At the University of Maryland’s annual fall swimming and diving meet called the Terrapin Cup Invitational, West Chester University is the only Division II school involved. The end result is that for these competitors who work endlessly in the water to proudly represent the purple and gold of WCU athletics, competition at this stage is expected to be extremely stiff. Over the next three days, they will have to square off with elite swimmers and divers from schools like Drexel, the University of Connecticut and Villanova just to name a few.Yet for West Chester senior diver Samantha “Sammi” Phillips, the competition, the crowd and even her teammates might as well be invisible. For her, the grand stage of the Terrapin Cup is nothing more then another meet, and this attitude is reflected in her conduct before it commences.
While she may be one of the most talkative and charismatic members of her team during practice, today she warms up by herself in the corner and says very little. As the National anthem plays at the start of the meet, she stands solemnly with her eyes shut and visualizes the six dives she will have to pull off today that will either make or break her for the entire competition.
Before it’s her time to dive, she quietly listens to music on her iPod, stopping only to cheer for her teammates as the meet goes on. Supporters that have come out to watch her barely receive a glance, as she concentrates on what she is about to do. The only dilemma in her mind at this time is when is too much thought enough?
“I don’t really think about it all day until I actually get in the pool and get in my zone,” she said, “because I don’t want to over-think it either.”
When her time comes, Phillips faces a silent crowd as she climbs one meter off the ground in preparation for her first dive. The fact that all eyes in the natatorium are now on her is a testimony to the mental toughness that a diver has to possess in the heat of competition.
Every move she makes from this point on will be scrutinized by the judges. Furthermore, each step she takes is important to the execution of her dive, and all it will take is one slight mess-up to drag down her entire performance in the meet.
“At the college level, everyone is close to perfect,” Phillips said. “If you miss one step on your approach or you’re not on balance or you don’t move your arms the right way and everything gets thrown off. This can be really frustrating because you practice and practice and practice, and in the meet itself you get six chances.”
Yet for Phillips, the pressure that comes in the world of diving and the stamina that a competitor needs to overcome it have been staples of her live thus far. Furthermore, the perseverance and dedication she needs to excel in her sport were both facets of her personality that were 21 years in the making.
Learning Perseverance at a Young Age
Growing up in Pottsville, Pa., Sammi was greeted by a world that would be far from easy. While she inherited her athletic ability from her father, it was his love of alcohol which eventually led to the dissolution of the family by the time she reached middle school. From the sacrifice of her mother, who worked endlessly to provide for her and her sister and foster their athletic ambitions, Sammi learned from an early age that success in the world would not come easy.
“My mom is basically my role model,” she said, “she’s an amazing person who taught me that hard work pays off.”
Sports proved to be a source of escapism for Phillips in her youth, as a love for gymnastics resulted in her winning a state title by the time she reached the end of middle school. It was also during this period that by a serendipitous turn of events, she stumbled on a new passion.
In choosing to play for her church’s basketball team in the state championships, Sammi had to miss a gymnastic competition, and this ultimately led to her being forced off the team by her coaches. Emotionally distraught and with no other nearby gym to train in, Phillips was forced to look for a new sport of interest during the summer before she started at Pottsville Area High School. It was her mother who originally suggested that she try her hand at a summer league diving program.
“I kind of had a grudge about it because all I wanted to do was gymnastics and that’s where my heart was,” she said, “but for my mom’s sake I decided to try the sport. By the end of the summer I started to like it and so did my mom, so I figured I would try it in high school.”
A mild interest soon developed into full-fledged passion, as during her freshman year, she quickly rose to become the second best diver on the team. Through rigorous private lessons during the following summer, Phillips fine tuned even more and by her sophomore year she had risen to become one of the more dominant competitors in her league. That year she qualified for her first league championship, where she won a silver medal.
However, it was stiff competition and controversial judging decisions during her junior year that prevented her from taking home the gold. Devastated and distraught at this point, she contemplated quitting and that is when she received valuable advice from her private instructor which she still carries to this very day.
“Her advice was ‘when you’re doing something like this, you have to be good enough that when you get screwed, you still win,'” she said. “To this day, I use that advice not only for diving but for everything else in my life.”
With new resolve in mind, Phillips competed again during her senior year. This time, however, all the hard work finally paid off, as she achieved a league gold medal and, more importantly, a ticket to dive in the college arena.
Taking the Jump
WCU diving coach Ronn Jenkins had been in touch with Sammi since the beginning of her senior year, but when he found out that she had beaten out two of his private students en route to claiming a league title, he instantly became interested in recruiting her.
“I always felt that Sammi had abilities that could be developed; she already had good somersaulting and twisting skills,” he said.
“He told me he was impressed,” Phillips said, “and asked me to come down to West Chester so he could watch me dive.”
For the young diver, this was the beginning of a significant relationship with her coach; a man she would later go on to call “a second father.”
“He’s a very personable and intelligent man,” Sammi said of Jenkins, “He had so much influence on me during my college years.”
