By David Willis
---- — When Alex Blake, just three years ago, informed his family he would be joining the Andover High swim team as a diver, the then-freshman’s parents were more than shocked.
“When I came home and told my mom I was joining the diving team she thought I was joking,” he said. “She had no idea where that was coming from.”
With no diving experience at any level heading into high school, Blake decided to attempt a sport that seemed like “fun” despite the level of danger.
Now a senior for the Golden Warriors, Blake has emerged as one of the top divers in the state, placing second at last week’s Merrimack Valley Conference meet to help Andover take the team title, while also emerging as a go-to leader.
“Alex has really done a tremendous job,” said Andover coach Mark Taffe. “He has come along so much as a diver in the last four seasons, and now he is doing so much to help young members of the team to learn and brought them to a high level.”
Growing up a hockey player, Blake learned to swim for recreational purposes, but had never considering competing until he arrived at Andover High.
“My freshman year one of my friends really wanted me to join the swimming team,” he said. “I didn’t want to swim, but I heard there was a diving team, and I thought that seemed pretty cool. A lot of divers have gymnastics training, but I didn’t. It just seemed fun and different.”
But the realities of a very difficult, very dangerous sport were quickly evident to the newcomer.
“Diving is very, very nerve-wracking for beginners,” he said. “Learning new dives is really scary because if you do something wrong, you can get really, really hurt. But the coaches were great teaching me the fundamentals, and a good base helps a lot.”
Where many others, because of the risks or challenges of diving, chose to quit the sport, Blake stuck with it, and in time began to excel.
“The first time I learned a front double somersault I thought I might have some talent,” he said. “I thought I was way out of my league competing there, so to nail that was really awesome.”
Following his freshman year, Blake joined the club team “Infinite Diving” which operates out of schools across Boston and is coached by Tufts and MIT diving coach and two-time NCAA diving Coach of the Year Brad Snodgrass.
“Joining the club team was the most important thing to my diving career,” said Blake. “I practice all the time with Brad. That is one of the main reasons I’ve been able to get so much better. I didn’t even qualify for sectionals as a freshman.”
Not that the risk ever truly leaves diving, as Blake was reminded of when he suffered a concussion early in his career.
“I was learning a new dive on the three-meter (board),” he said. “It was a back, 1 1/2 and I came out of my dive too early and hit the back of my head on the water. There are a lot of close calls. Learning backward and reverse dives, you land flat on the water and you come close to the board.
“But the thing about diving is that it’s all about confidence. When I am on the board I have to believe that I am the best diver in the pool. I can’t be worried about getting hurt or how I match up against another diver. I have to be thinking about winning and being as confident as possible. That is a diver’s mindset.”
After his sophomore season was derailed by a broken wrist while snowboarding, last season proved a major step for Blake with the Golden Warriors as he took seventh at both the Division 1 North sectionals and Division 1 state meet.
He followed that up with a tremendous season with Infinite, advancing all the way to the 2012 AAU Diving National Championships in Huntsville, N.C., where he placed 11th in the three-meter dive (high school does just 1-meter). That after taking fourth at the New England competition.
During this high school dual meet season, Blake finished with eight victories, leading the Golden Warriors to a 9-0 regular season, followed by his second at MVCs.
He has also taken on the role of de facto coach for the team’s other two divers, helping teammate Jack Belluche to a fourth at MVCs.
“Our coach is a volunteer, and I am at the point now where I can coach diving,” he said. “I want to lead them and get the best out of them. I teach them every day, and when our coach is there it’s even better.”
Blake now plans to continue his diving career at Division 3 power St. Lawrence University (N.Y.), where he was accepted on Monday and had strongly pursued him as a diver. He had also considered diving at schools such as UMass Amherst, Seton Hall and Loyola Maryland.
“There is nothing like diving,” he said. “You know when you take off if you can spin it. When you are spinning you are thinking about the entry, and when you nail the entry it’s an amazing feeling.”
No one has been more dominant for the unbeaten Golden Warrior swimmers this winter than senior Eric Zhao. Unbeaten in the regular season, he dominated at MVCs on Friday, winning the 100 and 200 freestyle and swimming the anchor legs in the winning 200 and 400 freestyle relays.
Not bad for someone that only began swimming thanks to his parents.
“It was really something my parents wanted me to do when I was 7 or 8,” he said. “I liked it, and every time I would make a cut at the YMCA I was thrilled. My sophomore year was when I made my biggest jump, dropping like five seconds in a short period of time. Now I want to make my last to high school meets count.”