A drive to dive

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Courtesy of Annika Coleman
Annika Coleman transitioned from gymnastics to diving as a freshman at Los Altos High.

Annika Coleman’s list of athletic-related injuries is longer than a CVS receipt. They include two back fractures, a concussion, a torn tendon in her foot and a gash above the eye requiring stitches.

“It’s hard when you’re your own obstacle,” she said of getting hurt first in gymnastics, then diving and most recently on a hike. “It’s not really about the pain – you get over that – it’s more about not being able to train. That’s frustrating.”

While the injuries have tested Coleman’s patience and pain tolerance, they haven’t thwarted her dream of becoming a college athlete. The June graduate of Los Altos High has overcome them all to earn a spot on the Brown University women’s swimming and diving team.

“I can’t wait to get on campus,” said Coleman, who like many college students is stuck at home this semester due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “I’m really ready to be out of the house.”

Annika Coleman

Even if she had made it to Rhode Island for fall classes, the recruited walk-on wouldn’t be diving right now. Brown typically starts competing in November, but the Ivy League announced over the summer that there would be no swimming and diving meets until January. Then on Thursday, it canceled the season altogether.

The news didn’t come as a surprise to Coleman, who two days earlier told the Town Crier, “I assume we won’t have a season this year.”

Several returning members of the team are on campus and conditioning outside, she added, but they haven’t been in the pool.

Coleman has – diving a few days a week at Los Gatos High through her association with the Stanford Diving Club – but only for the past month. Before that, she could barely walk. Seeking exercise after her club shut down due to the virus, Coleman went on a strenuous hike in March and injured both feet. She tore a tendon in one foot and was diagnosed with tendinosis in the other.

“For seven weeks, I couldn’t use my feet at all – I was crawling,” the Los Altos resident said. “It was a really slow recovery. Eight months later, I’m finally diving again. It feels incredibly good to be back on the boards.”

It was far from the first time Coleman has recovered from a severe injury. During her 10-year gymnastics career, she twice fractured her back – at ages 9 and 12.

“I had a lot of injuries to my back and feet,” said Coleman, who quit the sport at 14 on the advice of coaches worried about her well-being. “The last two years I called myself ‘The Injured Gymnast.’”

Switching sports

With her dreams of being a college gymnast dashed, she sought out other sports. Coleman tried the pole vault before she discovered diving at the start of her freshman year and joined the Stanford Diving Club.

“When I saw it, I knew it was the one – I immediately fell in love with it,” she said. “It was gymnastics in the water, and a safer way to continue flipping.”

Safer, perhaps, but not without risk. While Coleman said, “My body really likes diving,” and her old gymnastics injuries haven’t flared up, she hasn’t been able to stay out of harm’s way.

Coleman’s scariest injury occurred her junior year while practicing on a dryland diving board. Attempting a front flip, Coleman’s knees buckled and her entire body weight landed on the board.

“I thought I was fine,” she said, “but it turned out that I had a concussion and was out for four months. Then I needed a couple more months to be fully back – I had to retrain my brain.”

Coleman was sidelined for the Central Coast Section championships, at which she placed eighth for the Eagles a year earlier when she was named team MVP.

Fully recovered for her senior year, Coleman had another nasty run-in with the dryland board just before the start of the high school season.

“I did the same thing and hit my face again,” she said. “I sliced my eyebrow open and needed stitches.”

Coleman wouldn’t get another chance to represent Los Altos; the school closed the day of the first meet because of the pandemic.

Getting noticed

Despite the lack of high school meets and Junior Olympic experience (one regional with her club team), Coleman had enough highlights to make a recruiting video that intrigued several college coaches she contacted. The straight-A student also emailed her high SAT scores and GPA.

Before long, Coleman was being recruited by top-notch schools such as Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Chicago and Pomona College.

However, she always had her eye on the Ivy League. Not only did the academics appeal to her, but also the location and level of NCAA competition.

“I wanted East Coast and DI,” said Coleman, who also applied to Yale University and Dartmouth College. “I’m pretty intense, determined and goal-oriented, and I wanted a sports and academic environment that would push me and help me.”

Coleman is confident Brown will do just that and said she was “super excited” to get accepted.

Kate Kovenock – the Brown Bears’ new head coach for women’s swimming and diving – seems elated to have Coleman and the seven other freshmen joining her squad. In a press release issued by the school last month, Kovenock said this class “not only connected with our team but with the foundational principles of the university itself.”

Coleman hopes to connect with her coaches and teammates in person come January. Until then, the premed student is taking an online chemistry course offered by Brown and a music theory class from Foothill College (Coleman also plays piano).

“I can’t wait to start practicing, growing and being with my new teammates,” she said. “I’m hoping that with help from trainers and PTs, I’ll be healthy the next four years.”

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