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Girls swimming: Ammon embraces imperfection, prepares for state diving meet

Newman junior Abigayle Ammon will be competing at the girls swimming and diving state meet this weekend at New Trier High School in Winnetka.
Newman junior Abigayle Ammon will be competing at the girls swimming and diving state meet this weekend at New Trier High School in Winnetka.

Abigayle Ammon embraces a losing battle. And it’s turned the Newman junior into a winner in many walks of life.

An admitted perfectionist, Ammon readily concedes that she will never be without flaw.

“I don’t think anybody can obtain perfection. I strive for it, obviously. That’s why I’m diving,” the first-year diver said before practice Tuesday
at the Duis Center. “But that’s the one thing reserved for God. The fact that you can get semi-close to it and achieve your goals, the gratification in that is what makes the sport enjoyable.”

Despite winning the diving competition by a 77.35-point margin at the United Township Sectional Saturday,
she felt narry a brush with

“Oh gosh…far from,” Ammon said. “But I achieved my goal, and that’s all I wanted to do.”

Her unwavering voice and the conviction in her eyes confirmed that such assurance was not lip service. And a lot of the credit is due to her coaches.

“We don’t want them to beat themselves up about their scores,” longtime Sauk Valley diving coach John Berge said. “Judging in diving is based upon the competition you’re at that day. It’s really designed to measure the difference between the divers – not necessarily give somebody a 10.”

Thus, sectional scores are an unreliable gauge as to how an athlete will fare at state this weekend at
New Trier High School in Winnetka.

But, Berge says, should Ammon dive the way she did Saturday in East Moline, she’ll fare well.

“It was amazing,” Berge said. “From the moment each dive started until she went in the water, she was exceptional.”

The perfect repertoire

Three weeks ago, Berge and his assistants – which include former Newman diver Mary Sue LeMay – had tough decisions to make.

In beginning Ammon’s taper, they selected 11 dives. The choices were difficult because, once the coaches learned to add one thing at a time, Ammon was a sponge.

“Once we got comfortable with that, it set the tone for how much we could accomplish in a short amount of time,” Berge said.

The coaches knew that much more prolific dives could be added, but it was time to put the cap on the repertoire.

“You’re always wondering if it’s enough,” Berge said. “It’s gotta get you through the sectional meet, and it’s gotta get you through this weekend. There’s a couple of dives that, if we could’ve gotten those through, she would do extremely well.”

And that’s where perfectionism is dangerous, if not understood. And Ammon has as firm a grasp on perfection as the one she’s developed on such things as reverse dives, inward dives, or simply entering the pool headfirst – a sort of unlearning of everything she knew about gymnastics.

But it’s been such a short time since she traded the mat for the pool that Berge can’t help but think about the journey, even if Ammon’s camp is currently focused on the state meet.

The athlete whisperer

Ammon doesn’t balk at the chance to talk about the big picture, and where all the lessons she’s learned fit into it.

She plans to parlay her 4.11 career grade-point average into a career in physical therapy. Her 4.33 GPA in this school year’s first quarter – built on chemistry II at Sauk Valley Community College, advanced-placement U.S. history, pre-calc and honors French and English – makes her a prime candidate for the Fast Track program at St. Ambrose.

She says she and her family have searched coast-to-coast for the right school, but she’s pretty firm in what she’d like to do – use her brushes with spooky injuries to help other athletes take fear by the reins.

After all, her knees still buckle once in a blue moon, causing the diving board to flip up and scrape her legs, drawing blood that no longer fazes her.

“I just put it out of sight, out of mind,” Ammon said. “Otherwise, you’ll constantly have that fear, and it won’t let you achieve your goal.”

She’s sprained her neck, forcing her out of action for a month and a half when she was 10. And breaking her hand in six places saw her miss 2 months, including gymnastics nationals.

“After you’ve injured yourself, you’ve gotten that scare factor out of the way,” Ammon said. “You can come back and think, ‘OK, I know what I can do now.’ You can come back, already knowing what an injury will be like.”

With deepest empathy

It’s been a while since Berge walked on to the diving team at Illinois State. He admits it was jarring to suddenly be pooled with Division-I athletes.

But because of that, he can empathize with Ammon’s challenge, as the stakes are again raised this weekend.

And he knows she will succeed. Because the overriding theme is that all she has to be is the best Abigayle Ammon she can be. And that rising star can draw closer to perfection when the time is right.

“I like to think I’m pretty good at dealing with pressure individually, whether in sports or business – and it’s really something you learn first in sports,” Berge said. “So we talk about confidence and what we expect. We don’t expect her to finish first. But we expect her to do well, and do what she does.”

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