Strength on a Springboard
To stand at the end of a springboard is to be alone.
For that brief moment before take-off, it’s just the diver and the board, a silent distillation of years of preparation, all coming down to a feat that is part gymnastics, part aerial acrobatics and all guts.
After coming up short in his defense of his 2012 national title on the 1-meter board two days earlier, Johann Schmidt, A14, was fighting his way through the preliminary round of the 3-meter competition on March 21 at the Division III NCAA National Championships in Houston. This was his last opportunity to make something out of the years of arduous training that brought him here. But first, he had to make it past the prelims.
The lone Tufts representative at nationals for the Men’s Swimming and Diving team, Schmidt was carrying the pressure of a one-time champion, along with the expectations of his teammates, coaches, friends, family and university.
The first of his 11 preliminary-round dives—a forward 3.5 somersault pike—was a miss.
The second—a backward 2.5 somersault pike—even worse.
The third—a reverse 2.5 somersault pike—catastrophic.
Entering his fourth dive, he stood in 23rd place out of the 24 competing. The next dive would mean the difference between abject failure and a respectable finish.
The Quiet Champion
Diving is an inherently humbling sport. Everything from the stage to the required uniform strips the sport down to the essentials. Judges break it down even further, analyzing the smallest details, from maintaining contact with the board on take-off; the tightness of the body as it pikes, twists and tucks in the air; to height of the splash on entry. Failure is amplified in the worst way possible—up on the board, there’s nowhere to hide.
Given that, it should come as no surprise that the thing that first strikes most people about Schmidt is his humility. That’s a hard thing to pull off for the handsome 5-foot eleven-inch 20-year-old with the classically chiseled diver’s physique. When he’s walking around the Tufts campus, most don’t see him as a national champion. And he’s OK with that.
“I dive because I love improving and doing something new every day,” he says. “Without this, I wouldn’t have the personal motivation in school and other things. A lot of people don’t know that it’s a lot of hard work. I know what I’ve achieved, and other people can notice or not, and that’s fine. What’s most important is what I believe and what I’ve done, and that I know in my heart I’ve done the best that I can.”
Being a diver at Tufts is not easy. Without a deep enough diving well in Hamilton Pool on the Medford/Somerville campus, the Tufts diving team—Schmidt and four female divers—train and compete at “home” meets at the MIT pool. Practice involves going to the Tisch Sports and Fitness Center to pick up an athletic van and driving 30 to 40 minutes through afternoon rush hour for joint practices with MIT.
In practice, divers spend at least two hours meticulously repeating their dives over and over, and possibly learning a new one. It’s an exercise in patience and persistence, and, some might argue, in mental toughness as well.
“It’s a mountain of work,” says Tufts diving coach Brad Snodgrass, who also coaches the MIT squad. “It’s very much a blue-collar endeavor.”
Schmidt’s dedication to the sport has not been lost on his teammates, who know full well the extra effort it takes to be a diver at Tufts. At a home meet on Jan. 22, when Tufts hosted Boston College, Schmidt had to compete at BC because Tufts doesn’t have a 3-meter board. After finishing his dives in Chestnut Hill, he took the subway way back to campus, rushing to Hamilton Pool from the Davis Square station on one of the coldest nights of the winter to catch the end of the meet. His 3-meter competitors from BC never had to leave their home pool.
“In a sport like ours, where it comes down to the end of the year and you’re on a board or on a block all by yourself, you’ve got to make it happen for yourself,” says Tufts’ head swimming coach Adam Hoyt. “Johann fits in perfectly that way. Everything from the bus rides to the dining hall to the training sessions, he’s very upbeat and supportive of his teammates.”
It certainly helps that Schmidt’s success has boosted the team’s scores at meets. Having a defending national champion who is usually a first-place finisher will do that.
How Johann Schmidt came to be at the end of that springboard at the national championships in Houston begins in the town of Nanuet, a suburb of New York City, on the west side of the Hudson River by the Tappan Zee Bridge.
It was there that Schmidt learned the importance of hard work from his parents, who immigrated to the United States as children from Honduras and the Dominican Republic. With successful corporate careers in New York City, John and Fatima Schmidt moved out of the city to Nanuet shortly before the birth of Johann’s older sister. Three years later Johann arrived.
With two working parents, Johann and his sister were signed up for various after-school programs and other extracurricular activities, and spent summers with their grandmother and aunt in the city. The always-on routine stuck with Johann as he developed a perfectionist tendency in everything—from school work to soccer and gymnastics, and eventually, in high school, to diving.
“Inside of him, he’s always striving for that 100 percent,” his father says. “He doesn’t like to make mistakes. I think that’s transferred to his athletic abilities.”
When Johann was in second grade, both his parents decided to make career changes so that they could take a more active role in raising their children; John went into independent financial consulting, and Fatima taught elementary school in the Bronx.
