A lot of things run through your mind when you stand at the edge of a 10-meter diving platform and look down.
Your sanity, for example. How you’re a lot closer to the ceiling than the glinting blue postage stamp of water far below. How fast you’ll be traveling when your body smacks the surface of that pool (35 mph, I’m told). And how, if it wasn’t for your deceased father’s best friend, you wouldn’t be preparing to step into the great abyss.
But here I stand, thanks to Maurice Anderson, 72, with whom my dad, when he was alive, shared years of fishing, bicycling and home improvement adventures.
A few months back, he sent me a link to a video that appeared on the New York Times website. The video showed, in a psychological experiment sort of way, a series of people climbing to the top of a 10-meter tower, alone or in pairs, and then jumping off. Or not. Some chickened out and backed their way down the ladder. (Watch it at nyti.ms/2pCKxLj.)
“I’ve never jumped from the 10-meter platform,” Anderson wrote. “Always wanted to and just saw this video. I think it would be quite a rush.”
Within an hour, it was settled. We’d jump off the platform at the Lee and Joe Jamail Texas Swimming Center at the University of Texas, and I’d solicit a few readers to join us. I’ve declared 2017 my Year of Adventure, and this was a perfect fit.
Then I woke up in the dead of night a few days later, freaking out about what I’d agreed to do. Ten meters, after all, is a long way. That’s three stories high — like jumping off the Congress Avenue Bridge.
Still, on a mild day in March, I met Anderson at the swim center.
“I watched that video and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s the excitement I relish in my life,’” Anderson told me while we waited for the three readers who volunteered to join us to arrive. “That rush, the anticipation of doing something a little nutty, surviving it, laughing about it and being fully alive with it.”
I love adventure. That’s why I’d come, too — to do something that made me uncomfortable, and to share that experience with someone who’d spent countless hours over the last two years talking me through the grief I felt at my dad’s loss.
Also on board for the jump? Mia Zmud, who is in the midst of a lifestyle change and has lost 40 pounds; eight-time Ironman finisher Michael Doherty; and Tzatzil LeMair, founder of Tough Cookies Don’t Crumble, a local triathlon training group.
First things first. We meet Jim Zagaria and Dwight Dumais, co-head diving coaches for Longhorn Aquatics. They’re here to give us a safety briefing, and to help us progress up a series of platforms of various heights, starting with a quarter-meter and culminating with that scary-looking 10-meter.
“It’s not like it’s, ‘Here’s the 10-meters, go with God,’” Zagaria says. We all chuckle. Nervously.
For best results, the coaches tell us, we should point our feet a little bit and enter the water as vertically as possible, like a soldier at attention.
Then we meet six-time national junior champion Maria Coburn, 15, and 70-year-old Nate Holt, a former Texas Tech University diver who has since won numerous world championships in his age group. Holt, after telling us how long it takes a chamois to float all the way to the ground from the top of the tower (a long time), advises us to keep our bodies as tight as possible as we take the plunge.
“Bad things can happen if you hit like a wet noodle,” Holt says. “You want to land like a railroad spike.” He goes on. “The 5-meter will give you a spanking, but the 10-meter will put you in the hospital.”
With that, we strip to our swimsuits and march solemnly to the top of the 10-meter platform. From this bird’s-eye view 33 feet above the water, my eye is drawn to the black line on the bottom of the 17-foot pool. That’s a 50-foot spread — plus the more than 5 feet from the platform to my eye level.
We file back down and leap, one by one, into the diving well, where the coaches want us to experience the bubble machine. During competition, a machine releases tiny bubbles just to make sure the divers can see the surface of the water. But during training, coaches can crank up huge volcanoes of bubbles, designed to break the blow of entry and help pop divers to the surface. We’re swept to the far corners of the diving pit, sputtering and laughing.
Then it’s go time. We start on the quarter-meter platform. No challenge. The coaches tell us to jump up slightly, so both feet leave the platform at the same time. The 3-meter and 5-meter jumps aren’t bad, either.
But when we file up to the 7-meter platform, my stomach lurches. This is high, and I’m afraid of heights. While backpacking the High Sierra Trail, I once belly-crawled a quarter-mile, I was so unnerved by the sheer drop-off on the side.
The height doesn’t bother Holt and Coburn, who demonstrate some elaborate dives, twisting and flipping, even going off the platform backward. I’ll be happy just to do a pin drop.
When it’s my turn, I gird my loins, look straight forward and hop off. It takes a long time to hit the water, but everything seems intact when I land. The others file off, but LeMair hesitates. The coaches help her work through her nervousness. When she makes her jump, she lands awkwardly and swims to the edge of the pool to catch her breath.
By now, Anderson, Zmud and Doherty have hiked to the top of the 10-meter platform. Before I can get up there, Anderson sails through the stratosphere. He hits with perfect pin-drop form. Zmud and Doherty follow.
I’m shaking when I get to the top. I know not to look down; that’ll stop me in my tracks. I walk forward, looking across the room. I wait for the bubble machine to fire up, ask the coaches if they’re ready, and go. The ground drops away and I’m falling through the air like a jumper whose parachute didn’t open. One arm flaps momentarily. I tilt a little too far back, then I hit.
Ouch. My tailbone takes the brunt of the blow. But it’s over, and I’m happy. Anderson meets me at the edge of the pool. He’s smiling. “Your dad would be so happy,” he tells me.
He would. He always loved my sense of adventure. He’d especially have loved seeing Anderson and I share this experience.
The only one who hasn’t jumped yet is LeMair. Honestly, I’m doubtful she’ll do it. She’s still burning from her awkward landing off the 7-meter. But as we gaze up at the platform, we see Dumais walk her through it. She jumps and makes a perfect entry. It’s the perfect cap to an adrenaline-fueled day.
The aftermath? I won’t lie. My tailbone hurts for a week.
“I feel like I was kicked by a mule,” Doherty writes me later. “My butt is very sore and has dark bruises that have been spreading. It was still a great experience that I’ll treasure.”
Zmud tells me she bruised her thighs but doesn’t remember the actual jump. “I do recall my heart pounding and elevating a bit more each time we climbed to another height,” she says. “It’s finally settling in with disbelief I actually did it! The dive coaches were fantastic — their calm voices and our mutual support helped.”
LeMair can’t believe she did it, insisting she only jumped because the others made it look so easy. But she found her resolve, and I’m so proud of her. “I thought, ‘I can’t be the one who sits here and doesn’t jump,’” she says.
Anderson tells me he went home and FaceTimed with his 79-year-old brother, who insisted on the full, unedited story. “Even at my age, I still relish his pride and enjoyment in my accomplishments, since I never ever got that from my father,” he says.
He says he feels like he’s taken a magic adrenaline/endorphin/oxytocin pill, and wonders where the rest are hidden.
I know what he means.
I know something else — it’s time to plan a new adventure.
Pam LeBlanc, inspired by her experience backpacking the John Muir Trail last summer, has declared 2017 her Year of Adventure. So far, she’s gone dog sledding, snow biking and downhill skiing. She’s swum a naked mile under cloak of darkness at Barton Springs Pool, climbed to the top of Emory Peak at Big Bend National Park, hammock camped in the Davis Mountains and pitched a tent for a solo night in the desert. She’s chronicling her adventures along the way. Search hashtag #YearOfAdventure.