After suffering a season-ending injury, during a dive two weeks before the 2019 NCAA Championships, diver Sydney Dusel (Naperville, Ill.) fought her way back to qualify for the Olympic Trials. In this Hoos Life, she shares her recovery, thoughts on having her final season cut short due to the pandemic and her plans for the future.

Q: After having such a strong 2019 season come to a close due to an injury, did that impact your mentality heading into last season?

Dusel: Going back to last March, I got injured a week before Zones (NCAA Zone Diving Championships), about two weeks before NCAAs. I was having the best season of my life up to that point. I had just gotten second at ACCs and I was really looking forward to doing some great things at NCAAs. When my accident ended up happening, it was very crushing and hard to get over, but I definitely used it as motivation and fuel to make me better for my last season.

When I got injured at the beginning of March (2019), I wasn’t able to work out for about three months. I couldn’t raise my heartbeat or my heart rate because they didn’t want the blood flowing through my face. I wasn’t able to stay in shape for three months, which really worried me, and I didn’t start diving until mid-summer. I had gone about five months without diving, so that was really scary getting back into it. Our first (college) meet wasn’t until October, so I had a few months to get back into it. I wasn’t in Charlottesville, I was in Chicago over the summer, and I used that time to just mentally get ready. I said that I’m not going to let this hold me back. I’m going to show what I can do this season since it’s my last year, and things turned out really well. It’s a shame that it ended the way it did this year, but I’m grateful for the season that I did have. I would say my injury really helped me get into the mindset of resilience. Coming back from an injury is so hard, but I feel like in the long run it helps you as a person learn a lot about yourself and makes you want to do better.

Q:  When were you able to dive again? Was it on Grounds?

Dusel: No, it was in Chicago. I was in Chicago over the summer and I started diving again with my club coaches. That was end of June, beginning of July. I started diving again and I just did the basics and rarely did any of my hard dives. I just eased into it until I got back to UVA. I did easy stuff that was going to help me and help Drew (Livingston) coach me through the hard stuff. I started diving again five months after my injury. I had an internship which was why I wasn’t in Charlottesville. I would work eight to five and then I would go to the pool from like six to eight most nights.

Q: When could you start doing physical activity again?

Dusel: Originally, they said six months no exercise. After the six-week mark, when they saw everything was healing really well, they said that I could start doing a little bit of exercise at three months. Then we took it month-by-month, and then they said, ‘okay, you can start  jumping into the pool with your feet, don’t start doing it on your head yet.’ So, it was a gradual process.

Q: You were the only fourth-year female diver on the team this year. What was that like stepping into that role? With two first-year divers on the team and with Kylie Towbin graduated, what was it like moving into that leadership position?

Dusel: I was actually really excited. I love being a leader. I’ve always had that go, go, go personality throughout the years, I don’t think it was just my senior year. Kylie (Towbin) was a great leader and she’s one of my best friends. I really learned from her how to make a good culture for the team, how to get the swimmers and divers connected, how to set a good example. I think just right off the back of the season, I really just pushed through every practice and I know that I motivated a lot of people. I was really excited about it because I loved being at practice and I loved being with my teammates. I was excited to have that leadership role.

Q:  With it being your senior year, what was your focus heading into the ACC championships? Was there any added pressure with the springboards starting early in the week and the team wanting to win the ACC title?

Dusel: At the beginning of the season, I sat down with Drew (Livingston), and we decided because of what had happened, it’s was too early to set goals. Let’s not set goals. Let’s just not set expectations. Let’s just get out there and try to get back into competing mode. I hadn’t competed in a while. I had been out for five months and to come back in diving, especially, it’s really hard. I mean, even the first dual meet I was pretty rusty, and I was a little bit upset but I knew that was just the process that I had to accept. It wasn’t going to be perfect at first. So, we really didn’t make many goals in the beginning.

