Alex Pijanowski, Staff Writer
As her sophomore year comes to a close, Kenyon’s diving standout Maria Zarka ’16 has already met most standards for individual success in the sport. Now, the two-time national champion is preparing to enter into a new and exciting level of competition: she’s going international.
A month ago, Zarka placed first in the one-meter diving event and second in the three-meter diving at the NCAA Division III championships. On top of that, she was named the Female Diver of the Year after the meet. This all came just a year after she was the national one-meter diving champion, and her scores as a first-year set new Kenyon records.
In light of this recent flurry of success, Zarka is taking advantage of the opportunity to participate in the 2014 Commonwealth Games as a member of the diving delegation of Tonga, an island nation located in the South Pacific.
The Games, which bring together teams mostly from nations formerly in the British Empire, will be based in Glasgow, Scotland, from late July to early August, with the diving competition taking place in the capital city of Edinburgh.
Zarka lives in Kanoehe, Hawaii, and her mother was born in Tonga. She said that she used to joke with her family about her “pipe dream” of someday diving for Tonga, a dream which is rapidly becoming a reality.
The magnitude of Zarka’s accomplishments suggests an enormous amount of talent, as well as many years of training beginning in early childhood.
There is nothing illusory about the talent, but some observers may be surprised to find out that Zarka is still a relative newcomer to competitive diving, and that she originally came by way of another aquatic sport.
Her father had been a swimmer, and encouraged her to participate in competitive swimming. But Zarka quickly formulated other ideas.
“I started diving in eighth grade, and I didn’t really become serious about it until 10th grade,” Zarka recalled.
“I kept looking over at the diving board, decided to try [diving] one day and stuck with it,” she said.
Zarka credits a large share of success to a strong foundation provided by her high school coaches, Mike Brown and Anita Rossing.
“[Rossing] taught me … the basic mechanics for diving, really well,” she said. “A lot of places have coaches who just want to get you to be able to do the hardest dives as soon as possible, without necessarily being ready to execute it in the correct way. She really set me up with good mechanics and good basics, which are carried out through every level of diving.”
Kenyon’s diving coach, Andy Scott, will also serve as diving coach for the Tongan national team, and will travel with Zarka to Scotland. Scott was honored as the best Women’s Diving Coach in NCAA Division III in each of the past two years. According to Scott, he e-mailed the Tongan Olympic Committee after Zarka won the one-meter title last year, and their response to his query was decidedly enthusiastic.
“[The committee members] were very interested in moving forward with this,” Scott said. “They seem to me to be a nation that is very interested in promoting the country in any way that they can, and this is an amazing opportunity for them to gain recognition internationally. Even if she doesn’t win medals, the fact that Tonga has athletes competing there is a great promotion for the country.”
Scott said he relishes the opportunity to serve as the coach of a national team, which will be a completely new experience.
“It’s not something that I ever imagined I would have the opportunity to do,” he explained. “Sometimes in life, doors like this are only open a few times. You’ve got to take advantage of every opportunity you’re given, and I feel like that’s what we’re doing here.”
Scott expects this international event, coming at the midpoint of Zarka’s collegiate career, to contribute to her continued success at Kenyon.
“In the spring, the training is typically relaxed,” Scott said. “Her training and competing over the summer in a meet like this will give her a head start coming back into the fall [season].”
In addition to the opportunity for athletic improvement, Zarka may also have the chance to explore her Tongan roots.
“I visited once when I was very young,” Zarka added. “I can only understand the [Tongan] words that my mom says when she’s yelling at me.”
Fellow diver Megan Remillard ’16 praised Zarka as an athlete and as a teammate.
“She is really supportive of her competition, as well as her teammates, and she’s always the loudest one cheering for the girl who’s chasing her down for first place,” Remillard said. “She’s always willing to go the extra mile for us — she’ll stay after practice if we feel like diving more, and watch. Being around her is special, because she does bring people together in a way which is very magnetic.”
In preparation for the Games, Zarka plans to spend a significant portion of the summer training at Rutgers University in New Jersey. For some of that time, Zarka will train with Fred Woodruff, head diving coach at Rutgers and the 2008 Big East Women’s Diving Coach of the Year.
Zarka chose Rutgers over training in Hawaii for several reasons, chief among them a lack of viable diving facilities at home. Scott said that she received special permission from the NCAA to continue training throughout the spring and summer; NCAA rules generally do not permit Division III athletes to train this far beyond their season.
The field of competition will certainly be more difficult than Zarka has experienced at the college level, but there is still very good reason for optimism.
“We’ll be going up against folks that could potentially be in the finals at the Olympics,” Scott said. “She’s got a ways to go before she’s at that level, but I also am completely confident that she will represent Tonga and Kenyon well.”
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