“We had to set priorities,” John says. “We always stressed to our kids, Your priority number one is to get a good education. With that come other things, like an ethical and moral upbringing. We always stressed that it was important to give back to society.”
For the Schmidts, that meant being active in their local church and traveling to Central America to teach English to children there. Johann, in particular, took to community service, hoping to follow in the footsteps of his paternal grandfather, a medical missionary doctor from Germany, and his own physician-idol, Partners in Health founder Paul Farmer.
When it comes to recruiting athletes, particularly at the Division III level, it’s important to pitch the school first, says Snodgrass, the diving coach. “I always say, ‘Don’t come to this school for diving. If you’re not interested and attracted by the academic situation, you don’t belong here.’ ”
For Johann, it came down to Amherst, which he found to be too small; Division I Penn, which he found too urban; and Tufts. After visiting during an April open house, when he got to meet the team and the coaching staff, something clicked. He chose Tufts.
Despite being ranked near the top of his high school class, Schmidt was not prepared for the rigors of his freshman year. “It was a rude awakening,” he admits.
Though he was happy at Tufts, he struggled academically. The structure of his routine in high school did not translate well to the relative freedom of college. The pressures he placed on himself to succeed and an unwillingness to disappoint his parents wore on him.
The financial burden that attending Tufts placed on his family created even more stresses. He received financial aid, but the tuition bills still had to be paid, and the family was relying solely on Fatima’s teacher’s salary as the recession eroded John’s consulting work. Concerned about the high price of failure, Schmidt considered transferring.
But after some long phone conversations back to Nanuet, his mother convinced him to stick it out.
From Failure Comes Success
Letting go of the fear of failure and concentrating on the physical process of diving has been a key theme that Snodgrass has preached to his star pupil. In diving, if you fail, you still need to climb back up on the board and do it again.
“I don’t know anybody who has ever succeeded without failing,” Snodgrass says. “What really makes someone successful has nothing to do with the outcome. It has everything to do with the trying and the process.”
Schmidt is a quick study, his coach says. “He has a lot of confidence in his abilities and his own mechanics, thought processes and work ethic. But he will listen to what I have to say, try it and almost always make an improvement,” Snodgrass says. “In almost every single practice, we see an incremental improvement. That’s really, really hard to do at any age.”
He’s applied that to his schoolwork, too. After changing majors to biology-psychology, Schmidt has improved academically. Studying the relationship between the body and mind seems appropriate for an athlete whose success depends on just such an interaction.
In diving, “it’s all about personal motivation,” Schmidt says. “What you put in is what you get out. When I have been a slacker in practice sometimes, it’s upsetting. If I slack on schoolwork, I don’t get the best outcome either.
“It’s not easy here [at Tufts], but I’ve done better. I’ve enjoyed it, and that’s the most important part for me, just enjoying school.”
The challenges remain, though. With a full course load and practices for two hours five nights a week from early November through late March, Schmidt generally doesn’t get some time for himself until 10 o’clock at night. His social life is limited by time and finances. He stretches his modest savings from summer lifeguarding jobs and often skips dinners out with friends. He occasionally shops for clothes at Goodwill and is one of the few students on campus without an iPhone.
He’s managed to expand his world beyond classroom and pool. He volunteers with Health Horizons International, which runs medical mission trips to the Dominican Republic, plays club soccer and participates in the Tufts Dance Collective. Against his better judgment, he says he wants to do even more.
After blowing his first three preliminary dives in the 3-meter event in Houston, Schmidt retreated to the locker room, where he cried in the shower between rounds. In next-to-last place, and seemingly out of contention, he still had to get back up on the board.
“It just felt like nothing was working,” he says. “I was hopeless. Really, I had given up at that point.”
As lonely a moment as that was for him, in the end, what got him back up on the board for his fourth dive was the realization that he wasn’t, in fact, alone. He never had been.
“I realized, Your parents are here. Your teammates back home are watching. Your friends back home are watching,” he says. “All these people are rooting for you, and as stressful as that is and as much pressure as that is to do well, you gotta do it for all those people, and you gotta do it for you, too.”
His back to the water, Schmidt perched at the end of the board for his fourth dive—an inward 2.5 somersault tuck, one of the hardest on his dive sheet.
He nailed it.
A smile crept across his face, his first of the event. What happened next became the talk of the meet, as Schmidt was near-perfect on his remaining seven dives. From 23rd place, he was sitting comfortably in sixth place at the end of the 11th and final preliminary dive, good enough to advance to the finals and guaranteed All-American honors.
By the time it was over, he took third place in the NCAA 3-meter finals and his fifth All-American honors.
Afterward, SUNY Fredonia diving coach John Crawford approached Schmidt. “What you just did there,” he said, “showed incredible character.”
Watch a slideshow of Johann Schmidt's ride to the NCAA finals.
Kelvin Ma can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.