After two years of doing double duty for her high school team in Elk River, Laura Ryan decided to leave swimming behind and concentrate on diving. The Georgia senior got a reminder last fall of why that was such a wise choice.
Bulldogs coach Jack Bauerle invited Ryan to anchor the 200-yard freestyle relay in a dual meet against Emory, just for fun. “It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done,’’ said Ryan, who became the first Georgia diver to compete as a swimmer in recent history. “I couldn’t get out of the water afterward, which was a little embarrassing.’’
Put her on the board, though, and she makes it look easy. This week, in the pool where she used to train, Ryan reached the pinnacle of her chosen sport at the NCAA women’s swimming and diving championships. Ryan won the 1-meter title Thursday, earning her first NCAA championship, and followed up with a second title Friday in the 3-meter event at University Aquatic Center.
Two years after transferring from Indiana, Ryan became the first Georgia diver to win an NCAA crown. Her performances have contributed 40 points to the Bulldogs’ total as they race toward their second consecutive NCAA team title. She will compete in platform Saturday, wrapping up the meet — and her college career — in the place where she laid the groundwork for this memorable week.
“This is where I started diving for the first time,’’ said Ryan, a two-time Southeastern Conference champ on the 3-meter board. “To have my collegiate career end right where it started, you can’t ask for anything more exciting than that.
“This is where I practiced growing up. It feels like home. When I found out [the site of the NCAA meet], I thought, ‘Wow, this is going to be amazing to have all my family and friends here, just like all the state tournaments.’ It just brings back a lot of memories.’’
This trip helped Ryan make some more. She will end her Georgia career with four school records and was selected diver of the meet at the SEC championships, where she also finished second in platform and third in 1-meter.
Ryan started out as a swimmer, then began diving because she thought it looked like fun. After two seasons of doing both, she decided she was likely to achieve more in diving. She won a state high school title in 2007, but a serious shoulder injury that required surgery put the brakes on her career a year later.
Watching the 2008 Olympics made Ryan realize she wasn’t ready to give up. She missed a year of training while enduring the slow grind of rehabilitation, then began mining her potential in earnest. At Indiana, Ryan was the 2011 Big Ten champion in platform and finished in the top 12 in all three events at the 2012 NCAA championships.
Shortly after finishing 11th in platform at the 2012 Olympic trials, Ryan transferred from Indiana to Georgia, attracted by the Bulldogs’ championship potential and the skill of diving coach Dan Laak. She also appreciated the team’s unity. “All the swim coaches are so into diving,’’ she said. “I’ve never walked onto a team and felt like every single swimmer was my best friend. Honestly, it is so special to have that behind me when I’m diving.’’
She deepened that kinship with her brief return to swimming last fall, sealing a Bulldogs victory with that painful anchor leg. As much as her teammates appreciated Ryan’s gumption, they appreciate her more on the boards.
“Laura was great,’’ associate head coach Harvey Humphries said after her 1-meter triumph. “I think coming back to Minnesota and being in her home state seemed to energize her and get her ready to go.’’
Before this week, Ryan’s best finish at the NCAAs had been fifth in platform last year. Being in a familiar pool is a huge advantage, Ryan said, as is her robust cheering section.
Ryan has extensive experience at national meets in both individual and synchronized events, and her career will not end when her college eligibility does. She has qualified for a World Cup event in Shanghai, China, in July, and she hopes to continue on a course toward the 2016 Olympics.
A team title Saturday would provide the happiest ending possible to her college days, but it has already been one of the sweetest weeks imaginable. “To come out on top in my own home pool, I can’t even describe how that feels,’’ Ryan said. “It just feels so special.’’