A little over a year ago, Abriella Werner hadn’t even started diving competitively. Last weekend, she broke a 17-year-old record score for six dives on a 1-meter board.
Sasha Porter set the Soldotna High School record for six dives in 2005 with a score of 223.9. Werner, a junior at SoHi, put 234.5 on the scoreboard at the SoHi Invitational Swim Meet on Saturday.
Though she only started diving in 2021, Werner had a considerable background of nine years of gymnastics at River City Gymnastics in Soldotna to draw from. She had to leave that sport behind following a surgery — the physical pounding on the mat was no longer sustainable. Fortunately, the water provided an avenue for her to continue with the skills she had developed.
“It was really disorienting going from always landing on your feet to needing to land on your head, but I think I picked it up pretty quickly,” Werner said.
Last season, Werner was able to progress rapidly. After being green on the board in August, she was the fourth-place finisher at the State Championships.
Now, Werner is diving year-round, traveling to dive camps out of state, and has seen the dive program at SoHi — which shut down and lost its coach during the COVID-19 pandemic — entirely revitalized.
In 2020, when the swim team was allowed back into the water with COVID-19 mitigations, diving remained off-limits. The dive teams at both Soldotna and Kenai quietly went away as their athletes went nearly two years out of the water.
In 2021, Soldotna’s team restarted with two divers, picking up a third later. This year, there are seven divers on the team, and practices are lively. There’s music playing, a camera continuously plays practiced dives, and the seniormost divers, Werner and teammate Derrick Jones, help to guide the new talent.
In a practice on Tuesday, the team was equally likely to cheer for a successful maneuver as a spectacular misstep.
Alongside claiming the SoHi team record on Saturday, Werner and Jones both claimed the girls and boys Seward High School facility records for six dives on a 1-meter board earlier this season. Seward is the only pool that tracks facility records in the region.
The biggest challenge facing the team, at this point, is the ongoing search for a permanent coach. Werner’s mother, Shonia Werner, stepped in as a volunteer coach a short while into last year’s season, a role she continues to hold. A coach needs to be on the pool deck for the team to practice, but Shonia said she cannot feasibly be a permanent solution.
In the meantime, Shonia said much of the credit to the success of Abriella, Jones and the team is on them. She’s thrown herself into it, becoming “a student of the sport,” but says the kids do a lot of great peer coaching. She said they’re watching one another, seeking out resources, and hungrily looking to get better.
A strong Alaska diving community exists, Shonia said, and the coaches from other teams, especially Kenai, Kodiak and Wasilla have been valuable resources and helped Soldotna’s divers develop.
In addition to the high school dive team, a new diving club was established earlier this year — Stellar Diving — to make sure the athletes are able to continue working year-round, for at least a couple of hours a week.
“Diving is not something you can only do three months a year and get better at,” Shonia said. “Like any sport, if you want to be good at it, you need to practice throughout the year.”
Making the run for the record is something Abriella said was always somewhere in the back of her mind.
“We weren’t really thinking about it last year, but when we started the dive club I was looking at that (record board) and thinking, ‘you know, I’m getting better’.”
At her first meet of this season, Abriella said her score was close to her personal best, but she was diving with lower degrees of difficulty. Successful dives at higher difficulty earn significantly more points.
She knew the SoHi Invite was her last chance this year to hit the six-dive record; the championship meets later in the season are 11-dive meets instead of six.
Abriella said after finishing her second-to-last dive on Saturday, she saw she was close on the scoreboard. Her final dive, the inward one and a half tuck, is pretty consistent, and she knew it was possible.
“I just hit it,” Abriella said. “I got out of the water, looked at the score flash, and just everybody started cheering. It was so amazing, even my competition, they were super happy for me.”
With her whole senior year of diving ahead of her, Abriella said she has no plans to stop pushing.
“That record has got to get used to being changed,” she said. Next year, she’s looking at the 11-dive record, also held since 2005 by Porter.
Before that, Abriella said she and Jones are striving to make it on the podium at the State Championships in November. The three divers who bested Abriella at state last year were juniors then, now seniors.
Last year’s state champion is from Fairbanks, so Abriella hasn’t had the opportunity to see what her competitor is working on. Despite that, she’s confident and looking for a strong showing.
The next appearance of Soldotna High School divers will be this weekend in Palmer for the Palmer Invitational Swim Meet. Region III Championships will also be in Palmer, Oct. 28-29. State Championships will be at Bartlett High School in Anchorage, Nov. 4-5.
Stellar Diving practices will start for middle and high school divers sometime following the end of Soldotna High School Diving’s season in early November. Shonia said she’s working on getting a Facebook page running for people to get more information.
Reach reporter Jake Dye at [email protected].