Not long after her arrival at the university in the fall of 2004, Phillips quickly became one of the top three divers on the squad and developed a social network early in her teammates. When her sophomore year rolled around, an unexpected departure by the team’s only upperclassmen resulted with Phillips having to fill a leadership void on a very young group of girls. According to Jenkins. “she had no problem rising to the occasion.”
“Sammi’s strongest asset is her leadership,” he said. “She commanded the following of everyone on the diving team. Without a doubt, her diving skills improved but she was also able to bring the team together as a unit within an individual sport.”
Her second year at West Chester also proved to be one of her best, as by the season’s end she had qualified for the NCAA National Diving Championship in Indianapolis, in which only the top 24 divers in the country are invited to compete. While she was eliminated in the first round, the experience was more then memorable for Sammi.
“It was absolutely amazing,” she said, “we saw some Olympians training and it was a really fun experience.”
After tougher classes, family loses and injuries brought down her junior season, Phillips returned as a senior at the helm of a team that brought on even more fresh talent. It was this reason and m
ore that she dubbed this past year her “favorite.”
“I ended up loving them,” she said. “Our team just wound up clicking, and we just had a lot of fun.”
To this day Phillips still remembers the last dive she took in her college career at the University of Pennsylvania in February. As her coach signaled that her last leap off the board was approaching, Phillips couldn’t remain emotionless.
“Immediately I burst out into tears and I didn’t think I was going to be able to finish the meet,” she said, “but I went up and wound up finishing. It was probably my best meet of the season.”
“The time any coach spends with any athlete of an individual sport is always bitter sweet when any of them sing their swan dive.” Jenkins said, “You will miss the skill, habits and everything else good and bad, but at the same time you know they are going on to set standards for others to follow.”
Making a Splash
Despite her commitment to the sport over the years, Sammi has also been able to make a huge impact outside of water. Academically, she is one of the top students in her department and holds membership in WCU’s pre-law society as well as the communication honor society Lambda Pi Eta. For Sammi, it is her ability to compartmentalize tasks that has led to her achievements both in diving as well as in life.
“Knowing that time was going to be an issue in college and that I was going to have to mange my time well, I realized I was going to have to break things down,” she said. “So that’s basically the little secret to my success.”
This past year as a resident assistant, Sammi took on the extra challenge of guiding young lives here at the University. While it meant more work and dedication, she looks back on her progress as an RA as time that was well spent.
“I’ve been really successful in college, and that’s what I wanted to show my residents.” She said, “I wanted them to come in and start on the right path and go the same routes I did by getting involved with things.”
One of her residents, Jon Schafer, spoke highly of Sammi’s ability to reach out to people.
“She’s very outgoing and does a lot to make sure others around her are okay,” he said, “She’s also very humorous and always seems to have a funny story to tell.”
Similar feelings were expressed by her longtime friend, Jessica Zane, who has known Sammi since middle school.
“She is outgoing and always has a smile on her face,” Jessica said, “She is a kind and unselfish human being and I can always depend on her when I need help with something. She always puts others before herself.”
Yet when the work load is off, Sammi Phillips is still a person who enjoys the simple things in life, whether it be shopping or spending time with friends and family. To this very day when she faces a problem, she still takes the time to turn to one unlikely person whom she considers her “hero”: her younger sister, Cassie.
“She has to be the most driven person I have ever seen,” she said, “She is actually a basketball star, so we’re really polar opposites in everything we do…but I have never seen someone put so much heart into something as she does.”
So what does the future hold for Sammi Phillips?
Recently she accomplished another major lifetime feat as she earned admission into law school beginning this fall. Given the mindset for detail which led her to much success in her sport and in the classroom, many people, including Sammi herself, feel that a lawyer would be the optimal career path.
“I’m very analytical in that I take things apart and put them back together to form the bigger picture,” she said, “and that’s really key in being a lawyer and probably will be the main thing that will help me out.”
Others, such as WCU Communications professor Dr. Jack Orr, see Phillips’ ability to appeal to people through emotion as a trait which will assist her down the line. It was during a class he instructed on persuasion, that he was able to see this quality in her, as she responded to a spider that was creeping toward her desk.
“I thought she was really good at labeling her emotions, so in addition to her IQ, her emotional intelligence strikes me as being really profound,” Orr said. “So I’m sure she will argue well, she will think well and in addition to that she will know her own state of mind and thus be an excellent attorney.”
“I’m excited to know that she’ll be going to law school next year.” Jenkins said, “To me, this is better then winning a national title.”
Even when it comes to her diving career, the story might not yet be over for Phillips, as she most recently was offered the chance to coach diving at her old high school. While law school is coming first at this point, she can’t rule out the possibility of one day returning to play some role in the sport.
“I could definitely see that in the future at some point,” she said with a laugh “I think I’ll one day wind up missing it enough.”
All in all, the rhythm of Sammi’s life is much like the rhythm of her sport. It’s all about poise, perfect execution all off one giant leap. Hopefully when it comes to the aspirations of this determined youth, a huge splash will be sure to follow in the end.
Mike DeSumma is a fourth-year student majoring in communication studies with a minor in journalism. He can be reached at MD591635@wcupa.edu