Allegan High School graduate Erin Isola had just completed the final dive of her career at the University of Notre Dame.
She just didn’t know it.
After the second of six scheduled rounds of dives in the finals at the NCAA Division 1 Zone Qualify at the University of Kentucky, an announcement was made that the remainder of the competition was being cancelled in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
And just like that, Isola’s diving career was over.
“It was surreal to think that I had done my last dive ever without knowing it,” said Isola, the 2015 Michigan High School Athletic Association Division 3 state diving champion. “My friend and senior teammate Claire (Andrews) and I did a synchronized cannonball to celebrate our retirement and everyone clapped, which was fun. It’s just not the way I thought my career would end.”
Isola entered the Zone Qualifier seeking to qualify for the NCAA Championships for the third straight year.
But after the fifth of her six dives in the preliminary round of the Zone Qualifier, Isola received a text informing her that Notre Dame wouldn’t be allowing its athletes to compete in the NCAA Championships due to COVID-19.
“I was shocked,” Isola said. “I tried to block any thoughts or feelings about (Notre Dame pulling its athletes from the NCAA Championships) out of my head as I did my last dive of prelims.”
Although she finished the preliminary round in third place, Isola wasn’t sure if she and her three teammates would be allowed to compete in the finals since they wouldn’t be going to nationals even if they qualified.
But Notre Dame diving coach Caiming Xie encouraged the quartet to compete and try to earn a qualifying spot, so they could at least be able to say they qualified.
During warm-ups for the finals, word came that the NCAA Championships had been cancelled altogether. And following the second round of the finals, the Zone Qualifiers were stopped because they were no longer necessary.
“All of the girls from the other schools were so supportive and encouraging to the seniors at that meet,” Isola said. “Everyone cheered loudly for every senior who was competing in the finals after they did their dives.
“I’m sad when I think about the lost opportunity to potentially compete for the Irish at nationals again, but I’m happy my diving career ended on a high note. After all, it is just one meet that I missed out on and I’ve competed in so many others. So, I’m content with the things I’ve accomplished overall.”
Bre Price, Isola’s former diving teammate at Allegan who finished third at the 2015 state finals before continuing her diving career at Louisville, was among the other seniors at the meet that day.
“She experienced the same abrupt ending to her career that I did,” Isola said of Price.
Isola and Price have remained in contact throughout their four years in college.
“I would see Bre at our annual Notre Dame-Louisville dual meet as well as at the Zone Championships,” Isola said. “I have also remained in contact with my high school/club coach Kyle Oberhill. I would often go back and train with him at WMU during the summer and over Christmas breaks.”
Allegan girls’ swimming coach Mark Mattox has fond memories of Isola’s time with the program.
“As a former swimmer and swimming coach, diving had always been a mystery to me,” Mattox said. “Erin and Bre Price really opened my eyes to what diving should actually be like. It was amazing to be able to witness such high-level diving at every meet for the two years that I was able to work with them.
“As for Erin personally, she was a real pleasure to work with. She was very polite, kind and understanding. She was diligent and hardworking as well, maintaining a remarkable GPA while also fully participating in diving and track throughout the year. As a senior captain, she really set an example for the younger athletes to look up to.”
Isola maintained that same level of excellence both in the pool and in the classroom at Notre Dame. In addition to winning the Notre Dame’s inaugural Diver of the Year Award as a sophomore, she also received the Top Gun Award for having the highest GPA of a senior athlete.
“Divers are invariably underrepresented in most collegiate swimming and diving programs, mainly because of the small number of them compared to swimmers,” Isola said. “Therefore, most of the awards at all of our end-of-season banquets—such as MVP, most improved, most valuable freshman and awards for leadership/character—are given to swimmers and divers are often looked over.
“So, I was surprised my sophomore year when they made an award just for divers. And I was even more surprised that I won the award. There was a freshman girl that year who I constantly competed with for top spots at meets and we performed about equally at NCAAs that year. I was happy to receive the award and I felt honored that my coach chose me that year.”
She was also excited about the Top Gun Award.
“I was surprised to learn that I was even nominated for the Top Gun Award,” Isola said. “I knew that I had been doing well academically, but I wasn’t sure where I stood among all of the other senior student-athletes.
“I’m kind of a perfectionist, so I set a goal freshman year to get a 4.0 cumulative GPA by the time I graduated. While that didn’t happen, I was still happy that I managed to keep up my grades as well as I did while dedicating much of my time to athletics as well.”
As an incoming freshman, Isola didn’t completely understand what awaited her.
