High hopes from ground zero
Paralysed in a trampoline accident, diving coach Lenny Larsen believes his lessons are worth sharing.
DRESSED in a metallic- blue Speedo and well- oiled against the sun, Lenny Larsen reclines poolside in his power wheelchair. Larsen loves the midday warmth. A slight breeze musses his wispy blond hair.
Two divers, eager for his advice and counsel, wait at the foot of the one- metre springboard. Kevan Roche climbs on top and collects his thoughts before attempting a ½ front 1 .
Roche steps into his lunge. Airborne, he begins his flip high in the air but falls fast, slapping his back against the still surface of the water. He bobs to the surface, wincing from the pain.
Gravity is every diver’s nemesis, and Larsen knows its lessons well. Three years ago while practising a backflip on a trampoline at the Rose Bowl Aquatics Centre in Pasadena, California, he broke his neck. Now a quadriplegic and coach, he believes that the lessons he learned from his mistake are worth sharing.
“Kevan,” he says, “slow down and relax. Don’t make it rocket science. That’s my job.”
Diving is simple, he tells his students. It begins with a jump and ends with the line- up into the water. In between are the variables that need to be navigated. He knows that only a few corrections – seven, 10 at most – will turn a bad dive into a good dive, but he has to find dozens of ways to say it.
“Stop running down the board like a bull.”
“You’re throwing back your head like you’re pulling on the emergency brake.”
“You need to see your feet ... I want you to give yourself a pedicure on the way down.”
Larsen has found his style: the apt analogy, a word of encourage- ment, an unsentimental goad. His divers – more than 20 in a master’s class – speak of him with affection. Without irony, they turn to the man in the wheelchair for help.
Almost 2,500 years ago, a fresco painter captured the first diver, a man leaping from a stone platform, arms extended, head first. The image, decorating the inside of a tomb in southern Italy, has been interpreted as a metaphor for life: Every moment, even a few seconds in the air, is an opportunity to do something brave, outlandish, perhaps even beautiful.
Larsen, 36, discovered his moment 10 years ago when he leaped off a diving board in Pittsburgh, and there was no turning back. He had come to the sport late, and competitions, like the Olympics, eluded him.
But he started to compete at the master’s level with divers in his age category. At his first international meet in Sweden in 2010, he was placed second in a three- metre event.
By then he had moved to Pasadena and was training at the Rose Bowl Aquatics Centre, where he started to coach as well. Perfecting his skills as a diver, he helped amateurs perfect theirs. Some went on to become national champions on the master’s circuit.
Divers about to execute a new twist or flip often pause on the board or platform to find their focus. Too easily, their minds wander to all that might go wrong with a new manoeuvre – from the flops and the splats to the dislocated shoulders, the retinal detachments, the broken arms, the concussions, lacerations and scalpings.
For some, the delay is less than a minute before they leap into space. For others, it drags on until they walk away.
The key is to have faith in your strength and training – and to never count on your brain. Count on your brain, he says, and bad things will happen. This is a visual sport; your brain will lie to you every time.
Larsen’s betrayal took place on a summer morning in 2013. The pool was crowded with swimmers, and he and the other divers turned to the trampolines to start their morning routine.
“I was doing a ridiculously simple backflip,” he recalls.
Halfway through, he knew he had miscalculated. His brain told him that he had carried his feet over far enough. But he hadn’t.
After two surgeries within 48 hours, he woke up unable to move or breathe on his own.
Fellow divers hung in his room a banner, words of encouragement. Friends came and went. His parents were there every day.
During two months in the ICU, he thought he was dying.
Eventually he went to Chicago for rehabilitation, and after nearly a year and a half, he returned to Pasadena and the aquatics centre.
When he rolled out onto the pool deck, he felt that he had come home. For once, nothing else mattered. When Larsen dreams, he dreams of flying. He lunges on his right leg, arms stretched behind him. In one sweep, he reaches overhead, lifts his left leg and springs up on the board before coming down into a near squat.
Launched, he feels the air rush by. He bends at the hips and grabs behind his knees. The momentum sets him spinning, once, twice, before straightening, head first, arms extended, one hand grabbing the top of the other to punch a hole in the surface of the water.
All goes silent but for the sound of the silver bubbles rushing to the surface. Returning to normal is his goal. During a trip to Thailand, doctors implanted electrodes and stem cells in his back to keep his muscles from atrophying.
This fall at UCLA, a surgeon will replace the damaged nerve to his diaphragm with an intact one, so that one day Larsen might be able to breathe on his own.
He tracks neuroscientists in their search for the right enzymes and peptide that might one day break through the scar tissue that develops around spinal cord injuries and impedes the nerves trying to reconnect.
He keeps depression at bay by staying busy. A phone call to his grandparents in Chicago also helps.
“I believe there is a reason that I’m going through this,” he says. “I don’t believe for a second that I’ll be like this for the rest of my life.”
Lenny Larsen keeping a close eye on his diver patrick French at the rose Bowl Aquatics Centre in pasadena, California. ‘ I have always pushed people. I have always pushed the envelope forward, and I have always pushed myself forward,’ says Larsen. — TNs