Born bold, champion diver learns balance

July 21st, 2011  |  by  |  Published in Features, July 2011

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Friesen on competing: “There’s always pressure. You have to be ready to own up to it and deal with it. You have to learn how to be a good loser. Eventually somebody’s going to beat you and you’re going to be an old name on a record board.” UH photo by Reese Moriyama

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa diver Emma Friesen stepped to the 1-meter springboard for her final dive of the 2008 NCAA championships. She had just watched Texas rival and good friend Mary Yarrison nail her final dive, keeping her at the top the leaderboard that hovered ever so ominously above the still waters in McCorkle Aquatic Pavilion at Ohio State University.

Friesen, then a sophomore, knew she had to perform a near-perfect reverse 1½ somersault with 1½ twists to leapfrog over Yarrison and capture the national championship. It was a pressure cooker of a situation, the whole weight of the title hanging on one dive. But Friesen—whose diving pedigree includes an NCAA champion mother and an Olympian father—absorbed the moment and channeled her focus on her technique.

Her perfectly executed dive made her just the second NCAA diving champion in UH history.

“It’s definitely a career highlight, but I feel like my career is so much bigger,” Friesen reflected during a break in preparation for her final exams and Mānoa’s spring 2011 commencement ceremony two years later.

Friesen’s accomplishments, including the 2008 NCAA title, planted the Canadian firmly in the UH diving program record books. In April she received the 2011 Jack Bonham Award—the university’s most prestigious honor, reserved for the top female and male senior student-athletes who best exemplify all-around achievement in academics, athletics, leadership and character. (Football star Kealoha Pilares, the male Bonham Award winner, was named to the all-WAC second team, ranked seventh nationally in receiving yards per game and set a school record with 18 receptions against Louisiana Tech.) In June, the Western Athletic Conference presented her with her second Joe Kearney Award for female athlete of the year.

Friesen, who completed her bachelor’s degree in psychology in May, competed on the 1-meter and 3-meter springboard and was a four-time All-American, two-time WAC Diver of the Year and the 2008 NCAA Diver of the Year. She was a major player in the UH swimming and diving program that in 2011 won its first men’s Conference USA title, earned a second in the women’s WAC championships and sent three athletes (Friesen and sophomore swimmers Taylor Ritenberg from Australia and Luca Mazzurana from Italy) to the NCAA championships.

“Her legacy will live on,” promises UH diving coach Mike Brown. “We’re that much better off because she’s been here.”

It almost didn’t happen. Friesen, who stunned the diving community when she committed to Hawaiʻi over the University of Southern California (’It just fit,’ she explains) nearly derailed her career while home in North Vancouver, Canada, during the summer of 2009. The daring and bravado that makes her so successful on the springboard got the best of her on a skateboard. She broke her left ankle in three places skateboarding down a halfpipe ramp, an admittedly stupid stunt that left her ashamed, she says.

A plate and seven screws were inserted in her ankle to repair the damage. She spent the next six weeks on crutches. A diver who relies on an explosive takeoff, she couldn’t bear the pain and was forced off the board for another six months. Shortly after her return to the pool, she contracted a debilitating intestinal virus. All told, she was away from competition for an entire year.

It was a maddeningly long layoff, but it gave Friesen a much-needed dose of perspective and maturity. She focused on academics and earned her first ever 4.0. She realized how special it was to be an athlete at UH, and she grasped the importance of being a true leader on the team.

“She did grow up,” says Christine Loock, Friesen’s mother, a two-time national champion from Southern Methodist University. “She’d always been a risk taker and a novelty seeker and always saw that she could push the envelope. This time, she realized the envelope sometimes has a slippery slope.”

After redshirting one season, Friesen was back, ready to atone for her injury.

“When she came back she was magnificent,” Brown says. “Her body line was better. She entered the water cleaner. She made some big steps forward that you can’t really make unless you get away from it.”

She completed her collegiate career with her second WAC Diver of the Year award and another All-American honor. It was a rewarding comeback capped by the Bonham Award, which Friesen says she would not have received had she not been forced to persevere through her tribulations.

“It was really important to me not to just fade away, to be that girl who was great but screwed up her career and was not man enough to face it, face my demons,” she says, tears welling in her eyes.

Since graduation, Friesen is training in Canada to compete for the Canadian (she won gold in the 1-meter in June) and U.S. national championships (she’s a dual citizen since her mother is American). She has her sights set on the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

“I am 22 and I still love it,” she says. “I don’t think a lot of people can say it. A lot of people are happy to be done with their college career. I’m happy, but I’m also kind of sad. It’s the end of an era.”

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