Section: Must read

Gambier to Glasgow

Gambier to Glasgow

cora markowitz | Collegian

By Alex Pijanowski

A small, Division-III liberal arts school rarely gets the opportunity to welcome back one of its own athletes from an international competition. But when Maria Zarka ’16 returns to the diving board for the Kenyon Ladies later this year, she will be doing so with a wealth of experience gained from her time representing Tonga – an island nation in the South Pacific – at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Scotland.

Of course, Zarka is no stranger to high-pressure situations, or to performing well in them. She won a national diving title in each of her two collegiate seasons so far, and earned the Female Diver of the Year award following the 2014 NCAA Division-III championships. Nevertheless, the atmosphere at the Games was unlike anything she had seen before.

“It was a different world,” she said. “It was a very big venue, with lots of people and cameras.” She even once collided with an underwater camera obstructing her path as she attempted to exit the pool following a dive.

Zarka placed 13th in both the one-meter and three-meter diving events, which was not good enough to advance to the next round of competition. Still, simply being in close proximity to some of the finest athletes in the world changed her perspective on the nature of competition.

“[The Games] definitely opened my eyes to see how much better I can get, and how much further I can go if I work as hard as I can,” she said. “Maybe I should try to get stronger and go for those higher, more elite dives, and try to do that, because that’s what the best people in the world are doing.”

In one such encounter, Zarka and her coach met Matthew Mitcham of Australia, who was the gold medalist in 10-meter diving at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. She also said that, for a few moments, she was walking beside Olympic sprint champion Usain Bolt in the athletes’ village.

Despite her Tongan heritage, Zarka grew up in Hawaii and had not been immersed in the Tongan culture. She was the only member of Tonga’s diving contingent, but had many chances to spend time with Tongan athletes competing in other events. Most of the other athletes representing Tonga had similar backgrounds, having grown up in countries like Australia or New Zealand. Because of this, Zarka acknowledged that she did not grow as close to her Tongan roots as she might have under other circumstances.

“It would have been different if I’d gone to Tonga,” she said.

Even if she did not meet many native Tongans, Zarka said it was apparent to her that there was an entire nation behind her diving efforts. After returning to the athletes’ ready room and checking her cell phone following a dive, Zarka was surprised to find that she had received over 100 Facebook friend requests from supporters.

“People just [are] so excited that you’re there, they don’t even care how you do,” she said. Some, she said, even sent pictures of their children. Because she was the only diver representing an Oceanic nation, Zarka also attracted the support of citizens from other nations in the region.

Kenyon’s diving coach, Andy Scott, served as Tonga’s diving coach at the Games, and accompanied Zarka to Scotland. He said that his attendance at the Games was an important experience, both for his coaching in general and his ability to help Zarka improve her diving.

“For me as a coach, one of the benefits was having 10 days on the pool deck alongside some of the best diving coaches in the world, and working with Maria every day for 10 days,” Scott said.

Scott added that the Games gave him a clearer picture of how he can coach Zarka to continued collegiate success and future success at higher levels of competition.

“I certainly feel like it was motivating, because we just realize how much better she can be, if she and I are capable of working together to figure out how to make these changes,” he said. “I need to figure out, and communicate, and give her the tools to make those changes, but ultimately she has to do it.”

He added that “there are definitely some things that we have to try to fix this year,” but he thinks just going to the Games made him more aware of “the little details.”

Although competing in an event of this magnitude may seem like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Zarka hopes to make it anything but. Next summer, she will attempt to compete in the Pan-Pacific Games in Papua New Guinea. If that prospect materializes, Zarka’s return to campus for her senior year will be all the more triumphant. 

 

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