Grayson’s Rachel Wellington, is a freshman who excels in diving despite being legally blind. Wellington placed 20th while competing in the Class AAAAAA State Diving meet at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center in Atlanta Thursday. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)
ATLANTA — Everyone listened intently.
Grayson head swim and dive coach Rebecca Bullock leaned over the top of the bleachers turning her head with one ear marginally closer to the public address speaker. Gwinnett County dive coach Sarah Nicole Ackerman, standing, looked up toward the sounds of the voice. Rachel Wellington stood, seemingly calm.
Name after name echoed from the speaker and, fittingly, the final announcement rang out. “Rachel Wellington.”
The Grayson diver smiled while her parents cheered from the stands immediately above her at the Georgia Tech natatorium. Her dive coach nodded, slightly pumping her fist and the Rams’ coach cheered. The freshman Wellington made the top 20 in the Class AAAAAA state diving meet, the crest of her first season as a diver. Wellington took up the sport less than seven months prior, exponential growth in a challenging discipline.
“When I started with coach Bettie (Hudson) I was kind of picking up things faster than other kids were,” Wellington said. “I just knew where I was in the air and I wasn’t scared to do anything. People where saying, ‘Hey, you’re pretty good at this,’ so why not take it and run?”
Others may have found a reason.
Wellington was born with retinal dystrophy, a progressive genetic disease which, in simple terms, limits her sight dramatically.
“The best way I can describe it, it’s like being underwater, it’s just not as blue.” Wellington said. “It’s really, really blurry. My depth perception is kind of messed up. But other than that, it’s pretty blurry.”
Growing up, Wellington remembers confusing others with her mother because she struggled to see faces and identified people by the colors of their clothes. She’s trained herself to learn voices.
“Most of the time, if it’s a new person, I am kind of like someone needs to tell me who you are. But if it’s my friends at school I go by voice a lot,” Wellington said. “It kind of blows my friends minds. I go mostly by voice now, I just use my ears.”
Ears don’t help with diving.
From a young age, Wellington’s parents allowed her to attempt anything she wanted. Always a good student (she’s chasing a goal of a 4.0 GPA), athletics called her from an early age. Her mother recalls her running up and down the stairs in their house and from their she moved to gymnastics.
“We’ve always let her try stuff,” her mother, Amy Wellington, said. “I certainly wouldn’t encourage her to try a sport with a ball because she can’t see it coming. She rides her bike in our cul-de-sac. She is very aware of her surroundings.”
By 9-years-old Wellington was a Level 3 gymnast, competing in everything from the floor routine to the vault and the parallel bars. But as she finished eighth grade, Wellington set some goals for her high school years, which included a varsity letter. She started with cheerleading before swapping her skirt for a swimsuit.
“I went to cheerleading and I was like, ‘No, I can’t do this. It’s too sloppy for an ex-gymnast,’” Wellington said. “So diving was my next option and I loved flipping and twisting and the thrill of that. I decided to try it and ended up loving it.”
She began last August with Hudson, another Gwinnett county diving coach, at Mountain Park’s pool and when she joined the high school team hooked up with Ackerman, the dive coach for Grayson.
“At first I was kind of nervous because as a diver you need to see things,” said Ackerman, a former Brookwood diver. “It’s just repetitive. When is say, ‘You are not hitting the end of the board you are back,’ she knows to take half a step forward. She is actually a dream to coach. She’ll do everything.”
The biggest challenges for Wellington are hitting the end of the board on her approach and timing her release during a dive to enter the water. Though she can’t see the end of the board, her vault experience helps her trust her steps.
“She has a sixth sense,” Ackermand said. “It’s incredible to watch.”
Timing her release from a tuck or summersault is a bit more challenging.
“(Timing) was hard when I first started diving because I was new to it, but gymnastics gave me that air awareness of where I am and stuff,” Wellington said. “It’s not really hard for me to know where I am in the air. I still get lost when I try new stuff, all the time I get lost. But once I do it a couple of times it’s just like I have to do it and know where I am so I pick it up.”
Ackerman said she spends a few more attempts helping Wellington find her release point by calling her out poolside. Listening helps, at first.
“Most of the time by the third or fourth time I do stuff I won’t really listen to her, I’ll experiment by myself and see if I can get it,” Wellington said. “The first couple of times I do have them call me out, but after that I have to get it. I just have to do it by myself as many times until I get it down.”
At any meet, the only assistance Wellington uses is a coach or teammate setting the fulcrum for her as she climbs onto the board. The rest is up to her. Once Wellington began working with Ackerman the coach saw the potential for a state-qualifying 11-dive program. Like anyone around the bright-smiling Wellington, the thought of her vision troubles vanishes in just a few moments.
“Once the idea of state was even an option, because we got twisters, then it was, ‘I need to make it to state,’” Ackerman said. “Her whole mindset changed.”
The front double summersault was the final piece to a qualifying program and the skill proved the biggest challenge for Wellington. The disorientation of two flips mixed with the speed and height required to execute the dive correctly terrified the freshman. Less the dive and more the pain of smacking flat against the water.
“I wouldn’t do them until a meet. I wouldn’t warm them up, I wouldn’t practice them, but I would do it in a meet,” Wellington said. “I ended up smacking in meets, too.”
At the Gwinnett County swim and dive meet, the final chance for a qualifying score, Wellington entered her 11th dive needing 17.8 points to qualify for the state meet. The final dive in her program: 104C, a forward two summersault tuck. The pain of a flat smack this time would go beyond the physical.
What happened didn’t require sight.
“I had this out of body moment like, ‘You have to get this.’ I got up and I hit it. I had gone down to the bottom of the people so I knew I went in straight. I hit the bottom of the pool and I came up smiling and everyone else who knew (what I needed) was listening for the scores,” said Wellington, who scored a 26.40. “When I heard I made it, it was amazing.”