Franklin Regional grad Pickens dives into NCAA championship at Arizona
Samantha Pickens made winning championships a habit at Franklin Regional. Now, the habit has followed her to college.
Pickens, a junior at the University of Arizona, captured the title on the 1-meter springboard at the NCAA Swimming & Diving Championships in Indianapolis on March 21.
The Murrysville resident and finalist at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials scored 348.45 in the final round of dives won by more than 10 points over the second-place finisher, Margaret Keefer of Minnesota, and become the first national champion in diving for Arizona.
“I had no idea where I was (in the standings) the whole time. I never once looked at the scoreboard because that would have made me more nervous,” she said.
“I turned around after my last dive and saw my name on top of the leaderboard. I thought it was fake, at first, because everyone else was diving so well. To finally do it and be the first from my school, it was surreal.”
Pickens' breakthrough came after finishing 19th in 2011 and fourth in 2012, and she looked like a champion from the start. In the preliminary round, Pickens also posted the top score of 331.00, which was almost 20 points better than the rest of the field.
What made the difference, Pickens said, was her mindset entering the national championships.
“I've been doing my same dives for a while,” Pickens said. “My stats have been about the same, but mentally, it's gotten so much better. I had confidence going in, and I knew exactly how well I needed to do my dives to win.”
“Technically, she wasn't that much different. Where she made the most improvement was her mentality,” Arizona diving coach Omar Ojeda said. “Before, she was diving just to make finals. This year, she knew she could be a national champion, and she worked to be a national champion.”
One of the biggest boosts to Pickens' confidence came last summer, when she reached the final round of Olympic qualifying. The experience of being one of the top 12 divers in the country at any age set the tone for her brief offseason, and it made it clear to her that being a collegiate champion was a reachable goal.
“(Olympic trials) definitely helped a ton. I didn't even expect to make the finals there, and when I did, it was a whole other type of confidence booster,” Pickens said. “When it came back to diving in college, I knew what I was capable of at NCAAs.”
Pickens isn't about to rest, even though she now has her national championship. With another year to compete in college, she hopes to repeat on the 1-meter board and improve on the 3-meter board, where she placed 10th this year after a third-place finish in 2012.
She also will represent the United States in competition for the first time next month at an international Grand Prix meet, and she will try to qualify for the World University Games this summer.
All the work continues to build toward Pickens' ultimate goal of qualifying for the Olympics in 2016. That goal is an attainable one according to Ojeda, who was a qualified diver for Mexico at the 2004 Olympics and coached with the Mexican National Team prior to taking the job at his alma mater, Arizona.
“She does have the potential, and that is one of her main goals, like becoming a national champion was,” Ojeda said. “The next step for her is being a part of the national team, but the final goal is to go to the Olympics and be able to do something there.”
With a goal such as that ahead of her, Pickens knows the work she put in to become an NCAA champion is only the beginning.
“I wish there was an offseason, but I don't have much down time,” she said. “The big goal I have is to qualify for 2016, or maybe 2020 if I continue to dive after that. But having a national championship will help keep me motivated and get me ready for NCAAs my senior year.”
Matt Grubba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5830 or firstname.lastname@example.org.