When CeCe Pennella gave up gymnastics and turned to diving for the Black Hills High swim team, she brought some crossover assets: strength, agility and fearlessness.
Success came quickly. As a freshman, in her first year in the sport, she placed 10th last fall at the Class 2A state diving championships.
This year, she’s competing, improving and learning. Sometimes, the lessons are hard to swallow.
Example: In a double-dual meet with Tumwater and River Ridge at the River Ridge pool this month, she finished second by a scant six points to Claire Barnard, a Tumwater freshman, in scoring by three judges.
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Afterward, Pennella was disappointed in her first runner-up finish of the season at a dual meet — and wondered what went wrong. For instance, an inward dive that she “felt like was the best I’ve ever done” didn’t rate high with the judges.
“All I can do is try my best,” she said, “and tell myself I can’t control the scoring.”
Henry Valz, the Black Hills head coach, recognized Pennella’s disappointment.
“She has very high expectations for herself,” Valz said. “Sometimes the diver doesn’t feel something that the judges see.”
Heather Wilder is the dive coach for both Black Hills and Tumwater, and also coached Pennella and Barnard in club gymnastics at Black Hills Gymnastics.
Barnard was slightly more precise at the double-dual meet, Wilder said — her feet were “pointier.”
Wilder said Pennella and Barnard had different strengths as gymnasts — Barnard better at the finesse events, Pennella more adept at tumbling.
Both divers will be prominent, Wilder predicted, at the District 4 meet on Nov. 6-7 at The Evergreen State College pool, from which the top four placers advance to the 2A state meet on Nov. 13-14 at the King County Aquatic Center in Federal Way.
Pennella has more difficult dives in her repertoire than she attempted at the double-dual meet, Wilder said. At district and state, divers perform 11 dives, compared with six at dual meets. Scoring by a panel of seven judges also is different: the top two and bottom two scores are dropped, leaving the middle three scores to multiply by a dive’s degree of difficulty.
“If CeCe can tighten up and clean up her feet,” Wilder said, “it can be anybody’s game at district.”
Valz called Pennella “an incredible natural athlete.”
She launches her dives, he said, by reaching optimum height off the diving board.
“She can generate a lot of force off a few inches of flex off the board,” he said.
Pennella’s core strength is another virtue, Valz said — critical to divers, especially when they’re in the air, twisting and turning and flipping.
“There’s nothing to push against but your own core muscles,” he said.
By the time Pennella left gymnastics, she wasn’t enjoying herself.
“I wasn’t getting better,” said Pennella, who had reached Level 8 in gymnastics when she quit. “To get to the next level would have taken more skill than I have.”
Diving, she said, is fun — “if you ease up and don’t worry about winning and losing.”
Long after her competition had ended at the double-dual meet, Pennella remained on the board in the diving pool, practicing one dive, a front flip with a feet-first entry, over and over.
“I’m just trying to work on my technique,” she said. “You have to get those basic dives perfect.”
Valz said, “I think CeCe’s the best diver in the district.”
Beyond that, the sky’s the limit.
“The ceiling for her, as much work as she puts in,” Valz said, “is as high as she wants to go.”