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Braden Kuhn, calm and collected, gears up for national run

Senior Braden Kuhn practices on the one-meter board on Monday, Jan. 12. Kuhn will compete in the NCAA Div. III Diving Regionals this weekend at the University of Chicago. (Northern Review photo/ Grant Pepper)

Braden Kuhn is barely hanging on.

At least that’s how it appears. The slender and toned, six-foot-four diver is bouncing up and down on the three-meter board, teetering high above the water with only his toes gripping the edge of the sea-green plank.

The arches of his feet do all the work as he bobs in meditation, his eyes closed and arms suspended horizontally.

For a moment, nothing moves.

Ohio Northern’s natatorium, filled with once-raucous spectators, falls silent. Both teams in attendance watch in anticipation from the deck.

Kuhn bounces like this for what seems like an eternity. It seems as if gravity, at some point, will pull him from such a tempting height. But even gravity seems to wait and watch.

Then, within the blink of an eye, Kuhn braces and leaps into the air. His knees bend and the board snaps as he launches himself towards the ceiling. The crowd gasps as he twists and mangles his body in the air, his chiseled physique slicing through the atmosphere like a knife as gravity waits on him to reach the water.

And when he does, he slips into the water ever-so-cleanly, an unbelievably light splash rising from the surface after such a dramatic routine.

The crowd roars.

On this day, a Jan. 14 dual meet against Mount Union, Kuhn would surpass the NCAA qualifying mark on the one-meter board. The senior would do the same a week later at Oberlin, which would qualify him for the NCAA Div. III Diving Regionals, held this weekend in Chicago (a diver can qualify by meeting NCAA standards twice in dual meets throughout the season or once at their conference meet -- Kuhn did both this year). According to coach Peggy Ewald, Kuhn is only the sixth Ohio Northern diver to qualify during her 14 years at the helm.

Kuhn will compete against 26 other divers in Chicago (one of four regional sites) this weekend, as he is among 80 divers across the nation who will have a shot at moving on to the NCAA Championship meet. The top 24 male divers (by score) will qualify for nationals, which will occur March 21-24 in Indianapolis. It is expected that only eight will make it out of Chicago this weekend.

This is the first time that Kuhn will get to dive at regionals, as he has come close before but never quite made the cut.

On that mid-January afternoon, the crowd roared for Kuhn. He defied not only gravity, but also expectations.

“You know, he only started diving his freshman year...” a fan in the crowd whispered.


Yes, it’s true. This all came about by happenstance.

As Ewald tells the story, Kuhn wouldn’t have swam much his freshman year. Or maybe even his sophomore year.

He came in as a swimmer but soon realized that Northern’s roster was large and competitive (up until last year, the men’s swimming and diving team had won 12 straight OAC championships), and he likely wouldn’t get much shine early on.

Two months into Kuhn’s freshman season, ONU hired a new diving coach. They needed divers to fill the roster because they were thin in that area, and Ewald asked the swimmers if any of them would be willing to give diving a try.

Kuhn, ever the opportunist, said yes.

“I jumped right into it,” Kuhn says four years later, smiling.

To that point, the only experience Kuhn had on a diving board was doing cannonballs and corkscrews at the local YMCA growing up. He was neither a gymnast nor a cheerleader, and he had no hobbies that could have translated to success on a diving board.

But here Kuhn was, learning a completely new sport midway through his freshman year of college.

By the time the conference meet rolled around, Kuhn had already completed all 11 necessary dives to compete -- although he was still learning some the week of the meet. With just two months of practice, however, Kuhn placed fourth in the one-meter and fifth in the three-meter.

“That was kind of a special moment as a freshman, just to stand on the podium,” Kuhn said. “Knowing like, wow, I’ve only been practicing for two months, I wonder how far I can come along in a whole year’s worth.”

With another year of training, Kuhn won both diving events at the OAC Championships as a sophomore. He garnered 391 points in the one-meter, falling just over 30 points short of NCAA regional qualification. On the three-meter board, he fell less than 50 points short of the NCAA B-cut mark.

Kuhn was admittedly surprised that he was so close to meeting national qualifying standards, but that realization quickly turned into hunger.

“I knew then, that was my ultimate goal,” Kuhn said of making the national cut.

After less than two years of diving, Kuhn was ready to perform on the nation’s biggest stage. Coming off of a sophomore campaign where he was named ‘OAC Diver of the Year,’ he was ready for it all.

