NEW CASTLE —
That’s what stood in the way of Mohawk High junior McKenzie Stelter and WPIAL championship gold — one dive to win it all.
Trailing a familiar foe, Moon’s Heather Lonkert, by two points, Stelter knew she needed to be flawless in her last dive. Easier said than done.
“It was a reverse one and a half twist. You go off the board frontwards, but you flip back toward the board and you’re doing one and a half twists. You’re going to end up facing the board when it’s all said and done,” Stelter said. “I just learned the dive this year, so it was one of my newer ones. In the MAC meet, I messed it up, so I was very anxious with it.”
When Stelter hit the water, the anxiety of making a mistake a second time left her. She nailed it. The judge’s approved. The waiting game set in.
“It was so stressful. The wait was agonizing. I was in front of Heather in the lineup — I was eighth and she was 15th — so after I did my dive, I had to wait for her to do hers.
“It came down to the degree of difficulty. I had more degree of difficulty than she did, so that’s pretty much how I won. I nailed my dive, she nailed hers, but the degree of difficulty didn’t really satisfy her as well as it did me.”
Judges score divers on a scale. The total of each judge’s score is then weighted by the difficulty of the dive. Contestants give a list of every dive they will perform to the judges and are allowed to update the list until one hour before the competition.
The nail-biting conclusion gave Stelter the victory by the slimmest of margins — 2.2 points. It also qualified her for the PIAA competition, which takes place March 13 at Bucknell.
“I knew Heather was my competition,” Stelter said. “I’ve seen her throughout the year. She’d beat me and I’d beat her. It was back and forth the whole time.
“After five dives there is a break where you get to warm up for your next three. After that, you get to warm up for your last three, which are the finals. I knew I had to keep going strong because she had a strong list (of dives) as well. After my first eight, she was ahead of me by 10 points, which in diving isn’t really anything because anything can happen. It came down to the last dive. In the 10th dive, I was down by two points; So, I knew I really had to go and nail my last one.”
The victory not only gave gold to Stelter and her third appearance at the PIAA championship, but also represented Mohawk’s first diving title in school history — something the school wasn’t exactly prepared for.
“They had to order a new banner for it,” Stelter laughed. “It feels great. It feels so important. All my hard work has been paying off. I was the first one to bring something new to Mohawk, that’s been around for so long. It’s so crazy.”
Stelter’s history-making performance earned her Lawrence County Athlete of the Week honors, an award sponsored by Washington Centre Physical Therapy and selected by the New Castle News sports staff.
“I just love the sport. I want to go as far as I can in it without any regrets,” Stelter said. “It’s kind of different because not everyone knows about it. I’m the only diver from our school. We have one swimmer also. It’d be great if more people would get involved. That’d be awesome.”
Diving wasn’t the first sport Stelter was passionate about. In fact, her preference of diving spawned from her love of gymnastics.
“I did gymnastics for 13 years. That’s where my background is. I broke my foot, so I kind of quit. I knew friends who quit due to injury or just quit and went into diving. They went to college for diving and had great success. You see a lot of gymnasts go into diving. I gave it a try and was good at it and I stuck with it. Last year was the first year that I dove all year round — throughout the summer and everything. It was really my first hardcore year of training.”
Stelter believes former gymnasts gravitate toward diving because of the similarities between the two sports.
“The flips and the twists obviously are similar,” she said. “It’s difficult for people who aren’t gymnasts because they don’t know body awareness, and with gymnasts, they know how to point their toes, straighten their legs. They know where they are in the air. In diving, you’re landing on your head. In gymnastics, you’re landing on your feet.”
A passion and intensity for diving shows in Stelter’s ambitions for the sport.
“I motivated myself and just sat down and asked what I really wanted to do and get out of the sport. I want to go to college on a scholarship for diving,” she said. “That’s kind of one of my big pushes. I want to win the MAC, WPIAL and state next year. I also want to place at nationals, which is top 12.”
Her competitive spirit is a family trait. Stelter’s mother, Lori Haswell Stelter, is a Mohawk graduate and basketball star. She ranks 18th all time for girls in Lawrence County with 1,262 points and was a 2012 inductee into the Lawrence County Historical Society Sports Hall of Fame. She became the first Mohawk girls basketball player to score 1,000 points in her career.
McKenzie’s cousin, Tyler Haswell, was an athlete of the week honoree earlier this season as a forward for the Neshannock High basketball team.
“My family is really supportive and competitive. They push me to be my best. I’m just like them. I want to win and I’m really competitive. They’ve always believed in me and wanted me to be the best I could be.”
In order to meet her own lofty expectations, Stelter will need to spend a lot of time practicing not only the physical, but the mental aspects of the sport.
“You do a lot of repetitions of each dive. You do dry land, which is a springboard dive with big crash mats. You can do your hurdles onto them. We have trampolines and belts like in gymnastics. You can flip and twist in the belt with your coach pulling you.
“You have to get your mental really strong because you’re flipping toward a board and flipping away from a board. We go through our dives mentally. If I’m doing a front twist, I can reach and twist and come out really straight. You can get it through your mind and get ready to dive.”
Since Mohawk doesn’t have a pool and technically doesn’t have a diving coach, Stelter’s mother doubles as her coach. Stelter also attends the Youngstown Area Diving Academy where she is taught by club coaches Ron Navarra and Nick Gavolas. Navarra attends all of Stelter’s, including the WPIAL championship, to offer guidance.
“It was very exciting,” Navarra said. “She’s been working with us going on a year or so. She's added a lot of difficulty with a lot more difficult dives. It is all still fairly new for her. She has one more year of high school where she’ll learn even more dives.”
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