On a quest to become his team’s third national champion in four years, Mitchell Caldwell, 11, of Solon, had his sights 5 meters high during the 2019 USA Diving junior championships held July 30 to Aug. 6 at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
A four-time qualifier for the national competition, which featured 623 youth divers from 240 teams throughout the country, Caldwell entered the meet as a Zone C champion in all three disciplines: the 1-meter and 3-meter springboards and platform.
But his goal was to join the company of American Flyers Diving teammates Dominic Roberto, 13, of Solon, a 2016 national champion on platform, and Lyle Yost, 18, of Shaker Heights, a 2018 national champion on 1-meter and platform. Janie Boyle, 18, a 2019 Orange graduate, and Jackson Salisbury, 17, a rising Solon senior, also made finals for AFD.
“I was really focused on winning one event, just because it’s my last year (in the 11-and-under age group), and I had never won an event,” Caldwell said. “So, really winning an event at nationals would be great, and I did it. I was really happy about that. And I thought it was going to be tower, but it turned out to be 1-meter.”
In his first event of the meet, Caldwell posted a six-dive score of 212.5 points on the 1-meter springboard, besting his nearest competition, Landyn Snook, 10, of Pennsylvania, by 8.5 points to win the national title.
Last year, Caldwell finished seventh on that discipline with 181.9 points.
Entering his final round of three optional dives at this year’s competition, Caldwell scored 44 points on his front double tuck to help propel his national title.
“I was very scared, because I don’t like doing hurdles, because I’m scared I’m going to balk on them, which is when you start your hurdle but you stop in the middle,” he said. “But I had a good hurdle, and I stood it up, and I put it straight up and down, and I scored really well on it. It’s important to really get the foot rip, because, if you don’t get the foot rip, it can be very splashy.”
Caldwell finished off his triumphant list with a back somersault with 1 1/2 twists from the free position and then an inward 1 1/2 tuck – both 2.2-degree-of-difficulty dives.
“I was very excited, and I was very shocked that I won 1-meter and not tower,” he said. “But I was really happy that I won 1-meter, and I’ve been practicing 1-meter a lot for the last four years. So, I really think I had a lot of experience going into 1-meter, but I didn’t think I was going to win it. But then I won it.”
Two days later, Caldwell finished runner-up on the 5-meter platform with a five-dive score of 167.40 points, while Mikolas Schwickert, 10, of Arizona, won the title with 180.80 points.
Caldwell’s best scores for his optional dives came in the semifinals, when his posted 47.5 points on his back 1 1/2 with 1 1/2 twists and 46.8 points on his inward double tuck.
“I love inward double, which is very hard, but I think it’s very fun to do, because it’s a feet-first dive, and it’s easy to spot, and I think it’s really easy to hit sometimes,” he said. “You want to get a really good jump off the platform so you have a lot of time to square out or spot your dive, which I think is very important to do.”
In addition to his national title on 1-meter and runner-up finish on platform, Caldwell took third on 3-meter with a six-dive score of 211.9 points, scoring 39.6 points on each of his three dives in finals: a back 1 1/2 with 1 1/2 twists, an inward double tuck and a front 2 1/2 pike.
He finished 0.05 point out of second place and 7.95 points behind champion Schwickert.
Since Schwickert won the platform and 3-meter titles, Caldwell was the other male diver from the 11-and-under age group named to Team USA for the 2019 Junior Pan American Games to be held Aug. 22-25 in Santiago, Chile.
“I’m very nervous, but I’m very excited to go to Chile, and I’m very excited to compete for my country, and there’s going to be a lot of very good divers there that I have to compete against,” Caldwell said. “So, representing AFD in Chile means a lot.”
Caldwell was one of 24 divers named to Team USA for the games, also including Jordan Rzepka, 17, a Solon native who now attends school and trains in Columbus. With Roberto also representing Team USA in the 2017 Junior Pan American Championships, Caldwell will be the third Solon native to compete on that international level.
Roberto, who dove in the 12-and-13 boys competition at the USA Diving Junior National Championships in Knoxville, took third on the platform with a seven-dive score of 312.7 points.
