Ironically, the high school student-athlete who made one of the biggest splashes in the California high school sports scene is a young lady who dominates her sport by making consistently small splashes. Immaculate Heart senior Olivia Rosendahl’s mastery of diving has earned her a national number one ranking in her age group, a scholarship to Northwestern next season and, most recently, a championship in the CIF’s inaugural state diving contest. Rosendahl has also represented the United States at the 2014 World FINA Junior Championships in Russia as well as the 2014 Pan American Olympic Festival in Mexico.
The very busy recent high school graduate (who also earned academic honors as an Immaculate Heart Scholar Athlete, a designation awarded to students with a GPA of 3.5 or higher) is currently training for this summer’s World University Games in Korea and, further into the horizon, the 2016 USA Olympic Trials in Indianapolis. In her quest to achieve her ultimate dream of winning Olympic gold, Rosendahl will surely face high stakes and immense competition. But, as Rosendahl told me in our discussion at a Starbucks just outside her practice facility on USC’s campus, diving is all about having fun. Here are the highlights of my conversation with California’s first-ever womens state diving champ:
Let’s start at the beginning. Most young girls will say “I want to play basketball, or soccer, or softball.” Your heart said “I want to dive.” Why?When I was little, I took swimming lessons at the Rose Bowl. And at the end of each lesson the swim instructors would let us go jump off the diving board. They’d say “just one jump. Just for fun.” And I did a dive or a flip or something, and a diving coach came up to me and said “You have to be a diver.” And then I started diving.
So it was love at first dive?It really was.
As you learned how to dive, what were the biggest obstacles you faced?You have to get over the fear of it. I used to be afraid of the platform, because it’s really high, and you can hurt yourself. I’ve had a friend who punctured her lung. Another friend broke her wrist just by diving in. So you can really hurt yourself. And you just have to kind of cope with that. Not necessarily lose [your awareness of the danger], because then you might hurt yourself even more, but you have to just cope with it and push through it. And doing that has made me a better diver. I really love it. It’s one of my favorite things to do. So that transition has been surprising. And I’m excited to develop my platform skills more in the future.
Tell us about your parents. What do they do, and how have they encouraged you as you’ve pursued the sport?My dad is mostly a stay-at-home dad, and he does business on his computer, so he works out of the home. He’s really supportive [of me] and he used to drive us [Olivia and her sister, freshman teammate Brigid Rosendahl] before I could drive. He takes us to the competitions, and he’s always been so supportive. My mom has to work a lot. She’s a radiologist. But she’s really supportive also, and they’ve really helped me continue loving the sport, even when it gets hard.
The athletic director at Immaculate Heart, Maureen Rodriguez, was also your coach for high school competition. Tell us about your relationship with her and how it’s evolved over the past four years.She’s really great. She’s just so excited about diving. My school didn’t always have diving. I think they started it six years ago, so it’s relatively new, and she’s really gotten into it. And she really likes it because there’s only three of us on the diving team, and we have a lot of fun in competitions. She comes with me to every one. She went with me four hours to States [in Clovis, California]. She drove all the way up to watch me dive. She’s just really supportive and encouraging, and it’s great to have her as the athletic director, that person who’s there for you.
Your two teammates are your sister and Immaculate Heart junior Anora Denison, both of whom had a really nice showing at the Division 3 State Championships in Riverside [5th and 3rd place respectively]. Tell us about your relationship with them. How have you pushed each other as you’ve gone along?I’ve known Anora since she was four [years old]. We used to dive at the same club, so it’s really amazing to watch her develop as a diver. And also my little sister; they’ve both come so far, and it’s really strange to remember how they were when they were really little, and then watch them now that they are older and doing such difficult dives.
As you graduate and leave the program in their hands, what’s the best advice you have for them?Just keep having fun with it and don’t let things scare you. I mean, you just have to have fun with it. A lot of people are really intense about it, but I think it’s more about having fun with it, or else why do it?
At the CIF Finals last month, you put up 517 points, and no one else in the competition eclipsed 500. So that’s a pretty big blowout. What is your mindset like when you’re facing the best divers that the state has to offer, and yet your greatest competition is you?If you go into a competition and you know you’re the best, it can make you mess up sometimes, because you get caught thinking “I don’t need to try.” But you do. It’s still a competition, and there are a lot of good divers in California. It’s one of the hardest regions in the United States. So I think that, even if you think you’re really good, there’s still so much competition and you can still mess up. You just have to keep going for it.
