Olympic silver medalist Abby Johnston and her partner Laura Ryan were in third place with one dive left in the synchronized three-meter final at the USA Diving Winter Nationals Wednesday in Indianapolis.
Emma Ivory-Ganja and Kassidy Cook had jumped to the top of the leaderboard with two consecutive dives tallying more than 70 points in the third and fourth rounds but earned a score of 58.50 on their final effort, leaving the door open for another duo to claim the title and 2016 FINA Diving World Cup berth.
“Laura and I both looked at the scoreboard and knew that we were five points down,” Johnston said. “She turned to me and said, ‘We’ve done this before.’ And I was like, ‘I know, we’ve got this.’”
The penultimate pair in the dive order, Johnston and Ryan climbed up to the boards needing 63.58 points for the lead—so the 2013 Duke graduate and her partner performed a forward two-and-a-half somersault with a full twist and earned 72 points.
Johnston and Ryan’s final dive clinched the victory, giving them a total score of 587.40 and a 0.6-point edge on Ariel Rittenhouse and Qionjie Drew. The final pair to compete earned 68.40 points on their last dive for the silver.
The former Blue Devil and her partner, a 2015 graduate of Georgia, saved their best for last. The duo earned their highest score—the second-highest mark of the entire contest with no individual judge’s score below 7.5—to punch their tickets to the World Cup in Rio de Janeiro in February.
“We got up on the board and executed just as we had hoped. To have to sit there and wait for a couple more minutes for the last team to go was grueling, but we had given it everything we had,” Johnston said. “When we saw that we had won by such a narrow margin, we were thrilled. That mental toughness is something that we will carry over to Rio.”
Johnston repeated the come-from-behind feat for a spot on the Rio roster again Sunday in the individual three-meter event. Advancing easily through Friday’s preliminary and semifinal rounds with combined scores of 291.15 and 605.10, respectively, Johnston entered the five-dive final round in fourth, two places shy of World Cup qualification.
“Sometimes in practice what we will do is a kind of mock meet, Duke head diving coach Nunzio Esposto said. "We would say stuff like, ‘You’re in second right now and you need eights on this dive to win.’ We tried tricks like that, but they don’t totally simulate a high-pressure situation. Obviously when you get there, there is heightened emotion.”
The Duke medical school student jumped into third place on her first dive of the finals—a back two-and-a-half somersault for 70.50 points. After a reverse two-and-a-half somersault for 64.50 points on her next dive, Johnston was second. She finished with two 72-point dives for a five-dive score of 345.65—the highest single round score of the event by almost 15 points—and three-round combined score of 950.75.
Johnston could not catch up to Cook, who claimed the title with 275.20 points. Ryan took third with 892.60.
“My list got incrementally better with each round. That’s the approach I’ve always taken—doing my best at finals,” Johnston said. “I love the finals and that pressure situation. I was happy that I got up there and dove the way that I know how. It’s different at Winter Nationals because the score is cumulative, but at Rio we will start over each round.”
Johnston will take a short break for the holidays in Upper Arlington, Ohio, before returning to training in Durham next week. She, Ryan and the 14 other Rio qualifiers will head to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., in January to prepare as a team for the World Cup.
Freshman Mackenzie Willborn represented the current Blue Devil squad at the six-day meet, competing in the three-meter synchronized and individual events.
Willborn teamed with Grace Cable, a high school sophomore and member of Esposto’s age group diving club, for Wednesday’s synchronized competition. The pair advanced to the 12-team final round with a score of 229.92 in the morning preliminaries—good for 10th place. Willborn and Cable nearly equaled that score in the evening for a combined total of 454.92, dropping back one place to finish 11th overall.
“This nationals was probably the most competitive it has been in several years because of the upcoming World Cup and it’s an Olympic year. All the divers were there,” Esposto said. “For Mackenzie to compete as well as she did and experience this, I was really excited for her.”
The Flower Mound, Texas, native scored 268.80 points in Friday’s individual three-meter preliminaries to advance to the 18-diver semifinal in 10th. She dropped down the scoreboard with her first two dives of the next round, turning in the third- and fifth-lowest scores, but held on for 12th place with her next three dives and a round score of 265.75, good enough for the last spot in Sunday’s final.
Willborn finished in 12th with a final-round score of 247.90 and combined score of 782.45.
“Mackenzie has been one of the top junior divers for a while now, and she’s transitioning into one of the best in the next generation of USA Diving springboard divers,” Johnston said. “This showing will really help her confidence heading into NCAA season. I continue to see her get better and better every day and it’s really great training with her.”