Most students who showed up to the first P.E. diving class this spring came for the standard reasons: to fulfill the gym requirement, to get that morning start, to try something new. My reasons were more private—I was generally uncomfortable in the pool and didn’t like heights.
Fortunately, the class appeared geared to combat the aqua-awkwardness in me and my peers head on. And after a few front fall-ins off the low-board and repeated encouragement from our coach, I began to feel the sweet relief that there was, in fact, nothing to be afraid of. A couple of tuck roll-offs later and I was king of the seas! But alas, my kingdom soon was crushed beneath the heels of a monstrous foe: the high dive.
I believe it was in part because of the high dive that I stood alone for much of my diving experience. While I’ve tried to be a friendly and talkative guy both in class seminars and in intermediate soccer, there was something about standing wet, cold, and half-naked without my glasses, coupled with the feeling of impending nausea as I anticipated the climb up that nine-foot ladder that kept me bottled up and anti-social. I very quickly used up all of my six allotted absences.
And so those early days of diving were fraught with almost constant discomfort, at least for a couple of us. Perhaps more so than the skills I picked up along the way, I’ll remember the chill of the wind tunnel through open locker room doors, the sound of a belly flop from a dive gone awry, and the sight of Uris Pool from exactly three meters high. But this sort of discomfort has always made up the highlights of my Columbia journey. The struggle to understand a new theorem, the stroll into a new environment, the awkward encounter—they have, and will continue to be, the greatest media for building skill and evaluating character.
For my classmates and me, diving both confirmed this tradition and taught us ways to confront this discomfort—first, by allowing us to pinpoint the specific things that evoke fear. One classmate illustrated it best: After cycling through the introductory front fall-ins with ease and landing a perfect, mechanically difficult, inward dive, he failed even to attempt a much simpler back fall-in. He learned that this failure stemmed from the fear of falling without being able to see his landing point. But executing other dives with eyes shut helped close the vision gap and allowed him to conquer this particular fear.
It was both the nature of the sport and design of the course that provided this education. Physical risk supplanted the more abstract, more easily avoided academic risk of the back rows of a lecture hall. The scarcity of diving boards and surplus of students in class led to long lines at the board, so that when you went for a dive, you made it count. Execution and follow-through were means of exhibiting talent in front of constantly judging peers. “Bad grades” were open information—if they didn’t see your dive, there was always the TiVo recording displayed in plain sight. Excellence was determined easily and mediocrity, even more so. The high board was the daily exam: a pure test of one’s physical and mental limitations.
P.E. this semester was an ideal forum for character development, with its daily technical instruction and constant demand for taking risk. It served the class by helping us expand our domains of comfort. For a senior like me, it was the experience that reminded me of my hopes from those early days on campus, the confirmation for what I felt was the purpose of attending Columbia: to stand suspended in the air and plunge into unfamiliar waters.
Jon Katiraei is a Columbia College senior majoring in Economics and Applied Mathematics.
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