Until he wasn’t.


Heading into his junior year, Kuhn had high hopes of making the national cut.

But seemingly out of nowhere, his season took a turn for the worse. Kuhn developed vertigo, a randomly occurring disorder that causes a sense of whirling and loss of balance.

“It’s probably the worst-case scenario for diving,” Kuhn said frankly.

Kuhn battled spells of vertigo for much of his junior season, causing him to sit out the majority of the meets, including the OAC Championships.

“It really just wasn’t a safe environment for me,” Kuhn said. “So, I kind of took a mental break from diving for a year and kind of reset myself.”

When his senior year came, Kuhn had a decision to make. Would he continue diving, even though he still experienced infrequent spells of vertigo, or would he call it quits? After weighing the risks with the potential rewards, Kuhn chose to come back for his final year. One last shot at qualifying for nationals, a goal that had collected dust for the entire year prior.

So far this season, Kuhn says that he has only had a couple of episodes, which have led him to take one or two-day breaks. Kuhn doesn’t hide the fact that he still worries about it, especially considering the nature of his event.

“At any given time, I can wake up one morning and I’m just dizzy, I can’t really even stand up because I’ll lose my balance and I’ll fall down,” Kuhn said. “So I think knowing that could happen at any time on the boards is really scary, especially during a high-pressure meet or something.”

While there are no known methods of preventing an episode, Kuhn says that he just tries to stay focused and relaxed, “even though I know there’s so many people in the crowd or I know there’s going to be really good divers there.” Kuhn puts his headphones on 20 minutes before he dives, listening to Bruno Mars and other modern pop stars, focusing solely on the task at hand.

When Kuhn stands on the edge of the board, arms suspended at his sides and eyes closed, he can feel nothing. He can hear nothing. He has completely shut down any outside distractions, thinking only about his next move. Over the years, Kuhn has become better at sustaining this level of focus, of composure.

But it didn’t always used to be this way.


“My nerves were so intense freshman year,” Kuhn remembers, laughing.

In one of Kuhn’s first meets as a diver, the unthinkable happened. Kuhn walked all the way out to the end of the board for his first dive of the meet. He turned around, readying himself to perform an inwards dive. Then, everything came rushing in. The crowd, the nerves, the pressure consumed him.

Braden Kuhn fell off the board.

He remembers the crowd gasping, wondering if he was OK, as he came up to the water laughing. He laughed because underneath, he felt embarrassed. He knew he could do better.

“From that moment, I kind of knew that I had to do something else,” Kuhn said.

Along with rearranging his dive list so that he would start with some easier dives (he would no longer perform an inward dive first), Kuhn also became mentally tougher over time. He would not let it happen again, and he knew that it took a higher level of focus and concentration than he’d had before.

Even though Kuhn laughs about that moment now, he also knows how crucial it was for his development. He draws from the experience not only for motivation, but also as a way to teach others.

There are currently five members of ONU’s diving team (three men and two women), including Kuhn himself. Some have come into diving like Kuhn did, with a bit of spontaneity -- Jacob Cordle, a junior, played soccer and was a cheerleader at ONU before becoming a diver this year. Others have been diving since high school or before.

Given his experience and talent, Kuhn is easily recognized as the leader of the group.

At a diving practice on a cold Monday night three weeks ago, Kuhn could be seen doing one of two things: diving or instructing.

During the two-hour practice, Kuhn completed approximately 30-40 dives. In between those reps, however, he was teaching. He would jump out of the pool and give advice to his teammates as they approached their next dive.

One time, he and sophomore Libby Sartschev were on the boards at the same time -- Kuhn on the three-meter and Sartschev on the one-meter. After explaining to Sartschev that she needed to not tuck her head in during a dive, the senior asked, “Why are you freaking out when you have so much time? If you calm down, you’ll be fine.”

Then, he offered a solution.

“Here, we’ll go at the same time,” Kuhn told Sartschev, both at the edge of their respective boards.

Sitting poolside, watching this happen, assistant diving coach John Willamowski noted that Kuhn doesn’t have to be this way.

“He’s very successful and meticulous, but he knows what it’s like to be a part of a team,” Willamowski, a law student and former ONU swimmer, said. “You could get someone at his success level who could run off and only worry about himself. But he’s always been more worried about the team than himself.”

