When practice pays off

Sunnybrook diving team named association’s 2023 champs

Special to The Sun: Fourteen teams across South Jersey were split into divisions to compete in the SJDA championships. Each competitor must hit a certain score to qualify for championships, which 40 Sunnybrook divers did.

The Sunnybrook Diving Team won the SJDA (South Jersey Diving Association) 2023 diving championships for the second consecutive year, after growing its numbers from 11 kids to almost 70.

“The kids have to get up on a diving board and then be judged by five strangers who basically tell them whether their dives are good or bad,” said coach Mike Christie. “So it’s a huge sport to help build confidence for these young kids to be able to get up there and do that.”

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Sunnybrook’s head diving coach since 2017, Christie has seen the team grow from 11 kids to almost 70. He circled back to the confidence factor of the sport.

“It’s a lot harder than team-based sports, because you fall and you rise basically with the performance of your team,” he explained. “But when it comes to diving, it’s 100% on you. You have judges judging you, you have the whole pool watching you, so just the confidence that these kids get out of that is kind of what I find is the best part about diving.”

Fourteen local teams split into northern, central and southern divisions competed in this year’s SJDA championships. Sunnybrook competed in qualifying meets in the beginning of the season with its northern division, but the championship included all 14 teams.

Each diver must hit a certain score to qualify for championships, and 40 Sunnybrook divers accomplished that. Lilly Whitaker has been on the team for three years, and this season, she broke the SJDA Junior Olympic record and placed first for the 12-13 age category.

“I started doing my club dive team for year-round dive, and that helped me improve a lot,” she noted. “I just practice really hard, and practice pays off.”

One of Whitaker’s favorite times with Sunnybrook is the end-of-season party where divers receive awards. She also appreciates how the coaches show their gratitude for every teammate.

“The coaches know almost everything about you, like how good you are, and that bond is really special to me,” she observed. “Those awards really mean a lot.”

Vivianna Kaeser also broke the SJDA Junior Olympic record and placed second in the 12-13 age category. Last season she broke the same record in the 10-11 age category, and won the South Jersey 1-meter Dive Competition. She looks forward to seeing her teammates and coaches soon, people she describes as kind and talented.

“The coaches are really, really kind and really helpful,” she pointed out. “They understand if you’re struggling, and they will help you overcome your fears …  The kids in general are really good, so I can’t wait to see them next season.”

Moorestown High School alumna Kelly Hall, assistant coach for Sunnybrook, helps write and organize paperwork, plans dive meets and championships, announces for the competitions and manages the kids during practice. She enjoys seeing the team members support one another.

“ … Especially to a lot of the Moorestown kids, who play a lot of team sports throughout the year, I’m glad that this is a sport that they can find fun and enjoyable and relaxing to them, instead of being super uptight and serious,” she said.

“ … They’re all just very friendly and supportive of one another, especially to other teams, and they have really great sportsmanship.”

Kailyn Donohue, a diver for Sunnybrook and the Jersey Diving Academy, won the 14-15 girls’ novice SJDA championships this season. Like Whitaker and Kaeser, she praised her coaches and teammates for their support.

“I’d say what makes the Sunnybrook diving team special is definitely coach Mike and the assistant coaches,” she maintained, “because they take all of their … time and put the effort into this team to make it what it is.”

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