“Throughout my college search and recruitment process, somehow no one ever clearly explained to me what the crazy day-to-day schedule of a D1 student-athlete was like,” Isola said. “I was shocked.”
Prior to college, Isola only practiced twice a day during the week leading up to the start of the high school season in the summer. And she usually only trailed form late July/early August until November and then at the start of the year until track season began.
At Notre Dame, meanwhile, she had two-a-day practices anywhere from two to four times each week. Practice took place six days a week for 20 total hours each week from September until mid-March.
There was also a week-long training trip in the fall with no limit on the number of hours athletes could practice, a two-week training trip during Christmas break and a championship meet during spring break.
And that’s just the “in-season” work.
Isola and the other divers continued to practice throughout the school year after the season, with eight hours of mandatory practice and several “optional” practices. Athletes were also expected to stay on campus and train during the summer.
Then there was the academic side of things.
“Not only was my training schedule incredibly intense, but the classes were much harder than anything I’d ever experienced in high school with much, much more homework,” Isola said. “Freshmen were required to go to study hall three nights a week for at least the first semester, which helped us develop good study habits right away in the first few weeks of college.”
Isola also became aware of the many rules that needed to be followed, such as: wearing the same team-issued clothing as teammates for every workout or practice; never stepping on the “ND” monogram on the floor of the weight room; checking in with every coach and academic advisor before dropping a class; and setting an extra alarm to avoid being late for your morning workout.
“The transition from high school to college was extremely hard for me, but after a few months of becoming accustomed to this crazy life I got a handle on things,” Isola said.
Isola describes her first collegiate meet, which took place at Michigan State University, as “a series of unfortunate events.”
Four days prior to the meet, Isola’s bike was stolen. The next day, she sprained her ankle after stepping off a step awkwardly.
“So, I had to hobble around campus because I didn’t have a bike and my ankle wasn’t healed very much by the time the meet came on Saturday,” Isola said.
Due to the injury, Isola was only able to compete in the 3-meter event as opposed to both the 3-meter and 1-meter because she couldn’t do a full hurdle approach.
“I had to do every dive from standing on the end of the board, which is impossible to do from only one meter above the water,” Isola said. “I had to change my competition list to six easy dives that didn’t require much jumping and, therefore, weren’t worth a lot of points.
“Needless to say, I did not score very well at that meet.”
By her second meet, however, Isola’s ankle was nearly healed, allowing her to perform much better.
While Isola’s first college meet didn’t go the way she had hoped, the final home meet of her career couldn’t have gone much better.
She set personal records in both the 1-meter and 3-meter events.
“I believe that was my best, most consistent performance ever,” Isola said. “It was fun to cheer super loud with my teammates, sing to our favorite Irish pump-up song and see my family and dorm friends up in the stands, supporting me.”
And while Isola will always cherish the memory of that meet, it was the relationships she made during the long hours of practice that were the true highlights of her college career.
“I could not believe how many caring, passionate, creative, hilarious, intelligent and authentic people I met at Notre Dame, both on the team and in my dorm, and I know I will treasure those relationships for my whole life,” she said.
Some of those closest friendships, not surprisingly, were with her diving teammates.
“Because of its small size, being on the diving team at Notre Dame gave me the unique opportunity to journey through the hectic life of a student-athlete while having seven to nine extremely close friends to support me through it all and make hilarious memories along the way,” Isola said.
“Some of my favorite memories were made while on training trips, when the whole team was fatigued, stressed and burnt out from the six chlorinated hours we spent that day throwing ourselves off of high platforms. We would play games in our hotel rooms in the evenings, crack jokes, and have random debates or goofy discussions to distract ourselves from the reality of the days and days of practice ahead of us. I’ve made the absolute best friends on the Notre Dame diving team and I know we will stay friends for life.”
Plans for the future
With a bachelors degree in psychology now in hand, Isola is preparing to embark on her life after diving.
She is scheduled to start a job in July doing applied behavior analysis with children ages 2 to 12 who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
“ABA is a type of therapy, sort of similar to (occupational therapy) or speech therapy, used mainly for people with autism or other developmental or learning disorders,” Isola said. “My goal is to eventually go to graduate school for a master’s in ABA, but for the next year at least, I will be working at Lighthouse Autism Center in Granger, Ind.”
And she definitely hasn’t ruled out staying involved in diving through coaching.
“I would love to be a coach while I am in grad school to help pay tuition,” Isola said. “My mom thinks I should be a diving coach for my career and having a background in psychology would definitely be useful if I decide to go down that path.
“I’m not sure right now, but it’s an option I would consider.”