you've got to have confidence and just basically throw yourself off a big concrete thing.

'At least I'm not afraid to look down any more. Most people don't believe me when I tell them.'

Bradshaw gives her a lot of credit for overcoming her fear as well as having a lot of make-up work to do since she began diving so late. He said her gymnastics background has been a big help.

As for her fear of heights, Bradshaw says it's a work in progress.

'What's interesting is that she has a love-hate relationship with the platform,' he said. 'It's an ongoing thing for her because she knows she's very good at it, at the top of the 1 percent of athletes who dive at that level. So it's quite an achievement.

'It hurts when you dive in the water, and throw in the fear factor and the fact that she does some of the most-difficult dives that you can do up there . . . it's a mental thing to overcome. We work with it together. It's kind of a partnership.'

For both divers, success comes with a price, and that's performing hundreds of maneuvers a week, always trying for that something extra that can lead to a little improvement. Learning a dive is easy; perfecting it can take a lifetime.

Despite all the work, mistakes are common.

'I reached the point where I don't make those big mistakes, but I make other mistakes all the time,' Puhakka said.

Tumlinson said when diving from 10 meters, it becomes more mental than physical.

'You're up there 33 feet in the air, so a lot of things can go wrong,' she said. 'It's getting your mind in the right place to be able to do it.'