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Watching 16-year-old Payton Leidholm poised at the edge of the diving board, a person might assume she’s been diving for years. Seeing her catapult through the air and hit the water with a straight body and pointed toes would only reinforce that assumption.

But the Monroe High School junior and member of the Monroe Bearcats Girls Swim and Dive team has only been diving for less than a year. A former gymnast, Leidholm is the school district’s first and only female diver, having found her skills in gymnastics transferred handily to diving.

Leidholm recently recovered from a broken back, an injury that ended her gymnastic aspirations and propelled her into competitive diving. After an extensive yearlong recovery period, she was introduced to the sport, began taking lessons and started diving competitively, making it all the way to the state championships in her first season.

The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) State Championships took place Friday, Nov. 11, at the King County Aquatic Center in Federal Way.

“It wasn’t my best meet really at all, but that’s OK. It was a really fun experience, and I’m glad I got to go,” Leidholm said. “For a first-year diver that’s really exciting.”

Her success was made more significant by the obstacles she faced, including limited practice time in comparison to her competition and the fact that the high school has no dedicated diving coach. In order to get coaching, Leidholm takes lessons every Tuesday and Thursday from Snohomish School District dive coach Mark Hughes, who is also an instructor at the Snohomish Aquatic Center.

It is a continual challenge for the Monroe High School Swim and Dive team to be competitive, because the Wesco Conference considers swim and dive to be one sport. Swim and dive points are added together to get a school’s final score in competition. In past years, Monroe has taken an automatic 10-point deduction for not having any divers. 

That all changed this year. The team won a total of four meets, said MHS swim coach Haley Graham.

“It was the first time in school history we won that many meets and we had two kids go to state; Payton and a backstroker,” Graham said.

Leidholm lived in east Snohomish County until she was five, when her family relocated to Turkey for 2 1/2 years. Then they spent a year in Italy, returning to the United States when Leidholm was eight.

Her family returned to Monroe, and Leidholm took up gymnastics. As a gymnast, she specialized in floor, bars, balance beam and vault. Then, roughly two years ago, she started experiencing back pain. 

“It started as a stress fracture but I ignored it, and then it just got really bad,” Leidholm said. “I was just in a lot of pain, and then I went to (Seattle) Children’s Hospital and they told me I had a broken back.”

After a year of recovery, her mother, Shannon, recognized that Leidholm was missing out on the camaraderie of being part of a team. She was searching for an alternative activity for her daughter, when some friends suggested diving. When she first encouraged her daughter to visit the Snohomish Aquatic Center to learn more about it, Leidholm reluctantly agreed.

“I was kind of annoyed at first,” Leidholm said. “I didn’t really want to.”

She didn’t have a favorable impression of water sports and was ready to dislike diving, but decided to keep an open mind.

“I came to watch, and it looked really fun but scary too because it was stuff I’d never seen before,” Leidholm said. “But I did my first lesson and I just took to it really easy. It was just really easy for me to pick up the skills.”

She found her gymnastics training was an incredible asset when it came to diving. For years, Leidholm was an expert at propelling herself through the air in a series of complex flips and intricate turns. She simply needed to harness those skills and reorient them to diving.

Leidholm found success throughout the season, making it all the way to the 4A District Finals, where she placed in the top five. It wasn’t quite enough for an automatic invitation to the state championships, but she was given the opportunity to compete on a wild card.

Then came a significant hurdle.

Once she learned she would be competing at state, Leidholm only had a week to get in as much practice as she could. But what she needed even more than practice was coaching.

Without a diving coach at Monroe High School, there is no opportunity for one-on-one instruction, so there are far fewer chances for Leidholm to get training while on the board. Divers from other schools, such as the Snohomish School District, practice nearly every day with Hughes, who has been a diving coach for more than 25 years.

Hughes was a competitive diver for 10 years and dove at the collegiate level. 

He requested permission from the Snohomish School District for Leidholm to practice with his team during the week leading up to state.

“It made such a difference for her,” Shannon said. 

“I just want to say a really big thank you to my coach, Mark, because I seriously wouldn’t be here without him,” Leidholm said. “I mean, he’s helped me so much. He’s done so many things that he totally didn’t need to do.”

Girls swim and dive is a fall sport, but Leidholm has continued her twice-a-week training with Hughes at the Snohomish Aquatic Center in anticipation of next year. She hopes to possibly attend a diving camp over the summer, to give her an even stronger competitive edge. Over the winter, Leidholm looks forward to pursuing her hobby of snowboarding. 

“I don’t really have many hobbies, but snowboarding is what I like to do in the winter,” Leidholm said.

Leidholm is the first Monroe High School diver, but freshman Benson Boone has now joined her ranks. Both the Boones and the Leidholms are hopeful that more can be done at the high school to support student involvement in diving.