Divers cling to the sheer cliffs high above the Pacfic Ocean, waiting to jump. Some take the plunge alone while others go in synchronized groups. They time their leaps so incoming waves cushion them from the gulch’s jagged rocks. Tourists from around the world come to La Quebrada in Acapulco, Mexico, to watch them take the near thirty-five meter plunge into the shallow waters below. The location is a favorite among professional high divers. When Cassie Weil was 10, she joined them.
Weil, a young diver from Hillsboro, Oregon, knew she wanted to dive at La Quebrada. Her family was visiting Acapulco at the time on a Pacific cruise.
“If it was now, I wouldn’t do it,” Cassie, now 18, says. “But of course when I’m younger, I’m more persuaded by my parents. They’re like ‘Oh, go do it!’”
Cassie loved water ever since she was a child. Her father, Jay Weil, would take her into the water and throw her high into the air whenever the family went swimming. She’d come crashing into the water, laughing with glee, before dog-paddling back to him and yelling, “Daddy, do it again!” Cassie’s parents were confident in their daughter’s abilities, so when they visited La Quebrada, they encouraged her to ask the cliff divers if she could join.
The divers warned her about the rocks below and cautioned her to kick out far enough to avoid them. One man advised she time her jump with the incoming waves to buffer her landing. After about twenty minutes of instructions, she took a deep breath and hurled her tiny frame over the edge—no flips or complicated tucks, nothing fancy. Cassie’s jump was just a measured dive followed by a soft splash into the ocean below.
“They only let me go off a smaller [cliff], of course, because I was pretty little,” Cassie says. “It was kind of scary in the water. I was like, ‘I’m not going to be able to get out by myself.’ But [the divers] helped me.”
Eight years later, she’s standing atop a ten-meter diving tower adorned with an American flag as a member of the Tualatin Hills Dive Club, a nationally competitive springboard and platform diving team. Cassie carefully takes her position at the edge of the platform and lifts herself into a handstand.
Her body is rigid. Her legs reach to the ceiling. She stares at the wall, her face devoid of fear or anticipation. Her legs begin to fall toward the edge of the platform and she gracefully plunges into the water below.
Cassie practices here six days a week—two-and-a-half hours each day after school and three on Saturday. During the summer, the team practices Monday through Friday twice a day. She’s competed in meets across the country, building a name for herself in the diving world. She’s ranked first in the nation on the three-meter springboard for her age group. Along the way she’s accumulated boxes of medals.
“I like the feeling of flipping through the air,” Cassie says. “It’s kind of an adrenaline rush too. Scare yourself every day; test your brain and mental strength.”
More impressive is the fact that Cassie will compete in the Olympic diving trials in June. She qualified for the three-meter springboard and the ten-meter platform events. She doesn’t think she’ll place particularly high, but it’s an accomplishment nonetheless. She sees the trials as a learning experience. Four years from now, when the next round of trials is held, Cassie will finish her college diving career. Then she’ll be ready to compete against the best athletes in the country.
“It’s really nerve-wracking,” Cassie says. “I never expected to get there. This time around it’s more of an experience thing. I’m hoping to dive my best and achieve my diving goals.”
Cassie is currently a senior at Jesuit High School in Hillsboro, Oregon. Because of college recruiting rules, university coaches were not allowed to talk with Cassie until July 1, 2011.
On July 2, Doug Shaffer, head coach for the Louisiana State University diving team, was eating dinner with the Weil family in their home. Cassie was his number one pick that year. But Shaffer wasn’t the only one interested in Cassie’s diving ability. Coaches from across the county contacted the Weils during that summer. Cassie visited various universities to get a feel for the campuses and to meet the teams. The recruiting process took months.
In the end, Cassie decided to attend LSU when she graduates.
“The LSU coach came to our house and he was really persistent on getting me as a diver,” Cassie says. “When I went on my recruiting visit, I realized I really liked the team and the coach, the school, and the weather.”
Cassie’s parents have supported their daughter’s diving since day one. Jay was president of the dive club at Tualatin Hills for a number of years and Karen Weil, Cassie’s mother, took on fundraising to help with costs. Diving is not a cheap sport. Meets happen throughout the country, so competitors often have to drive or fly long distances to attend.
Diving has not always been easy for Cassie; sometimes her learning plateaus. There were times when she thought about quitting. When she was first learning on the platform, she couldn’t bring herself to jump. She was afraid. She had been doing the prep work on the technique—a ‘front three-and-a-half’—for two years, so she knew she should have been able to pull it off.
She still couldn’t jump.
