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A Balanced Approach

Melinda Matyas at the 2008 European Championship in Eindhoven, Netherlands (http://www.matyasviktor.hu/melinda01.htm)

Melinda Matyas stands along the raised edge of the Competition Pool at Boston University. More specifically, she handstands. Her body is a perfect line, perpendicular to the turquoise water. She holds it for 10 seconds. No movement, no sound. As still as a graveyard at night.

Then her 130 pound, 5’6” body springs to life, spinning through the air. She completes a full front flip and still has time to straighten up again before her legs break the water’s surface, less than 18 inches below where she started. There is barely a splash. She doesn’t dive into the water so much as melt into it, merging seamlessly.

The stillness and the concentration, giving way to the motion and the energy. The duality of the diver. The balance of skills. All in a day’s practice for the Hungarian diver with the Australian accent.

*          *            *

Not many can claim to have grown up on two different continents, but Matyas can. She was born in Hungary in 1989, but her family moved when she was one to Australia. It was only supposed to be for about three years, Matyas says, but it turned out to be such a good fit that they stayed for four more years before moving back to Hungary. They moved in time for her eighth birthday.

*          *            *

Let’s get one thing clear: Melinda Matyas is a really, really good diver. During her junior high and high school days in Budapest, she won the national championship on either the springboard or platform every year from 2002-2008. Sometimes she won only in her age group; sometimes she won the open events. But she always won. She’s competed internationally as well, coming just two places short of representing Hungary in diving at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The winning has continued at BU. As a freshman, she was named to the America East All-Conference team. Winning both springboard diving events at last February’s America East Conference Championship, she was named the Women’s Most Outstanding Diver of 2010, helping the Terriers win their second-straight America East title. She then went on to the Zone A Diving Championships, qualifying for the NCAA national tournament. All this after being named America East female Diver of the Week nine times.

Now a sophomore, Matyas has been just as dominant. In six meets this fall, she has swept the 1-meter and 3-meter springboard events five times. The only meet where she didn’t sweep, against Colgate in November, she came in first and second. She’s been named female Diver of the Week four times.

“You know she’s going to bring it all on the diving board,” says swimming teammate Sarah Doersam. “And she will win.”

*          *            *

Matyas always strives for balance when she dives. When she’s on the board, her mind focuses on two things: a phrase to give her a positive attitude, and a technical element she wants to be sure she hits.

The objective is always “calming me down to the right level, or pumping me up to the right level,” Matyas says. “It’s all about phrasing it in the right way.” Matyas’ success on the diving board depends on her toeing that line between disinterest and over-awareness. But the search for the ideal level is itself balanced against that fire so common to competitive athletes.

“I always wanted to do the best at everything as much as I could,” Matyas says. “I think you can’t really be a competitive athlete if you don’t have that in you.”

Diving in itself is an example of the balance Matyas strives for. As a 10-year-old gymnast in Hungary, Matyas was named second overall in the Hungarian National Junior Championships. However, as she got older she realized that continuing gymnastics training would become an all-consuming activity. “You have to put a lot of time into gymnastics and sacrifice basically everything,” Matyas says. “In diving, you don’t have to sacrifice that much. You do have to sacrifice a lot, but in gymnastics, you basically have to sacrifice your whole life. And I wasn’t going to sacrifice my academics.”

*          *            *

Matyas’ commitment to academics comes from her parents. Her father is a university econometrics professor, her mother a business communications professor. They moved to Australia because that’s where the jobs were. When they moved back to Hungary, it was again for professional reasons. Matyas came to the United States only when it was time to check out colleges. Enrolled in BU’s College of Arts and Sciences, Matyas is majoring in economics, and says she wants to apply for a financial consulting internship this summer.

Matyas’ very enrollment at BU is a testament to her academic interests. She says she contacted other schools, including the University of Texas, with its 19-combined men’s and women’s swimming and diving national championships, plus their Olympic-caliber coach, but liked BU for the overall academic strength of the school. She also says she “fell in love” with Boston, and that those two factors were the main reason she chose BU.

Since coming to BU, Matyas has been a committed student. This semester, Matyas is taking a slightly overloaded schedule at 18 credits. Usually, she takes the regular 16-credit schedule. She also says she spends anywhere from one to five hours a day on schoolwork. Her GPA is solid, around 3.2, according to her.

