SPRINGFIELD — Podium or bust.
Rutherford diver Chris Jackson has finished fourth at state each of the past two years. Now a senior, Jackson expects no worse than a Top-3 finish Thursday at the Class 2A state meet in Orlando.
Jackson's ability has improved exponentially since he first stepped on a diving board as a freshman. He enters the state meet, which will be held at the Central Florida YMCA Aquatic Center, with the second-best seed score of any competitor in the field at 473.85 points. Winter Haven's James Voisard is the top seed going into the meet with a season-best score of 481.00.
No other diver has posted a score within 25 points of Jackson's seed score, which he posted while dominating the Region 1-2A meet.
“Last year there wasn't much in the way of expectations,” Jackson said. “I wasn't expected to be a Top-3 finisher. This year ... I'm not the underdog anymore.”
Jackson noted that he was disappointed with last year's result, particularly after placing fourth at state as a sophomore. Jackson moved up one classification during his junior year, however, and the competition was stronger. He said he's confident headed into the final meet of his high school career.
“My diving list hasn't changed too much, but I'm (scoring) mostly 7s and 8s” on his dives, Jackson said. “Consistency has been a big factor this year.”
Jackson practiced alongside another local state qualifier, Mosley’s senior diver Haden Martinez, during a light session Tuesday at the Frank Brown Park Aquatic Center. They were flanked by other divers working on fundamental skills such as feet-first dives and rotations through the air. Jackson recalled the days when he was a freshman and didn’t have near the ability he does today.
“I remember stepping on the board, and it was the most unnatural feeling ever,” he said. “I was scared. Four years later there is nothing more natural.”
Asked what attracted him to the sport, Jackson didn't hesitate when he said “everything.” He meant it, too.
“If I had to pick, I'd say the mental aspect of it,” he said. “It's not like a lot of other sports. Mentally, you're challenged to learn new dives. And there's the fear factor. ... In the back of your mind you're scared you're going to smash your face on the board if you mess it up.”
Jackson said he was glad that he was going to state with Martinez, who qualified for the first time. He added that they share a friendly camaraderie that comes from practicing together every day.
“The last couple of seasons he's gotten really good,” Jackson said. “I'm stoked that he made the cut for state.”
Jackson said he intends to dive on a college swim team, and he said the U.S. Naval Academy and Emery University in Atlanta have expressed an interest in him competing at their respective institutions. He hasn't made a final decision yet, though.
Competing at the college level is the next logical step for Jackson, who has encountered very little competition this year. He rolled to an easy win at the Region 1-2A meet, finishing 58 points ahead of runner-up Pierce Busse of Pensacola. He enjoyed a 50-point margin of victory over Busse in the District 1-2A meet.
“It is interesting going into state because I've been relatively unchallenged at districts and regionals,” Jackson said. “There hasn't been too much stress. That will not be the case at state. ... I’m very confident that I'll be a Top-3 finisher. But judging is very subjective. You never know until you see what your competition is.”