Diving in head first

Two Blugold divers head to national meet in Texas


Photo by Anna Mateffy

Story by Kristina Bornholtz, Managing Editor

On Friday of the Region One diving meet, the fates of two top Blugold competitors were up in the air. Less than 24 hours later, the women were embracing each other poolside in excitement – their fates were decided, and they were going to nationals.

Sara Axness, senior, and Amanda Baker, junior, head to Shenandoah, Texas, on Monday to compete against the best Division III divers from around the country. Ultimately, the pair will be going up against each other for top honors at the meet, though they feel that as teammates, they are in it together.

“It’s kind of an honor (to compete with Sara),” Baker said. “It will be like normal, just like we’re teammates. We’re not direct competitors. She’s my teammate who pushes me to be better.”

Baker and Axness have been competing against each other since high school, both in diving and gymnastics. Baker, from Hudson, and Axness, from Eau Claire, encountered each other at meets throughout the years before finally joining forces on the Eau Claire swim team when Axness transferred from University of Minnesota in fall 2013.

While Baker said Axness’ presence on the team has pushed her to do better, Axness said she is among Baker’s biggest fans.

“My main concern (at regionals) was Amanda,” Axness said. “She has been so close for the last two years and I know how much it meant to her. But she was honestly the most inspiring person that weekend. She went in there and dove like none other, and I’ve never seen anyone come back from something like that.”

Head coach Annie Ryder is in her first season at UW-Eau Claire. During the eight months of the swim and dive season, Ryder said she knew the women could make it to nationals, but they had to ride out the season and see where it took them.

“We’re really just going for them, to see what they can do and how they can place against the best swimming and diving teams in the country,” Ryder said.

Axness and Baker will be joined by swimmer Allie Hable, junior, who attended nationals last year. Though they don’t often get to share pool time during practice, the women have formed a bond as teammates that will carry them to Texas, where they will compete as individuals representing UW-Eau Claire.

Hable said Axness and Baker were essential to keeping the overall team score afloat throughout the season.

“They usually get top three, or the very least top five,” Hable said. “They are a big source of points. The entire team is really excited for them.”

While at meets throughout the regular season, the scores divers pull are added to the swimming scores to create an overall team score. However, with only three competitors, Eau Claire will not have a large enough squad to compete for team points.

The competition is officially underway on Wednesday, but Axness, Baker, Hable and Ryder will arrive in Shenandoah on Monday for opening ceremonies. First, they will have time to settle in to their hotel, opportunities to get on the diving boards and spend time with other competitors at a banquet.

Axness, who went to  nationals last year, said one of the best parts of the meet is connecting with other divers from the far reaches of the country.

“I’ve made friends with divers from places that I haven’t even heard of before,” she said. “For me, being able to go down and say, I go to UW-Eau Claire, it makes me really proud.”

Axness and Baker agree that attending nationals as a duo will help ease the tensions they may face if they were to go alone. From her previous experience, Axness said the weeks leading up to nationals can be excruciating, physically and mentally, and she hopes having her friend by her side will make things easier.

This meet is especially important to Axness and Baker because it will likely be their last. Axness will graduate in the fall and hopes to move on to coaching divers at the high school level. The physical stress of diving has taken its toll on Baker’s ankles, causing her to consider if her junior season will be her last.

“I kind of want to walk when I’m 30,” Baker said.

With the future up in the air for Baker, and with Axness’s career coming to a close, next week will be an opportunity to show the country their true potential. Both agree: the key to success is to have fun.

“The best diving I do is when I’m just having fun,” Baker said.