Although he only stands at 5-feet-3-inches tall, TCU’s lone male diver has spent the past 10 years looking down on people.And now, sophomore R.J. Hesselberg has achieved one of the highest honors in his sport.
Over the break, Hesselberg competed in the pinnacle of Division I swimming and diving: the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships.
As he precariously balances backwards on the balls of his feet on the 1-meter TCU springboard with his arms outstretched to either side of the pool, Hesselberg takes a deep breath, bounces once, twice, tucks his body into a 2 1/2 gainer, and lands with a big splash in the diving well.
Too big for coach Wayne Chester’s liking.
“Tighten up your entry,” Chester says, stretching his arms above his head in a streamline position.
Hesselberg must be getting used to being singled out. He is the only member of the team, swimmer or diver, to qualify for the NCAA Championship this season, which was held March 15 at the University if Minnesota in Minneapolis. In his first appearance at the championships, Hesselberg placed 23rd in the platform, 30th on the 1-meter and 31st on the 3-meter, out of roughly 35 divers in each competition.
If Chester could have predicted the future, he said he never would have guessed his star diver would still be practicing in March.
“To be honest, we were on our way down to Regionals and I didn’t think he was going to make (NCAA’s),” Chester said.
Hesselberg qualified for Regionals, the NCAA Zone “D” Diving Meet, which takes place March 2-4 in Austin, after placing third in the platform event at the Mountain West Conference Championship.
However, both coach and diver were surprised to discover, at Regionals, that Hesselberg’s zone, which only had seven divers competing in it, had been allotted exactly seven berths to the championship.
So the Saskatoon, Canada, native took it easy, placing fifth in his zone while nursing a sore back muscle he had pulled during a back 3 1/2 at Conference.
Last year he placed in the top 10 in three events at Regionals, but did not advance beyond that.
During the championship, Hesselberg was in 14th place going into his fifth platform dive, but missed his reverse in the air and landed flat on the back.
“That set me back a bit,” he said. “After that I was a little shaken and a little tight.”
Hesselberg performed his last platform dive on the 5-meter and finished 23rd out of 27 divers.
Hesselberg is considered a paradoxical laid-back bundle of energy. His normally quiet demeanor seems to melt away in the warm, stuffy air of the TCU natatorium, where he has spent every weekday afternoon since September.
As the only male of a very young, very small diving team – there are no upperclassmen and his four teammates are all women – Chester said he both serves as a team leader and a source of comic relief.
“R.J.’s a situational guy,” Chester said. “If something bad happens, he’ll turn it around and make it funny.”
At this particular practice, while Chester is distracted with something else, Hesselberg bounces on the board several times until his head is almost even with the 3-meter platform above him and cannonballs into the diving well.
He immediately pops up to the surface, flashes a goofy grin to his coach standing on the side of the pool. He strokes his way back to the pool’s edge where he jumps out and begins giving advice to his teammate, Claudia Combs.
“He has no fear or pain receptors,” said Combs, a sophomore kinesiology major. “He’ll smack the water and get right back up.”
Hesselberg’s inability to feel pain seems to translate to an ability to stay calm before big meets.
The young diver said he wasn’t concerned about how he was going to place in Minnesota.
“When I’m there, I don’t care about who I’m competing against,” he said. “I don’t want to make myself nervous.”
Hesselberg said he’s learned how to harness his mental energy while competing through a form of Pilates breathing techniques he picked up from his club team in Canada.
Just before he steps on the board, Hesselberg will close his eyes, focus on a spot on his body and breathe to a count.
“It gets your mind off of everyone else,” Hesselberg said, who added he likes to dance between events to a random compilation of songs from a CD he makes the night before.
In another pre-competition ritual, Hesselberg said he will not warm up at all on the 10-meter platform, which is the highest competition board. And he doesn’t regularly practice on it either because TCU’s diving facilities only go as high as a 5-meter.
“Everyone thinks I’m crazy because I don’t practice 10-meter,” he said. “But I feed off their nervousness. They’re thinking, ‘this guy’s going to eat it because he hasn’t practiced.'”
Hesselberg proved the cynics wrong at the NCAA championship, because the 10-meter was his strongest event.
Chester said Hesselberg competed on the more physically challenging 10-meter because “he gets better the higher he gets. He has a good kinetic sense of where he is in the air.”
For the springboard events, divers compete on the one or three-meter as individual events, but for platform diving, each competitor can choose whether to dive off the 5- or 10-meter.
Although just a sophomore, Chester said Hesselberg is already making a name for himself in collegiate diving.
“Hopefully they’ve seen that R.J.’s serious and he’s good,” Chester said.