According to those who know Kuhn best, the Tiffin native’s leadership qualities trace back into his youth.

As a lifeguard and swim instructor at the Tiffin YMCA back in high school, Kuhn would consistently exhibit similar habits, YMCA director of operations Paul Fortney said.

Fortney remembers opening up the outdoor pool one year, which was always a hassle. Leaves and debris sit in the pool for the entire fall and winter, creating the dirty, messy task of cleaning the pool out before the YMCA reopens it to the public.

“It’s a job that no one wants to do,” Fortney said, chuckling.

But Kuhn, 16 at the time, volunteered immediately to do it.

“He was one of the first guys out there -- he’s doing it, he’s smiling, he’s having fun,” Fortney reflected, still in a bit of amazement. “And because of that, you get more people to sign up to come out and do the job.”

Kuhn would offer to work long hours in order to fill the needs of the YMCA staff. He would work a late Friday shift, go to a swim meet on Saturday and be back early Sunday morning to teach a scuba diving class.

“It was his willingness to fill whatever role you needed him to,” Fortney continued. “That’s how I remember Braden.”


Four years ago at ONU, the role Kuhn needed to fill was one with which he was completely unfamiliar.

No, Kuhn wasn’t a gymnast growing up. But it went even further than that. As a kid, Kuhn says that he was too afraid to even do a flip on the family trampoline.

Now, he flips -- and does much more -- on a trampoline at least twice a week as a part of training.

When Kuhn thinks back to how quickly this all arose, from falling off the board to qualifying for the NCAA regional meet, he is amazed. So are his coaches.

“He’s had to remind me several times that he has no high school diving background whatsoever,” Kerry Smith, ONU’s diving coach for the past year, said. “What he’s been able to do, having not done it competitively until he was 18, is unbelievable.”

Kuhn typically competes against divers who have been diving since they were 10 or 15 years old, which he says can be a good and a bad thing. While they might know a few extra tricks of the trade, Kuhn also believes that starting late has allowed his passion for the sport to grow more rapidly, which has led to his almost unimaginable rate of improvement.

“I’m technically still a newbie,” Kuhn says with a smile. “They have that better diving mentality, I guess, just with the experience. But, I mean, I’m not too far behind them.”

In fact, Kuhn is ahead of most of them now. The senior recorded a personal record score in both the one-meter and three-meter dives in this year’s OAC Championship meet, which occurred two weeks ago. His personal record of 456.05 points in the one-meter ranks 49th in the nation, while his school-record 493 points in the three-meter ranks 23rd.

After a year-long hiatus, Kuhn proved that he could do it. He was not only back, but also considerably better than ever before.

This weekend, Kuhn will line up alongside some of the nation’s best divers in Chicago. He will compete in the one-meter dive on Friday and the three-meter on Saturday. The top 24 scorers will move on to nationals, three weeks from now.

Last year, the national champion in the one-meter (senior Max Levy of Denison, a four-time champ) scored a 553.45 in the finals. The lowest preliminary score among the final 24 national placers was a 344.80. Levy (who has since graduated) won the three-meter as well last year, with a score of 588.20. The lowest preliminary score in the three-meter was a 357.30.

Kuhn believes that he will be right on the fringe of advancing to nationals this year, although he is confident of his chances.

“I have high hopes that I’m going to advance. I’m not going to sell myself short and say that I’m not going to make it on or anything,” Kuhn said. “I’m going to be right around that line of what makes it and what doesn’t. It just depends on what the other regionals have. But I’m confident that I will advance further into the national qualifiers.”

This weekend, the stakes will be high and the pressure higher. But this is what Kuhn has wanted for the last four years, this opportunity.

“When I wake up in the morning, that’s what I have to think about. It’s 5 a.m. and it’s zero degrees out, do I want to get out of bed?” Kuhn said. “And that thought in the back of my mind of, ‘I can be the best in the conference,’ or ‘I can make that national cut,’ that’s what’s been driving me.”

Now, he’s here. The kid who jumped into the pool for the first time at age six will be fighting to keep his career alive this weekend in Chicago.

When he gets on the board, likely with more athletes and spectators in attendance than ever before, he’ll need to be calm as his toes grip the edge. He’ll need to focus on the task at hand.

He’ll need to tell himself what he told Libby Sartschev at practice two weeks ago.

If you calm down, you’ll be fine.

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