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Soft landing: After decade in the gym, O'Brien finds home on diving board

Grayson’s Darcie O’Brien started diving only a year ago and has since compiled an impressive resume on the board. 

Grayson’s Darcie O’Brien started diving only a year ago and has since compiled an impressive resume on the board. 

LILBURN — A look at Darcie O’Brien’s leg, speckled with bruises, makes this explanation hard to grasp.

“Diving didn’t hurt at all. It wasn’t a bunch of pounding,” she said.

The O'Brien File

Who: Darcie O’Brien

Sport: Diving

School: Grayson

Class: Senior

Favorite movie: “Blades of Glory”

Favorite sports team: Georgia Bulldogs

Dream job: Something in art, maybe advertising

What’s your favorite part of diving? “The feeling of flipping in the air and being free.”

Noteworthy:

• Spent 13 years as a gymnast

• Won the Level 9 gymnastics state championship

• Finished ninth on the platform and one-meter and 13th in the three-meter dive at the AAU national championships

• Finished 10th in state high school championships last season

• Enjoys art

Bruises say otherwise, but for O’Brien the sting of slapping water compares little to the pounding of joints against worn gymnastic mats. It’s been two years since a combination of injury, talent and a search for a more social experience brought the Grayson senior to diving. In that time, O’Brien grew from novice to national competitor.

Two years ago, O’Brien injured her hip doing gymnastics. The injury led to surgery and the pain lingered through her recovery.

“It just wasn’t the same,” O’Brien said of post-surgery gymnastics. “The skills were harder.”

The discomfort started O’Brien thinking, the thinking turned to action. With two years remaining in high school, the life-long Grayson student had yet to don anything with a green and gold ‘G’ in competition.

“I really wanted to do a school sport because I had never done one and I really wanted to,” she said. “School spirit, you know?”

Diving offered an outlet unlike any other. With 13 years of tumbling and vaulting experience, O’Brien knew how to sail through the air and she had the coordination and strength to flip, tuck and extend while gravity tugged at her. Plus, water breaks a fall better than a thin mat laid across a floor.

“I figured I would do well because I had been a gymnast, but I never thought I would do that good,” O’Brien said.

That good is a third-place finish at the county meet last year, just two months following her first practice. That good is a ninth-place finish in both the platform and the one-meter boards and 13th on the three-meter at this summer’s AAU national championships. That good meant a sport course correction as a junior in high school.

O’Brien started gymnastics at age 4. She worked her way up to a 20-hour practice week. After a few months of diving, she traded the talcum powder for a shammy and a rubber cap.

“I decided that diving was the way to go,” O’Brien said. “I saw that I could go further in diving than in gymnastics when I saw, well, how good I was, I guess, how talented.”

O’Brien reluctantly uses words like talent. She pauses, stammers even, before failing to find a suitable synonym. But talent accurately conveys, if undersells, the ability to become one of the top divers in Gwinnett County in slightly more than a month.

Her coach, Bettie Hudson, a state diving official and instructor for decades, saw the latent ability on O’Brien’s first day.

“You recognize talent,” Hudson said. “The hardest thing for me to do when I see that kind of talent is be quiet.

“I knew the minute I saw her. When I saw what she did on the board just to get off the board.”

Her state-champion level gymnastics background taught O’Brien how to leap and flip. She understood how to approach, contort, spin. But she only knew one way to land — on her feet.

“I had been taught to do anything but land on my head for 13 years,” O’Brien said. “My first meet last season, I did all of (my dives) onto my feet. The judges like it more if you land on your head, because, you know, that’s diving, not just doing gymnastics on the diving board.”

By season’s end, O’Brien comfortably entered the water head-first. Now it’s as natural as landing on her feet. She vanquished her biggest challenge with ease.

These days, O’Brien practices diving with the same fervor once devoted to gymnastics. She splits time, unevenly, between Mountain Park Aquatic Center and the boards at the University of Georgia. She is at the pool about eight or nine hours a week. She’s recruited one of her high school friends to join her on the team and is seeking scholarship offers with her eye on Georgia. Her hip feels better and she easily shrugs off the bruises. If her smile ever dimmed, it is shadowed no longer.

“There is no real way to get hurt in diving. I love just trying to get the dive perfectly right. When you do get it right, you get so much height and you can tell that it was a good one,” she said. “I love the feeling, flipping in the air, I love it. I want to go to practice every day. It’s just fun. It’s just a feeling. It’s exciting.”