To a casual observer, national- and Olympic-caliber diving is an incredibly physical sport.
But spending a day with a diver who is trying to make it to the games in Tokyo or Paris makes one realize just how cerebral the event is.
Diving at that level requires a special mentality, self-awareness and ability to overcome fear that transcends the sport and bleeds into other elements of the athlete’s life.
Ohio State freshman diver Lyle Yost, a former junior national champion with Olympic dreams for 2020 and goals for 2024, said the payoff for those who can bottle up their fear for the 10 seconds it takes to walk down a board and somersault from it is incredible.
“You hit the water and the fear — it’s not necessarily gone, because it might still be a scary dive,” Yost said. “And you might be scared to go up and do it again. But you hit the water, and it’s a fantastic feeling.”
It was 8 a.m.
Most Ohio State students would be hitting the snooze button one last time or sleeping through an early morning lecture, but the Buckeye diving team warmed up with a few basic techniques.
Yost leapt skyward from a 1-meter-high springboard, tucked and flipped forward three times in the air before slipping into the swirling blue pool below without a splash.
Practice was a blend of jokes and skill. Mixed in among technique breakdowns and film review were exaggerated cries of pain when divers over- or under-rotated and playful jabs of “this guy sucks.”
“When you’re doing what you love, you’re able to have a good time, and we’re all with our brothers out there,” sophomore diver Jacob Fielding said. “We’re just trying to have fun to get through the practice.”
Fielding and Yost were synchronized partners for junior competitions while the former was still a freshman with the Buckeyes and the latter was in high school, which allowed Yost to build a relationship with Ohio State diving coach Justin Sochor. Originally, Yost said he wanted to leave the state for college, but he meshed well with Sochor’s fun, visual teaching style.
The manner in which practice operates sets Ohio State diving apart, Sochor said, adding that most divers come from gymnastics, skateboarding or snowboarding backgrounds and have an affinity for taking risks.
“If you take all that away and just run it like an army, you’re taking some of that personality out of them,” Sochor said. “That personality is part of what made them so good at it.”
Sochor’s impact on Yost dates back to 1995.
It was that year that, as a senior at Cleveland State, Sochor coached the Beachwood High School diving team in Beachwood, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. He doubled the size of the squad in one year.
“After that first season, I started getting phone calls from parents of the divers that I coached,” Sochor said. “[They were] begging to continue diving because their grades went up, they were happier, they had more friends.”
Thus, Sochor created American Flyers Diving, a club that allowed him to continue coaching his athletes beyond the high school season, going full time with it in 2001.
In 2007, he sold the club to his assistant coach Marc Cahalane to accept a coaching job with the U.S. Elite Diving Academy in Columbus, Ohio — the job that led him to Ohio State.
One year later, Yost joined the Flyers with Cahalane as his head coach.
“I was on YouTube teaching myself how to do backflips in the backyard,” Yost said. “You can imagine it was probably not super safe. So when I was 8, my mom said, ‘All right, we’re gonna put you over water to do this. That way, you won’t break your neck.’”
Early returns for the eventual three-time Ohio high school state champion weren’t promising.
“I could see potential in his body, his movements. He was very flexible,” Cahalane said. “But in many ways, he was all over the place and had flat feet, and [his] legs weren’t together. He wasn’t always the most daring diver out there as well.”
Yost was often happy with a five out of 10, Cahalane said, until one day at a meet in Minnesota when the Cleveland native was 12. He performed an easier dive but zeroed in on his technique, earning consistent eights from the judges to finish fourth in the competition.
“That’s when, I think, the light came on, and he learned that if he just hits the dives the way he knows how, everything will take care of itself,” Cahalane said.
The weight room, where Yost arrived at 10 a.m., was a touch more serious.
Rap tracks blared over the sound system while both the male and female divers worked through exercises designed to increase their power.
Yost is a naturally high jumper — which allows for larger, more spectacular tricks — with plenty of room still to grow in his mechanics and strength, Sochor said.
But physical ability isn’t what separates wheat from chaff during flipping, twisting cliff jumps from 3, 5 or 10 meters.
“Fear. That’s the biggest roadblock for divers for sure,” Sochor said.
Divers handle fear in different ways.
Pre-dive rituals aren’t uncommon; many divers have a specific routine involving their “shammy,” a small drying towel, Sochor said.
“What helps is to take two or three deep breaths, focus on a cue or one thing about the dive,” junior diver Joseph Canova said. “Getting the hurdle right, getting your arms stretched out, and just going for it so you’re not thinking about the dive itself. Just one part of it.”
Yost owns a blue hat he’s brought to almost every event from a young age. He used to wear it on the diving board despite one head judge at an International Swimming Federation competition telling him it was “kind of unprofessional.”
He eventually stopped wearing it on the board but still brought it to competitions. The hat is currently on hiatus while his mother fixes a rusted buckle on the back.
With or without head apparel, divers have gargantuan mental hurdles to clear at competition — where Sochor said the goofing around stops and your “job interview” with the judges begins.
“Very good divers, who I know can do all their dives really, really well, will absolutely flop in a meet because they were in their head,” Yost said. “They were thinking about too much. They weren’t trusting their training. For me it’s about physically being ready and just having those one or two key points in your head.”
The end of training means the beginning of schoolwork. Yost attended three classes from 11:30 a.m to 3:40 p.m.
In the space between his second and third classes, Yost grabbed a Chef Salad from the Fuel Zone, a supply of food for Ohio State athletes.
“It’s healthy, but not too healthy,” Yost said.
He ate that and a bag of trail mix during his sociology lecture, quietly so as not to interrupt the class.
The mental fortitude required to make dives in competition seeps into a diver’s day-to-day.
“Total self-awareness,” Sochor said. “Who you are, what you’re capable of. And then reasonable thoughts. Anybody can draw a picture in their head of a dive that’s gone horribly wrong, but to draw the picture that you’re trying to follow, the correct visuals, even though it’s scary — that’s applied all the time in your life.”
Following the Ohio State season, Sochor said Yost will drop 1-meter springboard and focus strictly on one or two Olympic events: 3-meter springboard, 10-meter platform or synchronized 3-meter springboard.
Sochor said he believes Yost will make it in 2024 and compete well with the nation’s best in 2020.
“He’s doing an Olympic list of dives,” Sochor said. “Now he’s gotta polish them. Jump higher than everybody else. Have better form than everybody else.”
Yost, Fielding, Canova and junior Jacob Siler, Yost said, will all take a shot at the 2020 U.S. Olympic trials starting June 14 in Indianapolis.