Stephen Barlett and Abby O’Leary took very different journeys on their way to discovering the sport of high school diving.
The Northeastern High School standouts, however, have shared one thing in common — success.
Both Barlett and O’Leary took first place at the recent York-Adams League Diving Championships.
For Barlett, a sophomore, it was a repeat performance after claiming gold as a freshman.
For O’Leary, a junior, it was the third year in a row that the Bobcat star claimed gold at the league meet.
On to district meet: Now the Northeastern duo is hoping to make a big splash at Saturday’s District 3 Class 3-A Championships at Wilson High School.
“I’m excited to see what we can do,” O’Leary said. “I know that everyone (who qualified) there are all solid competitors.”
No one, however, has been more solid over the past two years in the Y-A League than O’Leary and Barlett.
Different journeys: Their respective journeys to this point, however, are certainly different.
Like a number of the standout girls in the sport, O’Leary’s roots stem from her days as a gymnast as a youngster. After finally giving in to the persistent recruiting pitch of Northeastern diving coach Charles "Rusty" McCollum when she was 12, the sport quickly grew on O’Leary.
“Rusty had been trying to recruit me for a couple of years,” O’Leary said. “And then the one day I just tried it and fell in love with it. And that’s the same day I quit gymnastics.”
Barlett’s journey to diving didn’t go through the gymnastics route. Instead he found his way into diving via his backyard.
“Yeah, I started by jumping on my trampoline in the backyard,” Barlett said. “And my one friend introduced me into diving and I found that this is more my speed.”
Diving also has one other big benefit that both O’Leary and Barlett quickly pointed out.
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“I felt safer,” Barlett said. “It’s a lot more organized and lot less risky.”
When O’Leary was asked if she would ever want to try to develop new dives by way of bouncing on a trampoline, she shut down that idea pretty quickly.
“Heck no,” she said. “That is terrifying. I don’t want to do that and break my neck.”
Mutual respect: While O’Leary and Barlett will compete against the best that District 3 has to offer at the 3-A level this weekend, O’Leary admitted that her biggest rival isn’t her friends, such as Dover’s Meagan Tuohy or Whitley Hoffman, who have been practicing together in preparation for districts.
“If you take away gender, Stephen is my No. 1 competition,” she said. “He dives so well and I don’t even know how to explain it. Even when he has a bad practice, which isn’t often, it’s just so much better than so many other kids. He’s only been diving for just two years, but he’s already exceeded all of my initial expectations.”
The respect between the two is mutual.
“Abby is just incredible,” Barlett said. “She really pushes me (to be better) a lot. It’s amazing how she’s coming up with new dives while still doing the old ones. She’s a very tough diver.”
Looking for improved finishes: Both Barlett and O’Leary hope to improve on their respective performances from last year’s District 3 meet, which earned them both a berth at the PIAA 3-A Diving Championships. O’Leary finished second behind Hershey’s Meredith Gould last year, while Barlett placed fifth.
Besides each other, both Barlett and O’Leary indicated that the biggest obstacle to success in the sport is keeping a solid mental approach.
“Last year I struggled with staying focused,” Barlett said. “And I found out that if I’m more supportive of my competitors that I stay more focused on the meet.”
“I’m a bit of a basket-case,” O’Leary added. “I tend to overthink things and stress myself out. And I’m sure that’s the same in any sport, where it can get into your head at some point, but the ability to overcome that I think is the most satisfying thing you can do.”
If both O’Leary and Barlett qualify for states, both are hoping to move closer to, if not onto, the medal podium. O’Leary finished 11th in 2019, while Barlett placed 25th. Only the top eight scores earn medals.
Reach Ryan Vandersloot at firstname.lastname@example.org.