Piece written by Erin Dunne, UD Athletics Media Relations Student Intern

As his rigidly postured body slipped into the glassy water of the Rawstrom Natatorium pool on the campus of the University of Delaware on Sunday, February 28, junior diver Luke Winkler knew he had made a winning entrance from the 3-meter springboard.

“You can tell right away,” he commented. “You feel the water and how the water hit you and how it hits your body. I felt a pretty clean entry.”

In collecting the 3-meter gold, Winkler captured the program’s first-ever CAA title at the CAA Diving Championships. He edged out a close Drexel competitor to set a Blue Hens record with the 356.30 scored dive. Winkler also earned a bronze finish the previous day in the 1-meter springboard dive.

But the medals and records did not come without quite literal blood, sweat and tears.

The Bethesda, Md. native [St. John's College HS] battled shin injuries all year, wearing splints that help to protect his left leg as he uses it to spring him into action and lift his body from the board to complete dives. He wears a boot on his foot when not practicing to help keep weight from the leg so he may still compete.

“[My left foot] is my hurdle foot, where I plant all my weight at the last second of my board ride, so there is a lot of pressure on this foot,” remarked Winkler. “Just the repetition of doing a hundred dives a practice, every day, has caused a lot of stress.”

On the first day of the meet [Saturday], he injured himself further in warm-ups, so he performed with additional injuries.

“It was a weird injury, my toes kind of got caught on the board, my weight was too much forward and it kind of rolled, broke off a few of my toenails and broke my pinky toe,” Winkler recalled. “It hurt, but I had a lot of adrenaline going.”

All injuries aside, Winkler, a fine arts major, says his biggest battle has been mental. Diving is a solitary sport, as the diver faces the pool below him as he stands on the board alone.

“I’ve always sort of never competed the way I’ve wanted to; I’ve been pretty good at diving but never done well when I needed to do well,” mentioned Winkler.  “It’s all sort of a mental game, it’s all on you, it’s not at all a team sport, so when that pressures comes down on you, it’s hard to keep your focus and keep your cool about you.”

For Winkler, the CAA Championship was a chance to redeem himself from the times he felt he did not perform his best. Diving coach Brian Coonce said he knew Winkler had a chance to win a gold, despite injuries and aimed to help think past the injuries and mental game.

“To be honest, it’s all about the trust in the relationship you have with your athletes, if you’re staying calm, hyping them up, motivating them, they will be uplifted,” Coonce stated. “As coach that comes naturally, because if Luke is motivated then I’m totally motivated to help.”

The sport of diving requires extreme patience, focus and the ability to time oneself perfectly, a skill that has taken years of practice for Winkler to master. His mastery of the technical aspects of the sport have allowed him to advance his career in Delaware diving.

“It’s a very technical sport, if your foot is planted an inch to the left or right, or you wait one second longer, it can completely mess up your whole dive,” said Winkler. “It comes down to literal inches or waiting just a second longer before you swing your arms and remembering all those tiny details.”

While Winker qualified for the NCAA Zone Diving Championships on March 7-9, his time was cut short when he sustained a concussion that prevented him from competing. Winkler hit his head on a board while attempting a dive during warmups, knocking him unconscious. 

While his season has been a roller coaster of injuries and gold medals, Winkler does not plan to let this stop him for next season.

“I'm not afraid so much as I am frustrated that I could not compete. I would have loved to be a part of such a competitive competition; I know I could have qualified for NCAA nationals and potentially Olympic trials,” Winkler exclaimed. “I have my eyes fixed on 2020 Olympics and I will do whatever it takes to get there. Diving is an extremely dangerous and unforgiving sport, which is what I was reminded of at NCAA Zones, but it will take a lot more then hitting my head on the board to diminish my determination.”

In addition to Delaware collecting several gold medals at the CAA meet, Coonce was honored with CAA’s Men’s and Women’s Coach of the Year, an honor that he attributes to his athletes.

“To be honest, I owe it all to my divers, I can say and coach as much as I can but it ultimately comes down to them,” said Coonce.