Phil Donnelly ’22 stands calmly on the edge of the three-meter diving board, his heels barely dangling off the edge. He wiggles the fingers on his right hand. Then, all at once, he launches backwards into one and a half airborne somersaults with a half twist.
That’s a “back and a half, half” in diver lingo, and it’s one of Donnelly’s signature dives. After a three-year hiatus, Carleton’s men’s diving team is back in the pool. Donnelly and Luke El-Fishawy ’23 are posting points for Carleton for the first time since 2017 as the team looks to build its program.
While Carleton’s women’s diving team has had a steady presence, the men’s team has been in and out of existence, fielding a total of 12 athletes since Gabe Kortuem started coaching in 2003.
Carleton’s small team is consistent with the average MIAC tea,. According to Coach Gabe Kortuem, there are only 11 male divers competing in the MIAC this year and it’s common for a school not to enter any athletes. “It’s very specialized,” Kortuem said. “It takes a unique psyche, a unique skill set.”
In his college days at St. Olaf, Kortuem won the NCAA Division III title in the one-meter competition, and he still looms large in the MIAC. Donnelly and his former teammate Finnegan Keilty ’22 both noted that Kortuem was a major reason for joining the team. “Everyone respects him a lot,” Donnelly said.
“Sometimes kids will go up to their coach for feedback and then the coach will send them to Gabe for more feedback. I feel like the program is totally wasted on such a good coach without a bigger team.”
That’s not Kortuem’s outlook, though. No matter the size or caliber of the team, “just to be able to help athletes discover who they are in terms of what they can accomplish, if they find that belief in self and are able to push themselves beyond what they think is possible” keeps him enthusiastic about coaching, he said.
Neither Donnelly nor El-Fishawy were competitive divers in high school. Donnelly joined the team after taking a diving P.E. class with Kortuem last spring. From the start, he proved to be a fearless diver, pushing the boundaries of the class geared toward beginners. “I started really bugging [Kortuem] about letting me do some other stuff and so by week six or seven he was like, ‘do whatever you want.’ I was able to do the back and a half, half at the end of the P.E. class.”
At the end of the term, Donnelly and two others were invited to join the varsity team.
Kortuem finds most of his athletes on campus, as he did with Donnelly. “A lot of times the risk tolerance of divers and the academic side don’t always overlap,” he said. “That’s one of the big struggles. So what I have to do is find the risk takers that are here and then turn them into divers.”
The team started the season with four athletes, and is now down to just Donnelly and El-Fishawy. Some of the team’s difficulties with recruitment have to do with the time commitment required to participate in a varsity sport, especially for those who have not played a collegiate sport before or are involved in another time-consuming activity. Keilty joined the team along with Donnelly in the fall after enjoying the P.E. class.
Between weekly strength training and “two hours of practice that went from 6 to 8pm it was so much time spent in a sport that I didn’t want to commit to that particular activity,” Keilty said. He struggled to balance commitments to track and field and diving in the same season and ultimately chose track.
Donnelly and El-Fishawy have focused on self-improvement in a field that includes some novice divers like themselves and a few who are, in Donnelly’s words, “stupid good.” Donnelly especially noted Macalester as the MIAC diving team to beat this season.
“It’s a very constructive atmosphere, which I like a lot,” Donnelly said. The Carleton and St. Olaf teams practice together, sharing Kortuem as a coach.
Donnelly and his competitors frequently encourage each other when trying new dives at meets, giving each other high fives between dives. He said, “I did two new dives at the last meet before break and I ate it on both of them. As soon as I came above water everyone was clapping and cheering. I was like, ‘you’re happy, I’m happy, we’re good.’”
The team continues its run toward the MIAC championship with a meet at the University of Minnesota on Saturday.