One day, Cole Earl just kind of showed up. This wasn't a diver on anyone's radar. In fact, before last fall, Earl wasn't a diver at all.
"His mom shows up at 3 p.m. on the third day of practice with his physical and paperwork ready to go. I took him down to the board and said, 'Let's see what you can do,'" Glendale swim coach Steve Boyce said.
Earl was a gymnast, and a pretty good one, too. At four years old, he joined a gymnastics team in Louisiana. He competed in Olympic-style floor competitions, and won state-wide competitions doing it.
"I guess you could say I didn't really know I was a good diver," Earl said. "I thought I was bad."
"So he goes off the board a couple times, and I say, 'How about a backflip?' He goes, 'OK, I can do that.' So he does a beautiful backflip and sticks it right in the water," Boyce said. "Entry was just great. And he goes, 'How about two [backflips]?' I just shrug and go, 'Sure, why not.'
"So he stands on the end of the board, it oscillates a little, and he does two backflips and sticks it and I go, 'I think you're gonna be alright."
On a path to the podium
Turns out, Earl was more than alright. The freshman placed ninth at this year's 1-meter diving event at the state meet with a 391.65. Only one other underclassman—Lafayette freshman Connor McCool (4th)—finished higher.
"I thought he handled states really well," Boyce said. "It's a huge, cavernous facility at St. Peters. Spectators are opposite the divers and up a level. It's a lot of pressure. He did a really nice job."
In fact, the cavernous natatorium at St. Peters had little to no effect on Earl.
"I don't hear anything when I'm up [on the board]," he said. "I visualize what the dive is supposed to look like and try to replicate that with my body—this is a technique we did in gymnastics for our whole routines."
Earl's ninth-place finish was the highest by a diver from the Springfield region since Glendale graduate Carter Pfankuch placed seventh with a 330.25 in 2012, a point total Earl handily surpassed, despite the lower finish. For further comparison, 2015 state champion Matt McCool posted a 406.25 as a freshman and a 516.35 this year as a senior at Lafayette. Earl isn't far off that pace.
"I think he's got a lot of potential ahead of him for having just learned to stick every one of those dives," Boyce said.
"Cole probably could have finished even higher at state, but for a freshman with no background at that level of competition, he really did a fantastic job. It's going to be a lot of fun to watch him grow and get better."
Simply put, Earl was born to fly
"What came natural to me was stuff in the air," Earl said. "When I was two years old, I was doing flips off armchairs, taking the cushions off and jumping off the arms onto the ground. My parents told me I was going to hurt myself. That's the reason they moved me to gymnastics."
While a young Earl found gymnastics success, the excitement of the sport died out as high school approached.
"I was getting pretty burnt out," Earl said. "Four hours of practice a day for five days a week year-round is pretty demanding."
But those hours upon hours of practice have put Earl in a position to threaten for a state diving medal over his next three years at Glendale, where even he knows there's still work to do.
"There are inward dives, reverse dives and regular dives. The inwards have always been hardest for me. The board takeoff is so different than anything I've ever learned. You're facing the back of the board and you do a front flip."
How to fix that weakness?
"Practice, practice, practice, practice, practice," he said. "You just have to do it so many times where you're comfortable with it and it's a second language."
Drive like that is rare in an athlete Earl's age, and something that Boyce appreciates as much as the rarity that comes with finding a kid like Earl at all.
"Divers are challenging to find," Boyce said. "You don't find many boys who have participated in or done some gymnastics or dance, where they really understand the body control and showmanship of it. When you're trying to earn judge's points, there's a little bit of that showmanship that goes on."
Earl has that showmanship down, and has nowhere to go but up.
"Diving is one of the most fun sports anyone can ever do," Earl said. "Who doesn't want to go swimming all the time? Especially on the diving board, which is what everyone wants to do around the pool."