“My coach would have me go up every practice and I wouldn’t do it,” Cassie says. “Then I’d cry. It was awful. I was like, ‘There’s no way I can ever learn anything up here.’ I never thought I could, and I almost gave up. Mentally I was just fried.”
Karen feared Cassie might quit. She knew her daughter had talent and didn’t want her to give up on something she loved. Karen called John Eisler, Cassie’s former head coach at the Tualatin Dive Club, to seek advice. He suggested they practice some of the easier dives and give the platform a rest for a few weeks.
Eisler says some parents can be too tough on their children, adding unnecessary pressure. Cassie’s parents would instead seek advice on how to best support her. When she occasionally performed poorly at meets, they would be there for her without focusing on her mistakes.
“Because of her family, Cassie is able to approach each competition knowing that she is loved,” Eisler says. “In a sport like diving, that goes a long way.”
Cassie decided to take it easy for a while instead of giving up the sport.
“It’s all mental game,” she says. “One day I went up and did it. That was like the wall breaker. After that things went smoother.”
She’s currently struggling to learn a few new techniques for the Olympic trials. Competitive divers like Cassie create dive lists. These are the dives athletes will attempt during a meet. Difficult dives award more points than simple ones. For this reason, divers are always pushing themselves to master complicated flips, twists, and tucks. Learning these techniques takes time and patience. The goal is to learn it through muscle memory. Cassie practices each dive hundreds of times before utilizing it in a competition.
“It’s a challenging sport,” Jay says. “There’s a lot of hurdles, a lot of fear, a lot of things to conquer. To progress you don’t just go on a straight line. You’re down, up, down, up. There were times she’d come home in tears.”
Diving is a mental game to Cassie. She feels more pressure going to big meets but blocks everything out when she’s there. Even though she’s practiced her dives hundreds of times, Cassie must still convince herself to jump.
“Pretty much once you’re in the air and you’re doing the dive, it’s fine and you know what you’re doing and it’s not bad,” Cassie says. “But when you’re standing at the edge of the board, you’re just like, ‘Why do I do this?’ It’s all about forcing yourself to go.”
Diving has had an impact on Cassie’s life in other ways. She maintains a busy practice and meet schedule along with juggling school and her social life. When she was younger it was hard to find a balance between diving, academics, and time with friends—Cassie’s parents didn’t want diving to interfere with other important aspects of her life.
“It’s a sport that needs to come from her, within her,” Jay says. “She was so committed and motivated to the sport that early on, she wanted to dive five days a week.”
Even with her busy schedule, Cassie is doing well in school. Although she’s still undecided, Cassie talks of studying pre-med at LSU. She remarks that early on it was hard to balance school and her training. She was allowed to occasionally skip practice if it posed problems to her schoolwork.
According to Cassie, her social life is what’s suffered the most. She wouldn’t be able to hang out with friends because she had to practice or attend meets. While it took some time for her to adjust, she says balancing school and her social life with diving is no longer an issue. The friends she has are understanding and, like Cassie, have adapted to her busy schedule.
It helps that her best friend and number one fan is her twin sister, Hannah. The two support each others’ passions: diving for Cassie and soccer for Hannah. Cassie has received a lot of attention for her diving but says jealousy has never been an issue for the pair.
“I have never heard her once complain about it,” Cassie says. “Not one negative thing about it. I don’t know how I’d be if it was the opposite. I’d get a lot more jealous, I feel.”
Hannah goes out of her way to encourage Cassie. She believes her sister’s commitment to diving is what makes her so good. Hannah says she even has to do the bragging because Cassie is too humble.
“Sometimes I’ll go support her at the pool, to show her that I’m there for her,” Hannah says. “It just brings her comfort and confidence.”
With the Olympic trials approaching, Cassie is feeling the pressure build. Her progress has plateaued as she’s struggled to master two dives. The first is a back two-and-a-half pike, where the diver starts the process with her back to the pool and completes two and a half flips—entering the water head first—while folded at the waist and holding her legs against her body. The second dive she is working on is a back one-and-a-half with three-and-a-half twists, where once again the diver faces away from the pool and completes one-and-a-half flips while rotating along another axis three-and-a-half times before entering the water head first. In other words, it’s difficult material.
Ultimately, training for the Olympics has helped Cassie realize that while she won’t always want to dive professionally, the sport will remain a big part of her life.
“I want to dive for a long time,” she says. “After college I’m pretty sure I’m just going to stick to the easy basic diving. Just lay low and have fun with it.”
For now though, she’ll spend Monday through Friday ten meters in the air, her back to the pool below. She’ll step off the platform and it’ll all be worth it.