Laura Ryan used to think nothing of climbing to the top of the diving platform, then twisting and tumbling through the 10-meter drop to the water below. But once she adjusted her sights to the lower altitude of the 3-meter springboard, the diver from Elk River gained an entirely new frame of reference.
“I walk up [to the platform] now, and I’m like, ‘Holy cow! How did I ever do this?’ ” Ryan said, laughing. “After being off it for a year and a half, I don’t know if I could do it again.”
Once known primarily as a platform diver, Ryan, 23, has found a different way to reach the pinnacle of her sport. She now competes exclusively on the 3-meter board, where she is finding the best results of her career. This week, Ryan will represent the U.S. in the 3-meter individual and synchronized events at the world championships in Kazan, Russia, a significant step toward her goal of making the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
The last time Ryan competed in platform was at the 2014 NCAA championships in Minneapolis, when the University of Georgia graduate won the 1-meter and 3-meter titles and finished third in platform. That raised both her confidence and her expectations as she focused on the lower board.
Since the switch, Ryan has earned the highest individual placings of her career, including her victory on the 3-meter board at the world championship trials. Her instant chemistry with diving partner Abby Johnston also led to two U.S. titles in 3-meter synchronized, at the 2014 winter nationals and the 2015 synchronized championships.
“I was ready to be done with platform and just focus on one event,” said Ryan, who trains in Athens, Ga. “Having that success on springboard [at the NCAAs] when I still wasn’t totally focused on it, I knew that if I specialized in one event, my chances of being successful would increase dramatically.
“Being successful on that stage made me feel like I belonged, and I just knew I could get better. I think having that mind-set moving forward, that I still have more in me, is what’s really been giving me confidence, going into both the world championships and the Olympic trials next year.”
Making major changes is nothing new for Ryan. She saw how powerful a fresh outlook can be when she transferred from Indiana to Georgia in 2012, a move that revived her spirit.
Earlier in her career, Ryan said, she constantly worried about what could go wrong and felt a keen need to prove herself. Through the guidance of Bulldogs diving coach Dan Laak — and with the support of a close-knit team — Ryan learned to let go of the stress. She now takes a positive, joyful approach to competition and training, a transformation that has pushed her closer to the Olympic berth she has sought since her first plunge into the pool.
Ryan finished 11th in platform at the 2012 Olympic trials, a disheartening result that made her question her future in the sport. That quickly dissipated when she moved to Georgia later that summer, starting a two-year stretch in which she developed into the most successful diver in school history.
“She’s always been a good diver,” said Laak, who remains her coach. “But she just wasn’t happy. Coming to Georgia was a new beginning for her.
“Laura is a strong, explosive diver, and she’s mentally tough. Excuse the pun, but she fights like a bulldog. And coming down to 3-meter is a perfect match for her.”
Ryan said most divers compete on platform for only a few years, because of the physical toll inflicted by repeatedly hitting the water at 30 miles per hour. She had competed on all three boards through most of her career, making it an easy transition. The hardest part, Laak said, was dialing down a workhorse mentality that thrived on a full menu of events.
Ryan has placed fourth or better in individual 3-meter in her past six national meets. Last year, she recorded her best individual finish ever at an international meet with a fourth-place showing in 3-meter at a FINA Grand Prix event. Ryan also has flourished in 3-meter synchro since she was paired with Johnston, who won a silver medal at the 2012 Olympics with former Gophers diver Kelci Bryant.
In Russia, Ryan will compete in the world championships for the first time, representing a major step forward. Another will come in September, when she and her teammates go to Rio to train at the Olympic venue.
After that, she plans to keep pursuing new heights — even if she isn’t climbing to the top of the tower.
“There’s a saying that the Olympics isn’t every four years. It’s every day,” Ryan said. “Being so close now, that’s never been more real for me.
“This is something I’ve worked for since the first time I jumped off a diving board. When I wake up tired and sore and wishing I could go back to bed, I think about that. And I know if I keep pushing, it’s all going to be worth it.”