With the eyes of the world on you, a feeling washes over, like the world is looking back, staring at you up there, all alone, on the highest pedestal in sports.
“A Bird On The Wire,” is how Leonard Cohen considered it in his famous song by that name, that says, ”I have tried in my way to be free.” For all those sports that isolate the individual against the world — the 12-foot putt to win a Masters, the last five miles in an ultra marathon, facing match point at Wimbledon — is there anything more iconically individualistic than climbing that ladder and walking to the end of a 3-meter board and then performing at your absolute best?
“It’s like nothing else in the world,” said DJ Freedman, a high dive coach still in his first month of a permanent move from Southern California to Hilo. “You are 30 feet in the air, all alone, almost naked, and you have to perform.
“It’s pressure,” he said, “it’s exciting, and yeah, it’s kind of scary.”
Freedman had visited the Big Island several times and found it to be his favorite spot in the state, not just this island, but this location here on the eastside. A veteran of decades of instruction, a certified USA Dive coach, he decided all on his own that Hilo was ready for a High Dive club.
Remember childhood? Remember looking at that board way up there, 30 feet high? Remember thinking there are two types of people in the world, those who see that and say, ‘No way,’ and others who see it and say, ‘So cool?’
Apparently, the world hasn’t changed that much. Freedman started Hilo Hi-Diving barely two weeks ago, but word somehow got around and by the end of last week, he had seven aspiring high divers interested in the challenge.
No names, but there was one pre-teen girl a week ago who showed up with her dad at Kawamoto Swim Stadium, took some brief advice, made the walk out on the board, gave it her best and a few minutes later she told her father, “This is what I want to do from now on.”
It is a universal reaction, Freedman said, to taking seriously your interest while standing next to and looking up at that high board. The Greeks and others were wrestling and running a millennia ago, but people have been diving, jumping off cliffs and performing stunts for as long as there was a body of water in which to plunge.
Freedman started diving at 8 years old, then took what he jokingly recalls a “wrong turn” that led him to years of cross-country. He took a tech job at his alma mater, the University of Southern California and out the window of his office he could see a nearby pool with a high dive.
Memories came back every time he looked. The board looked lonely, in need of a willing diver.
“It called me back,” he said, and from there he reunited with the sport, helped out and eventually became a coach, achieving at the highest level of the sport before visualizing Hilo as the spot for this venture.
“We will be successful here,” he said, “we will not have trouble attracting people, it’s a universal thing, I think, there’s something about it, something about that tall board.”
Freedman set up meetings with the Parks and Recreation department and said they were “hugely supportive and collaborative,” in his venture, though that sentiment couldn’t be confirmed by the Tribune-Herald after several voice mails and messages to the office of director Roxcie Waltjen went unanswered last week.
And why wouldn’t the county that operates the pool be excited? Part of Freedman’s plan is to heat the pool.
“It’s a cold pool and we need it heated,” Freedman said. “How do we do that? Solar, maybe? I actually don’t know how it will happen, but I’m going to find out and we’re going to do it.
“A cold pool is one thing,” he said, “but in the winter months? That pool is too cold for people, it’s just that simple, and we need it heated for our purposes as well as everyone else’s.”
Learning to dive may not be as challenging as it may seem on the surface. Freedman has a bronze level training that costs $200 a month but includes three 90-minute sessions per week. A one-time starter lesson is $30, individual instruction $50 a session.
Freedman has plans for those on restricted incomes — “Nobody will be turned away because they can’t afford it” — but when you break it down, the bronze level is a dozen 90-minute sessions over a month and the only hidden fee is the cost of a Speedo. Some of our more popular sports require upwards of $200 just for equipment, plus the cost of coaching, camps, clinics and all the rest.
“You really can’t compare it to anything else,” he said, “because of the courage required every day, every practice, every moment you are up there.
“It can be terrifying,” Freedman said, “even after you get started, there are over 500 sanctioned dives to try and each new one is kind of terrifying that first time. The second time you won’t be as terrified, but you may not be as good as the first time. It takes practice, lots of practice and each one can build a little more confidence.
“What I tell people is that they are entering a sport in which you are not subject to the laws of gravity and when you’re up there you are looking into the face of God. It feels like that.”
The boards at the pool are in deplorable shape, none of them ready for competition. Freedman has proposed a plan that will include two 3-meter boards and two 1-meter boards. The four boards will mean Hilo can host top-level diving competitions including synchro in which two divers compete as a team on a combination of the boards.
“This isn’t for everyone,” he joked, “we limit our diving program to people between the ages of 7 and 97, so if you aren’t included in those numbers, sorry. But if anyone is interested, they should know that the first time is free.”
Grants have been submitted to the USA Diving Foundation for $100,000 — “We won’t get $100,000,” Freedman said, “but you have to ask” — while plans are in the works to develop a scholarship fund to assist divers headed to college programs that specialize in the sport.
Beyond competitions at the pool, there will be county and statewide competition if Hilo can get the pool ready, and after that there’s regional and national diving competitions, leading to Olympic Games.
“We have a lot to offer,” he said, “and we’re finding out already people want to be a part of this.”
Comments? Tips? Questions? Contact Bart at firstname.lastname@example.org
Want to dive deep?
Kawamoto Swim Stadium
• Monday through Friday 5:30-7 p.m.
• Saturday and Sunday 12:30-2 p.m.
Bronze level: Three times a week, $200 a month
Silver level: Four times a week, $300 a month
Gold level: Five times a week, $400 a month
For more information, contact Freedman at DJ@hilohidiving.org
Editor’s note: This story has been modified to correct Freedman’s email address