Delaney Schnell‘s mom calls her younger daughter a perfectionist, which, in diving, is an essential trait. The label is not entirely rooted from the 21-year-old’s work ethic atop the 10-meter platform.
“My stories are more about crayons,” said Schnell’s mom, Cynthia.
When Schnell was 4 years old, Cynthia found her in a crying fit in her room beside a picture of Ronald McDonald she was to color in.
“She couldn’t find a specific yellow,” Cynthia said. “You know how there’s different color yellows? She wanted a specific color yellow for her Ronald McDonald picture. It took her like a half-hour to settle down because she couldn’t find that yellow.”
Sixteen years after that tyke meltdown, Schnell stood on a podium at the 2019 World Diving Championships. With a platform bronze, she became the first U.S. woman to earn a world championships medal in an individual Olympic-program diving event in 14 years.
Diving has been one of the core U.S. Summer Olympic sports, but the last American woman to earn an individual medal at the Games was Laura Wilkinson‘s stunning eighth-to-first comeback in 2000.
Schnell can end that drought next summer. If she does, it will come after a spring and summer in which she did not once mount what they call “the tower” in diving.
After college athletics facilities closed at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, swimmers found backyard pools, even lakes. Runners switched to grass fields, roads and hopping fences at the local high school track.
Most of the about 70 diving facilities with 10-meter platforms in the nation are university affiliated, including the only ones in Schnell’s native Arizona, according to USA Diving.
For Schnell, and other platform divers, the primary alternative was to train on 1- or 3-meter springboards in the area.
“What I’ve tried to convince her all along is while tower is a concrete base, the basic principles of diving typically do not change from springboard or tower,” said Dwight Dumais, her coach at the University of Arizona.
In late September, Schnell returned to her regular training location at the Hillenbrand Aquatic Center at Arizona, where she is a junior psychology major. It took another three weeks before she was ready to climb 32 feet up the stairwell to dive.
“Your body is not really acclimated anymore, and you have to, basically, work your way back in,” she said this week. “Ten-meter is a lot on your body. You can’t exactly just jump right into it.”
In a decade of diving, Schnell has never had trouble fighting the height-inducing fear of the 10-meter platform that mentally dogged other elites. She admitted to some nerves for the first dive back this month.
“But after getting it off, your body pretty much knows what to do,” she said. “I’ve been able to get all of my dives off and everything, so that’s pretty good news.”
Competitiveness is a trademark for Schnell, who started out as a gymnast. By age 10, she was talented enough to be invited to train for a week at the Karolyi ranch in Texas, which was years later shut down in 2018 after the Larry Nassar crimes.
Soon after returning from the ranch, Schnell wanted to quit gymnastics. She was burned out.
“For someone that’s 10 years old, that [gymnastics] was your life,” she said. “Ten-year-old me was like, I kind of want to be able to do other things.”
Her older sister, Reilly, was swimming at the time with an aquatics club. Schnell attended a practice, which led to an introduction to diving.
The first time she jumped off a five-meter platform, Schnell entered the water with her arms stretched out wide — poor form — smacking them on the surface. She vowed never to do it again. A few weeks later, she stepped back up there and realized she was better off the stationary platform than the bouncy springboard.
“It was just kind of a calling for me,” she said. “And also, as a gymnast, you’re used to doing everything yourself. Whereas the springboard helps you, you have to learn how to use the springboard. Gymnastics, it’s all you. It’s all how you pound off of the beams or the floors. So, a platform, it’s the same way.”
Schnell competed in her first Olympic Trials in 2016 at age 17, finishing sixth individually and second in the synchro event, missing the Rio team by one spot in the latter. She moved up to second individually at the 2017 World Championships Trials and placed 27th in her worlds debut in Budapest.
“Handling that pressure was a lot at that age,” she said. “I was going into my freshman year of college. It was pretty intimidating in front of all these amazing athletes. You’re like, wow, almost all of these people have been to the Olympics. I’m 18 years old, and this is the first time I’ve been here. It’s a little scary, yeah. Even still, it’s scary.”
In 2019, Dumais’ first season in Tucson, Schnell went from finishing fifth at the Pac-12 Championships in February to a bronze medal at the world championships in July.
“I was speechless,” said Dumais, who was with Schnell at worlds in Gwangju, South Korea. “It’s not because she couldn’t do it. It’s not that she didn’t have talent or potential to get on the podium at that particular juncture. It was, I had yet to see her put all of the pieces together.”
In particular, Schnell’s third of five dives in the final — the 207C, in diving jargon, or a back three-and-half somersault in the tuck position. It’s carries the highest degree of difficulty not only on Schnell’s list, but also for the dominant Chinese.
“Probably the hardest dive for women to hit consistently,” Dumais said. “You don’t even see half of the world do it. It’s just an unpredictable dive.”
Schnell ripped her entry in the biggest competition of her life, becoming the only non-Chinese diver to score more than 80 points on a single dive.
“I still remember coming up from under water and hearing the crowd going crazy,” she said. “I had no idea what happened because the adrenaline was so high. Did I really just hit that dive? I remember looking over at my coach, laughing almost.”
Schnell moved from sixth to third and ended up with bronze by four points overall, trailing only Chinese Chen Yuxi and Lu Wei. China won all 12 of the events it entered at worlds.
Schnell finished the season at the Pan American Games in August in Lima, Peru, then by hiking Machu Picchu. She redshirted the 2020 season in preparation for international invitational meets in the spring, followed by the Olympic Trials and the Tokyo Games.
But Schnell only competed in one of the prestigious World Series stops — in Montreal — before sports shut down. The University of Arizona aquatics center closed March 13. She wasn’t allowed back in until Sept. 14.
She didn’t do any dives off 10-meter platforms in the six months in between.
“I’ve always had other ways to train, but obviously platforms are not in the picture because there are only so many of those in the country, and it’s hard to find,” Schnell said, noting flipping and twisting in foam pits at a gymnastics center and diving off springboards at a Mesa high school pool. “I’ve just been using what I can.”
She’s targeting a domestic return to competition in December at a trials meet for the FINA World Cup in April at the Tokyo Olympic venue.
Schnell will fly from Arizona to Indiana, to train with her synchronized platform partner, Hoosiers freshman Tarrin Gilliland, for the first time since the start of the pandemic, and then to North Carolina for the meet, her first in more than nine months. Less than six months after that are the Olympic Trials, where the top two make the Olympic team individually.
“It’s important for me to not ignore the fact that this [break] is definitely a setback, but it doesn’t mean that it isn’t a setback that anybody cannot overcome,” Dumais said in September, while noting he didn’t know how much training time Schnell’s top international rivals from China missed. “Most of those individuals [in the U.S.] have been locked down for at least four months, maybe even five. So, it’s pretty much a fair fight.”
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