For Jennifer Betz, there were times when making her approach to the end of the diving board felt like she was being forced to walk the plank. Hobbled by intermittent injury and the accompanying self-doubt, she wondered whether this diving thing was really meant to be. There was the high school injury to her shoulder that still doesn’t seem quite right, then a stress fracture of a vertebra in her lower back, a nasty blow to her kneecap, even chronic shin splints. At one point, she seemed to be spending more time out of the water than diving into it, missing much of her first and junior years at Rutgers. She considers it a small miracle that her diving coach, Fred Woodruff, stuck by her, encouraging Betz when many a coach would have politely said it’s over.
But during her senior year, free of aches and pains, and her self-confidence soaring, Betz ENG’11 was a force as the lead diver on the Scarlet Knights women’s swimming and diving team under the leadership of new head coach Phil Spiniello. In one competition after another, Betz nailed dives from her preferred perches, the one- and three-meter springboards, each requiring five distinct dives that would challenge a circus contortionist. In December, Betz won the one-meter competition at the Princeton University Big Al Open, a venue for universities with top programs. She was the winner again, in January, when she took the three-meter event at the Rutgers Invitational. And at the Big East Championship held in Louisville, Kentucky, in February, Betz landed the bronze medal in the three-meter event. March saw her finishing second in the three-meter event at the Zone A Diving Championship before coming up short at the NCAA Division I Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships. Her run of success had been a long time coming.
“I used to love competing, saving my best dives for meets,” says Betz, who garnered perennial statewide recognition during her high school diving career at Council Rock High School North and for the Liberty Diving swim club while growing up in Ivyland, Pennsylvania. “But with all my injuries and being out, I wasn’t sure of myself. That all came back this year.”
Her aerial elegance, seemingly defying the laws of physics, belies a demanding workout regimen. For Betz to arrive at an approximation of perfection for any of the 12 dives required on the two diving boards during competitions, she practiced six days a week, twice a day. The exercises alone to strengthen her abdominal muscles, critically important in executing the somersaults and twists and other airborne pyrotechnics, would humble a marine. But, it’s mental toughness that trumps all considerations.
“Diving is a very mental sport,” says Betz, a biomedical engineering major who began diving as an 8-year-old, when she was a gymnast. “Some dives had caused me problems because of mental blocks. I once hit the board doing an inward dive, and that made me crazy for a while. For me, it was a matter of doing repetitions and going in the water, no matter how I felt, in order to get my confidence back.”
This year, Betz was a picture of self-possession. Time and again as she mounted the steps to the board, all eyes on her, especially those of discerning judges awaiting her dive, Betz exuded a preternatural calm. Pausing to quiet her mind and take stock of the dive’s requirements, she was, she says, immune to distractions for the first time in a long time. No more racing heart, no more shaking legs, no more second-guessing. She heard only her soothing voice speaking: “Okay? One. Two. Three.” And then Betz would take three purposeful strides to the end of the board before catapulting herself out high over the water. By the time she had broken the surface with nary a splash, she may have done a reverse dive with two and a half flips in a tucked position, requiring her to go off the board forward, then abruptly reverse direction and flip backward to enter the water. Or maybe it was one of those dives demanding multiple somersaults while executing multiple twists, as if she were some kind of human top. “I really like back twisters,” she says, smiling.
Betz got lots of satisfaction as well from being a cocaptain of the team, appointed by Coach Spiniello. “It was really an honor,” particularly, she says, because the morale of the team was so strong. “This program has been great, and it has done amazing things for me. To be a captain was awesome.”
Now, her four years at Rutgers have come to a close, something that she knew to be inevitable but seemed so far in the distance when she arrived in the fall of 2007. It’s an emotional realization for Betz because her diving career—a huge part of her life for the past 15 years and the reason she came to Rutgers where she has had so much fun—is ending, too, as she considers enrolling in medical school.
“I had been so frustrated with how things had gone the past couple of years,” says Betz. “To have this last year turn out the way it did, and to leave the sport the way I have, gives me a sense of closure to my career. I have been so lucky.”