On his final optional dive in finals, Roberto hit a career-best 63 points on his back 2 1/2 tuck from the 7 1/2-meter tower.
“As soon as I kicked out and as soon as I knew where I placed my feet, I knew that the dive was going to go down,” he said. “And as soon as I hit it and I saw that 63 points, like, there’s nothing that just made me feel better.”
Roberto said he just added that dive to his list during the six weeks between zones and nationals and got the green light from AFD head coach Marc Cahalane to compete it for the first time.
“We were pretty confident,” Roberto said. “We were like, let’s just do it. I mean, we’re at nationals. So, you either go big or you go home. You can’t really lose anything. It was rolling the dice a little bit, but it ended up pretty good.”
Roberto improved 73.3 points upon his score on platform from last year’s national meet.
And he hit that 63-point back 2 1/2 tuck after scoring just 35 points on it in semifinals.
“I was having some problems with it, and I couldn’t get it straight up and down,” Roberto said. “So, in finals, in warmups, we were trying to find out where to kick and fixed it. I think especially this year, like my work ethic and stuff has just been a lot stronger, and I’ve just been pushing a lot harder, and I’ve just been making more corrections and just have been a little bit more focused.”
On the 3-meter springboard, Roberto finished sixth with an eight-dive score of 323.6 points, propelled by his reverse 2 1/2 tuck that he hit for 56.6 points in finals to help boost his overall score by 20.5 points from semifinals.
In semifinals, most divers are primarily focused on their voluntary dives, because those carry over to finals, Roberto said.
“In semifinals, I didn’t have the best hurdle, and I couldn’t connect very fast, so it spun kind of slow,” he said about his reverse 2 1/2 tuck. “So, I didn’t really have time to get my hands up all the way.
“But, in the final, I had a really good hurdle, and I just, it connected a lot faster, and I jumped a lot higher. Overall, it was just better, and it had good splash too. And that’s also a new dive.”
A six-time national qualifier for AFD, Roberto now has seven top-10 finishes on that stage.
“It was just such a blessing to be able to beat some of the best kids in the nation,” he said. “It just made me really happy to show how much my hard work has been going into diving and how blessed I am to have good parents sit and watch my practice, videotaping me, you know, showing me my dives and stuff like that. And my sister, who sits in the stands, and my coach, who’s always coaching.”
Also making finals in two events at nationals, Boyle, a rising freshman at the University of Texas, took third in the 16-to-18 girls platform with a nine-dive score of 433.6 points, hitting her inward 2 1/2 pike for 71.4 points from the 10-meter tower. She also scored 56.7 points on her front 3 1/2 tuck from 10 meters.
And on the 3-meter springboard, Boyle took 11th with a 10-dive score of 409.55 points, hitting her back 1 1/2 with 1 1/2 twists from the free position for 52.8 points.
Salisbury, a two-time national qualifier, finished 11th on the 16-to-18 boys platform with a 10-dive score of 469.2 points, improving 40.5 points from his semifinal round in large part due to scoring 68.6 points on his back 2 1/2 tuck from the 7 1/2-meter tower.
And Yost, a rising freshman at Ohio State University, placed in all three disciplines during the 16-fo-18 boys competition.
Yost finished third on the 1-meter springboard with an 11-dive score of 584.05 points, posting 67.5 points on his back 2 1/2 tuck.
He finished sixth on the 3-meter springboard with an 11-dive score of 593.90 points, scoring 74.40 points on his front 3 1/2 pike. Not to mention, he hit his front 2 1/2 with two twists from the pike position for 79.9 points in the semifinals.
And on the platform, he took 10th with a 10-dive score of 505.65 points, scoring 67.65 points on his front 2 1/2 with two twists from the pike position off the 10-meter tower.
Also representing AFD at nationals were: Natalie Zalud, 11, of Chagrin Falls; RJ Keating, 12, of Boardman; Samantha Holtz, 13, of Chagrin Falls; and Kate LaMonic, 16, a rising junior at Chagrin Falls.