High hopes from ground zero

Paral­ysed in a tram­po­line ac­ci­dent, div­ing coach Lenny Larsen be­lieves his lessons are worth shar­ing.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - LIVING - By THOMAS CURWEN

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

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