As the heat of summer slowly dissipates on a Tuesday evening, pools throughout the region come alive with the encouragement of parents, the entreaties of coaches and the enjoyment of kids seeking their next successful plunge.
"Diving is an exciting sport that creates adrenaline," declares Tom Blakeman, a veteran diving coach in the Northern Virginia Swimming League. "Athletes that love that need to come to diving."
Four dozen neighborhoods are represented in the NVSL's diving programs, based in cement ponds from Annandale to Herndon and Great Falls to Springfield.
High schoolers team up with kindergarteners, matching dives with counterparts from rival squads, looking to help put a notch in the win column.
Divers bounce, and bounce, and launch themselves skyward off a "cheese board" suspended three feet over the water. They twist themselves into a reverse flip or forward tuck, maybe throwing in a pike for good measure.
"My favorite dive is probably front-flip-pike," says Jojo Di Scipio, 9, of the Lee-Graham Dolphins in Falls Church. "It has a higher degree of difficulty, but it comes more naturally to me than a lot of other dives."
Then they burst down into the water and, if they did it right, they avoid the dreaded smack that not only reddens the skin but lowers the scores from five official judges.
That singular moment when a diver is in free-fall, bending and twisting in search of grace, differentiates diving from other common youth athletic pursuits such as soccer, baseball or swimming.
"Diving is such a mental thing. You've got to be in the right state of mind," said Zach Patteson, who grew up as a Fairfax Frog before earning a spot on the dive team at Virginia Tech. Now the college sophomore assists with coaching the Frogs.
"It's a perfectionist sport. You have to be able to get up there and look pretty for everyone."
Merging of mind and body
The mental challenge of diving, and the inherent fear factor of smacking the water too hard or smacking the board, dissuades some kids from continuing the sport, Blakeman said.
"You need to have a lot of determination to be a diver. You have to love that rush, that energy created from diving," said Blakeman, a former NVSL diver now in his 24th year as a coach, the past 19 with Lee-Graham.
He pauses to offer a tip to Jojo as she practices a new reverse dive, then returns to the thought.
"You have to have the mental stamina to focus in on what you're going to do, takeoff, in the air, spotting where you are, how you enter the water," Blakeman said. "Because if you make a mistake, it's gonna hurt."
Notwithstanding the risks, Frogs' first-year head coach Kenny McAdoo notes the inherent competitiveness of his young divers.
"For me, the priority is making sure the kids are having fun," said McAdoo, a local who recently dived for West Virginia University. "But they're very competitive, even at a young age. They always want to know their scores, who came in first, who came in second."
Blakeman has a clear notion of what it is he wants to instill in his Dolphins.
"The confidence they learn, the dedication, commitment, hard work, those are the things I want them to take out of the program, and put toward other things in life," he said. "I want them to have a sense of what it takes to be good at something."
Jojo, one of the few who dives competitively year-round, enjoys that big moment when she first flings herself off the board.
"I get nervous, and I try to focus on my dive and ignore everything else. It's like nobody's there," she said. "And then I start the dive ..."
taking a dive
-Program: NVSL Diving
-Age range: 8 to 18
-Season: June 29 to Aug. 8