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Johnston, Willborn take aim at USA Diving Winter Nationals

<p>Former Blue Devil and Olympic silver medalist Abby Johnston and current Duke freshman Mackenzie Willborn will dive to improve their positioning for future competitions this week in Indianapolis.</p>

Former Blue Devil and Olympic silver medalist Abby Johnston and current Duke freshman Mackenzie Willborn will dive to improve their positioning for future competitions this week in Indianapolis.

One Blue Devil and one Duke graduate will compete on a national stage at the final meet of 2015.

Mackenzie Willborn and Olympic silver medalist Abby Johnston will head to Indianapolis for the six-day USA Diving Winter Nationals, which begin Tuesday at the Indiana University Natatorium—the same site as the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials for diving.

Both Blue Devils will compete in Wednesday’s preliminaries of the synchronized three-meter event and the Friday morning preliminaries of the individual three-meter springboard. Willborn will look to advance through the semifinals to Sunday’s final in the individual event, and Johnston will aim to earn a spot on the 2016 FINA Diving World Cup roster both individually and with her synchronized partner, Laura Ryan.

“If [Mackenzie] dives consistently and dives the way she has been diving, it would be a great goal for her to semifinal and final at this meet,” Duke head diving coach Nunzio Esposto said. “This meet is the trials for the World Cup in February, so qualifying would be [Abby and Laura’s] goal."

Willborn—who earned the silver medal in the synchronized three-meter event with her partner Emily Grund at the 2015 Junior Pan American games in October—will compete with new partner Grace Cable Wednesday. Cable is a high school sophomore and member of Esposto’s age group diving club based at Duke.

Willborn will compete individually at the same height Friday, entering the preliminary round with a total degree of difficulty of 14.10 for her list of five dives. The average total degree of difficulty for the field is 14.5. Fifty divers will compete in the event, looking to secure one of 18 spots for the evening semifinal. The top 12 performers will advance to Sunday’s championship final.

The standout Blue Devil freshman has impressed so far this season and will look to add to her early collegiate success. Willborn won the 10-meter platform competition at the Nike Cup Invitational Nov. 21 and has swept both the one- and three-meter springboards twice in dual meet action, claiming the top score in both events against Florida State and Queens University of Charlotte Oct. 23 and against Old Dominion and William & Mary Nov. 7.

Willborn advanced to the finals at the 2014 Winter Nationals in Columbus, Ohio, finishing 10th with a total score of 823.45 across the three rounds.

“[Mackenzie] is set up to do well at this meet,” Esposto said. “She has done really well this semester and has adjusted to the program really well. Obviously she was accomplished coming in…and she has continued to improve.”  

Johnston is also entered in the individual event with a 15.1 total degree of difficulty for her five dives. The 2013 graduate claimed the bronze medal in this event last year, finishing 2.1 points behind her synchronized partner Ryan with a final score of 902.40.  

“Abby hasn’t competed individually for a while,” Esposto said. “She did it last year at senior nationals, and she’s doing it again now and trying to qualify for World Cup.” 

This week’s winter championships will serve as the trials for the World Cup in Rio de Janeiro Feb. 19-24. The two divers with the highest cumulative scores in each individual event will be selected to represent the United States.

Only one synchronized team for each height will be chosen for the World Cup team. Johnston and Ryan—the ninth-place pair at the World Championships in Kazan, Russia, in July—have been traveling to train together for the past several months. Ryan, a 2015 graduate of Georgia, spent the first week of December in Durham and Johnston made the trip to Athens during the summer. The pair will perform five dives with a total degree of difficulty of 13.0. 

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