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Arizona's Delaney Schnell on shape-shifting from gymnast to Olympic diver

Jul 26, 2021
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

TOKYO – If Simone Biles is looking for a new challenge after Tokyo, she might want to check in with ARIZONA diver Delaney Schnell. When Schnell was young, she was so talented in floor exercise and vault that she was invited to a week-long training camp at the notoriously tough Karolyi Ranch in Texas.

While there, she saw the 2008 Olympic gold and silver medalist Shawn Johnson choreographing her floor routines.

It was memorable, but not enough to keep Schnell in the game. “Honestly, that [week] is kind of what burned me out of gymnastics because it was a LOT of training for someone who was 8 or 9 years old,” she said.

Instead, the Tucson native turned to diving. At 17, she narrowly missed the 2016 Rio Olympic team but three years later, she established herself internationally by capturing a bronze medal at the 2019 diving world championships, becoming the first American woman to earn an individual world medal on the 10-meter platform in 14 years.

“I did not expect to be on the podium at all,” Schnell said. “I mean, in 2017, I was in 27th place. But 2019 was the first chance to earn [the U.S.] an Olympic quota spot [for Tokyo] so I was very-very nervous going into the prelim. The nerves kind of settled when I got into the semifinal. I got into the final, and going into the fourth round, I was in third and realized, ‘Wow! I am actually in this!’” In the end, Schnell beat everyone except Chen Yuxi and Lu Wei, both of China, diving’s longtime superpower.

This week in Tokyo, Schnell will try to match or improve her result – both individually (beginning August 4) and in the 10m synchro event on Tuesday, July 27, with Olympic veteran Jessica Parratto.

What’s unusual is that Schnell rarely competes in the 10m platform event at Arizona unless it’s a Pac-12 or NCAA championship because many schools don’t have access to platforms. Instead, she competes on the 3-meter and (non-Olympic) 1-meter springboard. “But platform is definitely what I prefer,” she said – precisely because of her background in gymnastics. “In gymnastics, you land on solid ground” not a bouncy springboard that can toy with timing.

Schnell found that the flipping ability and air awareness required in gymnastics translated well to diving. “It takes a lot to know where you are in the air so you can come out [of the dive] and land vertical. In gymnastics, it’s the same. You need to be aware of what your body’s doing in the air. Obviously, it takes time to adjust. The only thing that was really tricky in diving was landing on your head. In gymnastics, you learn to never do that. So that took me a while to understand. But once it clicks, it’s second nature,” she said.

Even if Biles wanted to make a transition, Schnell isn’t sure whether she would succeed. “Gymnasts are built a little different,” Schnell said. “Some incredible gymnasts wouldn’t make good divers, but some would be good at both.

“The big [indicator whether] somebody would make a good diver is if they’re able to get into a tight tuck or pike. A lot of gymnasts grab different. Gymnasts will grab underneath their legs behind their knees in a tuck. Or they don’t grab at all. Divers have to grab their shins.

“Also, when you’re flipping in gymnastics, you typically have your head back and out. But in diving, you need to have your chin IN so you spin faster and can see where you are.”

Whether Biles grabs behind her knees in a tuck, Schnell doesn’t know. “I’ve never actually paid that much attention,” she said. “My assumption is that she does not grab her shins.”

One thing Schnell knows for certain, is that she probably couldn’t have become an Olympic diver without competing in college.

“Competitive experience is really important,” she said, and the NCAA schedule is packed. “College also gives you more access to medical treatment, weight rooms, and whatever else you need.” In contrast, most of her international competitors are fully supported and funded by their national governments.

“Also, a lot of the better coaches in the U.S. are college coaches.” Schnell cites Arizona’s head diving coach Dwight Dumais as “by far” the most influential person in her diving career. Dumais comes from a diving family. His brothers Justin and Troy were Olympians, and the STANFORD All-America qualified for two U.S. Olympic Trials himself.  

“He really knows what he’s talking about,” Schnell said. “He brought a lot of confidence to my diving. He’s helped me mentally, too. Not a lot of coaches in the past have worked on with me on that. They worked more with technique, getting in a lot of [repetitions] and training really hard.  But Dwight was very much about: Let’s learn how to make you a better competitor. That was missing in my career” until now.

“I used to let adrenaline take over when I was competing and I would force things.  We learned how to control my breathing and remain calm.”

Most of all, he tells her, “You’ve got to enjoy it. You’ve got to dive for the girl that started diving in the first place.”

The one whose trajectory took her out of the gym and into the pool.