High School Sports

Bellingham diver taking mantle as top diver in the NWC

Sunni Sternhagen extended her right foot forward, moving deeper onto the pale-blue diving board at the Arne Hanna Aquatic Center.

The left followed, edging the Bellingham junior closer to the water.

In a fluid motion her feet struck the end of the board, sending her high into the air before coming down into the once-settled waters.

Barely a ripple broke free from her landing.

“There’s not a feeling like it. You’re gliding into the water —that’s just it,” Sternhagen said. “You feel weightless. You feel like there’s nothing else in the world.”

Sternhagen, though quiet and reserved, has become a force for the Red Raiders in a Northwest Conference starved for diving talent. Last year, the NWC boasted four girls who finished in the top 11 at state in Squalicum’s Madi Krussow (second) and Samantha Jones (third), and Bellingham’s Ellie Kindlund (10th) and Ariel McGavock (11th).

The graduation of all four left an unmanned mantle Sternhagen has quickly risen to, posting a career-high 160.75 points in a dual meet against Sehome on Tuesday, Oct. 7, that illustrated the growth she’s shown in just one year.

Her top six-dive score last year? No more than 125 points.

“She’s kind of the leader of the pack — the experienced one,” Bellingham coach Jeff Anderson said in a phone interview. “She learned from them along the way. Now, ‘OK, it’s my turn.’ She’s stepping up, and she’s pretty determined.”

Sternhagen didn’t rise through the ranks based on a need. The junior possess a rare trait that has allowed her to excel in diving.

She dives without fear.

The prospect of springing high in the air is an unsettling one, let alone adding flips, twirls and spins to the mix. She possesses zero apprehension about the sport.

“There is nervousness, but once you start going there’s no looking back,” she said. “It’s amazing. It’s like you’re in a whole different world. Just you and the board and nobody else.”

There are no pre-dive rituals for Sternhagen — no specific routine she follows before performing. The only method she employs is slowly visualizing every turn and spin before she begins that walk toward the end of the springboard.

She’s methodical in the way she competes. Her competition isn’t with the other divers, she said, but herself. Even diving coach Cameron Berg spoke about her isolated perspective and how it has helped him develop her as a diver.

In the early part of the season, Berg saw a flaw in the beginning of Sternhagen’s dive. She wasn’t elevating off the board straight up, instead having her shoulders pushed forward and breaking the straight line the body should create when reaching the peak of the dive, he said.

Her dedication and focus on perfecting her departure has since paid dividends in later parts of the dive.

“When something is not going right, she’ll work on it over and over and over again until she gets frustrated and can’t focus,” he said.

Sternhagen’s aspirations of qualifying for state require that dedication. Motivation has not been hard to come by, either, following the disappointing end to her sophomore year.

The bitter pill she was forced to swallow came just before the district meet, when she suffered a knee injury. Two tendons, she explained, in the back of her knee became twisted, causing a constant ache that prevented her from competing.

Anderson said her scores last year were on par with a wild-card entry to state, hypothetically placing her just outside the top 24.

“I think last year changed me. It is my junior year, and I became more determined to achieve greatness,” Sternhagen said. “I think I got a little bit more confident.”