But BU presented a new challenge to Matyas: it has no platform diving board, which was her specialty in Europe. Matyas trains separately with diving coach Agnes Miller on the platform at Harvard University’s Blodgett Pool, and sometimes competes in separate platform diving meets as well, such as the Texas Invitational that started Dec. 1. Matyas enjoys each type of diving for different reasons: the platform for its power, the springboard for its patience.

A desire to balance athletics with school, combined with recurring wrist injuries from the uneven bars, led Matyas to diving when she was 11.

“I went down to the pool one day and tried diving, and the coach there said I have to stay,” Matyas says with a quiet laugh. “He didn’t really give me an option.”

Her gymnastics injuries still plague her. When she dives, Matyas wraps her wrists in tape and sometimes even wrist-guards, a bright, white holdover from a more encompassing sport.

*          *            *

When Matyas practices, she’s very deliberate. She starts with comprehensive stretching; every muscle group is stretched out. Then she moves to the trampoline, and each jump is controlled and designed to work a different set of muscles. Then it’s on to standing dives. Each dive builds on the last, moving from simple straight jumps into the pool to pike jumps, then flips. She finishes on the springboard, bending it so much with each jump that when it snaps back it nearly jumps out of its joint.

“From watching her, there’s definitely, you can tell, a high level of professionalism,” says swimming captain Nate Everett (the swimming and diving teams practice together, trying to be one team, men and women). “She’s very thorough in her dives, and you can tell there’s a high level of focus.”

But Matyas never seems to let her focus overshadow her enjoyment of diving. At practice, Matyas has no problem chatting with her teammates. When one nails a dive, she cheers. When she goes up on the boards, she slaps five emphatically with the other divers.

“When she’s diving, she’s super, super focused and in the zone,” says swimming teammate and captain Kyle Ernst. “When she comes back she’s laughing and smiling with her teammates, getting them going.”

It’s all about finding the golden mean.

*          *            *

At the Competition Pool, the air is humid and reeks of chlorine. Senior teammate Sarah Colton is on the lower, 1-meter springboard, which extends over the left end of the diving well. Another teammate, freshman Chelsea Glincman, is on the higher, 3-meter springboard, which covers the center of the well. Matyas is on the raised, tiled wall at the right edge.

Colton performs an impressive dive, flipping through the air and landing cleanly in the water. When she surfaces, Glincman and Matyas both clap and cheer. Glincman bends over at the waist and pumps her fist. Matyas likes the move and tries to pantomime it. It’s the first time Matyas has looked awkward all practice. She looks up at Glincman for help, and Glincman is happy to provide it. “You have to rev the lawnmower,” Glincman yells. All three women smile and laugh, as does their diving coach.

It’s a change of position for Matyas, whom the other divers often come to for advice. “I’m trying to share these techniques with the girls, how to calm themselves down, how to imagine dives,” she says. “I feel like it’s helping them sometimes, but it’s a long process. I’m trying to give back a little bit of my knowledge in this way to them.”

Her teammates agree that it’s working.

“I go to Melinda a lot when I have trouble with my mental game, at practice and at competition,” says Glincman. “She has a lot of good techniques, and I use that same exact thing after she told me about it and after I asked her about it. Since I’ve been here, my mental game has improved tremendously especially because of the things she’s told me.”

Sometimes the student, sometimes the teacher. Dive as well as you can, but have fun doing it. Always managing between two roles. Like balancing on the edge of the diving board.

*          *            *

The 2012 Summer Olympics in London are nearly two years away. Matyas has yet to make a decision as to whether she will try for them or not. There are several deterrents, she says. The Hungarian diving program is not well-funded, in her opinion. The number of qualifiers to the Beijing Olympics shrunk after the 2004 Games in Athens, and “they keep on making cuts on how many people can make it, and it’s getting harder and harder to qualify.” And most importantly, Matyas says, it will depend on “how academics is going and how much I can sacrifice.”

But no matter what choices she makes, Matyas will continue trying to balance her love for diving with her other interests and priorities, just as she’s done so successfully up until now.

“I always want diving to be a part of my life, but not the only thing in my life.”

Somehow, it seems like she’ll manage this just fine.

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