What went through your mind when you hit the water on your last dive at States and knew that, as soon as you came above the surface, there’d be a medal with your name on it for being the first-ever state diving competition?I was really excited. It was really exciting to be part of the inaugural state competition because it means you’ll go down in history as the first ever champion of the state competition.
When you’re about to execute a dive, do you visualize the dive before you jump off the board? Or if not, what goes through your mind?I don’t do that [visualize the dive beforehand]. A lot of people do, but I don’t think. I just go. It’s muscle memory, so thinking about it can throw you off, in my opinion. It’s different for every person. For me, it’s just about having fun and going for it. A lot of people are really focused and really intense. One time, I dove against this girl who would bang her hands against her forehead and talk herself on the board [before she dove], and I don’t know if that’s helpful. When I think about my dive, I mess up. It’s better just to think “you can do it. You’ve done it in practice.”
What’s your favorite type of dive? And why?I like reverses, when you go forwards on the board, and then you go backwards towards the board when you jump off. It was my first dive on the ten meter, and I’ve gotten much more consistent with them on the three meter. They’re my go-to dive, and I really like them.
There were obviously several schools that wanted you for next year, and you chose Northwestern, halfway across the country. What was the deciding factor for you?|I’ve been here [in California] for almost eleven years. I’ve been with my coach [Hongping Li] for a long time. I love him a lot, but I just need to experience something new. And I think it’s important to get different coach’s insights. I think it’s very influential on your diving. My coach now is from China, and he has very different technique ideas than my new coach [Northwestern diving coach Alik Sarkisian], who’s from Russia. And American coaches have different ideas as well, so it’s helpful I think. Alik’s mindset is “play around and have fun. Diving is what you love to do so keep having fun and go for it.” I think it’ll be good for me to experience that next year.
Give me a preview of this Northwestern squad you’re about to join. What are your expectations? And how will you measure success?The team is not big [in terms of roster size] right now. I think that I can help bring other divers and help the team grow.
So the chance to get in on the ground floor, so to speak, of something that could become big was appealing to you?I think so. And also, my other top choice was Stanford, and they have a lot of divers right now. It’s a huge team. I think that it’s harder to interact with your coach when there’s 15 people on the team. Next year, we’re going to have nine.
Almost everyone dreams, at some point or another, of winning a gold medal at the Olympics, but that dream is a reality for only a very small percentage of those people. With the Olympic trials coming up next year in Indianapolis, you’re included in that exclusive minority. What is that like, to be such a huge step closer to such a grand dream that so many people have?It’s really exciting for me, and also I feel like I can influence a lot of other younger divers to have fun with diving, and show them that you can have fun and still do well. That’s the most important thing to me.
What is your training regimen now? And will you adjust it at all as you prepare for the Olympic trials?Right now, I practice six days a week for two and a half hours every day. Next year, I’ll have six days a week, and I’ll also have weight training specified for divers. So it’s not like body building. It’s more geared toward refining muscles to help our diving. My training isn’t going to change that much for the Olympic trials, because when you’re training for diving, you’re doing what you need to do. You don’t need to train more for a competition. You just need to do what you always do. One of my coaches used to say ‘when you get to a competition, there’s nothing more you can do. You’re going to dive how you usually do the dive, and there’s nothing you can do about it. There’s no way to change it when you’re at the competition.”
You’re graduating from Immaculate Heart, a Catholic high school, plus you and your family members are all parishioners at St. Charles Borromeo in North Hollywood. How has your Catholic education and faith influenced your approach to diving?Being a Catholic is like being in a family. Especially at my school and in my Church. And it’s the same way with diving. A lot of the time, we’ll go to competitions and have a prayer before we dive. We’ll all be holding hands and someone will give a prayer. It’s really nice, and we all share that. We’re all supportive of each other. The competition isn’t as fierce in high school. It’s more of a communal, exciting event.
When diving someday comes to an end, what are your dreams?OR: This is a reach, but I would love to be on Broadway [when Olivia was in elementary school, she played the roles of Annie and Laurey in local children’s theatre productions of Annie and Oklahoma]. I’d love to do something with French [she and her sister took French classes as children] or Math. I don’t know for sure. I’m undecided going into college. I have a lot of interests, so we’ll see where it goes.