I remember, it’s actually a funny story, I ended up getting the stomach flu or food poisoning a week before we had a really big meet in Atlanta at Georgia Tech. I was back in the pool like two days before that, but I had been sick with the stomach flu, went to the hospital and everything, and I had the best meet in my life. I got the Olympic Trials score, you couldn’t qualify for Olympic Trials, but I surpassed the score that you needed. I didn’t qualify yet, but I got the score by a lot. That is the turning point where I realized, ‘Wow, I really could do some damage this season.’ If you asked me at the beginning of the season, ‘Do you think you would qualify for Olympic Trials?’ I would say, ‘Oh, I don’t know’ and be a little more hesitant. But once this meet happened, where I had the best meet of my life and I got that score, it completely turned my mindset into ‘Wow I could, you know, win ACCs. I could really do all these things. It doesn’t matter about my injury.’ I was the best that I had been. I was better than before I got injured. That’s really the turning point where I decided to start setting goals myself.

Q: Did that become a goal, to qualify for the Olympic Trials halfway through the season?

Dusel:  I ended up qualifying for the Olympic Trials at Winter Nationals, so that was in December. If you would have asked me at the first dual meet, ‘Do you have goals of going to Trials?’… I would not have confidently said yes. I signed my consulting job offer letter from Ernst and Young in October, so I knew what I was doing the next year, but I didn’t know when my start date was going to be. I signed my offer letter and I really didn’t think ‘I might be training’ when I signed it or when I thought about my start date I really didn’t think ‘I might be at Olympic Trials’ until I had that one meet where I got the Trials cut – it didn’t count but I gained that confidence from that one meet at Georgia Tech.

There are only a few opportunities to qualify for Trials. After that, I knew I could do it, I had the confidence that I knew it was possible, but I didn’t want to set that (as a goal) at a big meet like ACCs and NCAAs. The Olympic Trials is outside of UVA and outside of the team’s goal, so I didn’t want to be constantly thinking about ‘Let’s qualify for Olympic Trials here.’ I was more focused on my individual goals, whether it was winning, or taking the podium and contributing points to the team rather than thinking about Olympic Trials. A month later after Georgia Tech in December, I went to Winter Nationals and ended up doing really well and that’s when I qualified for Olympic Trials. I was relieved that I didn’t have to qualify at NCAAs or qualify for it at ACCs and have that extra pressure. It was really, really relieving that I qualified for it at Winter Nationals, a USA diving meet that wasn’t even a meet associated with UVA. So no, at the beginning of the season, I wasn’t thinking about Olympic Trials, but after that meet in Georgia, and after I qualified for it in December, it really motivated me and helped me gain that confidence to know that I’m the best that I have ever been and I could do some damage at these big meets and even at Trials.

Q: What was it like to be at U.S. Winter Nationals and to see that score? Did you know at the time that you qualified or was it after the meter?

Dusel: I don’t really like to look at my scores throughout the competition. I knew going into my fifth dive, which is a reverse two-and-a-half, that I had to hit it just because you hear your score after every dive. I had been doing really well up until on my fifth dive. I knew this is a dive that can either go really well or really bad, and I knew in my head that I needed to hit it. But I didn’t look at the scoreboard or try to calculate what I needed because I didn’t want to get in my head. I just wanted to try to relax. I remember, before that dive looking over at my coach, looking over at Drew (Livingston), and really taking in that moment. Once I hit it, I knew that I had it even before doing my last dive because my last dive is a very consistent dive that I do the same at every meet. I didn’t know for sure, but I was so excited after my fifth dive and so was Drew and my family and everyone was jumping up and down. Drew got up and did a little fist bump. I didn’t want to (know) because I still had another dive, so I didn’t want him to say ‘hey, you’re in’ or ‘you have to just do this last dive how you usually do it.’ I just tried to stay calm, not too excited, not too nervous. I did my last dive and I went over and he knew right away. I looked at him and he was like, You got it, you’re qualified.’ I would say one of the best moments of my diving career was qualifying for Olympic Trials because it was such a cool thing. Not only coming back from this injury but just diving in general. It’s so hard to qualify for Trials. I never had that goal and never really thought that it was realistic until a month before that. My parents didn’t even know that I qualified because they didn’t know the exact score. I went up to the stands and told them and they were all crying. It was for sure like one of the best moments of my career.

Q:  Last year, you finished second on the 3m board. This year you placed third on both the 1m and 3m. You also added a first and second-place finish on the springboards at Zones. How does it feel to conclude your collegiate career with that success? 

Dusel: It’s bittersweet. I’ve been really struggling with wrapping my head around how the season ended. I was happy with how I did ACCs, but I knew I could do better. I knew that I had the possibility of winning both boards. That’s what I wanted, but you can’t always be perfect and I was happy with the podium finishes, the two third places I got and contributing to the team’s overall championship. Then, going into Zones, I had one of my best meets of the season. It made me so excited for NCAAs because I knew that I had the highest score out of all the Zones on 3-meter. Combined score, I had the highest in the nation out of all the Zones and that really motivated me and made me excited for NCAAs, especially because this year a lot of people redshirted for Trials. So, I wanted top eight, but there was a chance I could have won the whole thing. It was really anyone’s game at that point. For that to all be taken away three days before we supposed to leave, I’ve been really struggling accepting it.

I didn’t know when my last dive was going to be. Going back, I wish I would have known that was going to be my last dive so I could have maybe looked in the stands a little longer or taken that moment to myself. Your last dive or your last swim, that’s a really special moment and I didn’t know that that was going be my last time. So, I’ve really been struggling with wrapping my head around the fact that NCAAs was taken away two years in a row. I never even had the opportunity because my junior and senior year were my best seasons. I never got to get that real end result that I wanted. But there’s nothing I can do. A lot of people are in that position. I’m just happy that I qualify for Trials and I ended on such a high note at Zones.

Q: Now that you have qualified for Trials, how does that impact your preparation moving forward? Do you plan on continuing to prepare for Trials?

Dusel:  I just recently got notified from Ernst and Young that my start date was pushed back until January of 2021, so I am thinking about training for USA Diving meets in December. I have not decided if I will train another full year until the 2021 Summer Olympic Trials since I will start work in January. However, this could be an option if I am able to train in Chicago while working for Ernst and Young. We are in a time of such uncertainty, so my plan seems to change every week, but I am looking forward to the possibility of continuing my diving career and getting an end result that is in my control. Whether I train all the way until the 2021 Olympic Trials or not, I am excited to contribute all the characteristics I gained throughout my diving career towards my consulting career at Ernst and Young.

Q: What would you be doing with Ernst and Young?

Dusel: I’m doing business consulting for Ernst and Young. I’m not sure which domain I am in yet, or in other words, what my area of specialty will be. There are different areas of specialty such as finance, digital marketing, supply chain, etc. I don’t get assigned to one specific area until after training and bouncing around between projects. I am supposed to be traveling for up to 80 percent of the time. A lot of my work will be traveling to clients, solving business problems and collaborating in teams.

Q: With exams and online classes done, have you been able to do anything fun like learn a new skill or read a book?

Dusel: It’s been really weird, not having structure. I used to wake up at 6 a.m. and have a full day with practices and classes and group projects. It is weird not doing that anymore. I will say I’ve learned a few things. I’ve learned how to sleep in, which I used to never do. I’m still working out a lot. I really enjoy working out and getting outside. I love taking my dogs on walks and going hiking in Charlottesville when it’s open. I’ve gotten into cooking because I have the time, which is weird because I’ve always gone to JPJ or gotten things to go because I’ve always been on the run. But it’s been really nice to have time to cook and enjoy food that I actually made.

Q:  What kind of things have you been cooking?

Dusel: My stepmom makes a lot of really good dinners so I have been taking her recipes and adding a few things, but I would say one of my favorite meals is making steak. Seasoning and grilling steak and then doing potatoes, onions and sweet potato mix. Also brussels sprouts, I’ve been making a lot of brussels sprouts. I would say that’s my favorite. I’ve also been making different pastas like a vodka sauce pasta I just made for my mom on Mother’s Day. That was really good.

Q: Do you have any advice for your younger teammates?

Dusel: Don’t take any practice for granted. It goes by so fast, so fast. You might think sometimes in the moment ‘this practice is so long, I don’t want to do this, I don’t want to do that,’ but at the end of the day you have to realize you only have four years as an athlete at UVA. Once it’s over, all those practices, you’re going to want to be with your teammates, you’re going to want to be working hard towards a goal. Just live in the moment and work really hard. You’ll be happy with the results that you see.

I know my two freshmen, Jen (Bell) and Charlotte (Bowen), they’re both like extremely hard workers and so supportive through everything that I’ve accomplished and everything that I’ve gone through. I know they’re going to make great teammates for everyone else for the next four years. I know they’re going be great leaders and they have a lot of potential to make UVA diving the best it’s ever been. I’m really excited to see how they do.